Ever heard of something called The Bathhouse Era?
Me neither. Until I rambled down to Hot Springs, Arkansas this past weekend in search of something that resembled a Spring Break kiddie getaway.
Was I in for surprise.
You see, somewhere along the line I had manufactured a fantasy image and history of Hot Springs based loosely on the fact that my parents drank Mountain Valley Water from there and there was this hip, old-timey history associated with the town that was bound to still exist. Or so I thought.
Well, Hot Spring’s history’s still there – that ain’t going anywhere.
Unfortunately however, from the looks of things, the town’s battling a under capitalized struggle to try and beat back Father Time and stave off Mother Nature. Unfortunately, mom and pop have the upper hand for now.
Here’s the deal.
At one point in time, Hot Springs was allegedly the post Civil War gambling capital of the United States. Make that the illegal gambling capital. Dudes like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano made themselves right at home in the very hotel I stayed in, The Arlington. There’s even a suite named for Capone.
The cops were dirty back then and had shootouts with each other, and between 1927 and 1947 illegal gambling in Hot Springs was going gangbusters. Then for about six years following World War II there was reform, followed by another dozen years of wide open gaming from 1954 up until 1967.
Nowadays, all that remains of the gambling goes down at the Oaklawn race track, which judging from the crowds at my hotel and the folks I saw walking into the track, is pretty tame (and long in the tooth).
Back to the bathhouses…
If the name Hot Springs sounds telling, there’s a pretty good reason for that.
There are more than 40 “thermal” springs on the Hot Springs Mountain that borders the town and they churn out in the neighborhood of a million gallons a day of 4,000 year-old, 143 degree temperature mineral water.
You can scald your hands in the fountains that dot the sidewalk and fill up you jugs for free at dispensing stations located around the downtown.
To the Quapaw Indians that the United States ripped off, those waters were sacred. to baseball players like Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner they were restorative.
That’s why teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and Boston Red Sox made Hot Springs their spring training headquarters.
“Most Major League players of the early 20th century had few inhibitions and many enjoyed gambling during training trips to Hot Springs,” reads a sign along what passes for the Historic Baseball Trail.
“The health benefits of ‘taking the baths’ were a primary reason for baseball coming to Hot Springs. The players tended to drink heavily, and believed the hot bath regimen could ‘boil out’ the impurities in their system.”
That was then.
Unfortunately, that ended up being strike two for Hot Springs when the advent of modern medicine that rendered mineral water soaks, drinking and sun bathing regimens passe.
One bathhouse – The Maurice – opened for biz in 1912 and in its peak year of 1946 during the – wait for it -Bathhouse Era” – doled out 67,587 baths. When it closed in 1974, the Maurice was down to a measly 6,500.
My wife shelled out around 100 bucks for a bath, sauna and brief massage – an experience she described as little more than getting immersed in an old fashioned tub full of hot mineral water, being handed a glass of water to drink and getting a brief loofa scrub from a disinterested local.
Not exactly the stuff modern day spa dreams are made of…
Especially when you factor in – strikes three and four – that a dearth of tourism combined with not being on an Interstate highway made Hot Springs a difficult destination. A nine or so hour difficult driving destination.
“I think we’re in Creeperville,” my wife said on hitting town. “Every building here looks like it’s haunted.”
Which brings us to the ghost tours and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum…
And if you think those KC Royals bobbleheads don’t look anything like the actual players they purport to be, you ain’t seen nothing.
Hot Springs hometown hero Bill Clinton, for example, went to the museum to check out his visage “and was not too impressed with it,” confides Tussaud’s gatekeeper Tammy Rowman. “He’s down here every couple of months – he went to high school here – and still has friends down here. His favorite place to eat is McLard’s Bar-B-Q.”
As for how realistic the other wax celebs look, check out this tale about the Steve McQueen figure riding a Honda motorcycle.
“He used to have Nancy Sinatra on the back,” Rowman says. “She used to be very popular, but her hair started falling out and they put a wig on her but it didn’t look very good. So they just took her down and put her at the winery, but people kept messing with her. So she’s just in the back room in a barrel up on the shelf. They plan to do a display one day where people can’t touch her, but for now she’s just waiting.”
What? In a barrel? On a shelf?
“Yeah, they tried to fix her up to look like Lucille Ball. They changed her makeup to look like Lucy and put a wig on her like Lucy’s and they had her in a barrel squashing grapes.”
Makes perfect sense.
Almost as much as the French Quarter strip club that doubles as a karaoke bar.
As for the somewhat sorry state of massive, the many closed art deco buildings and once grand hotels, “There’s a lot that’s wrong with this town,” says Hot Springs barista Don Deitz. “There are so many structural problems because there’s so much moisture in the ground. That’s the biggest key factor. You’ve got these fountains that have been around for centuries and it’s just a matter of time.
“People want to talk about the gambling and gangsters but the Indians were around for a lot longer when the explorers first came here. The Arlington used to be right over there and twice it burned down and now they’ve moved it. It was built on the Indian sacred grounds.”
You mean, like the hotel’s got bad ju-ju?
“I don’t know,” Deitz says. “But there are people that will tell you that’s what happened. There’s something going on and (the town’s) got problems and one of these days that mountain’s going to shake and all those bathhouses are coming down.”
Can’t wait to come back.
Any Wild Bill Clinton stories to share?
“My mom used to put shoes on his feet when he was governor,” Deitz says. “You can’t talk bad about Bill – momma loves Bill.”
She’s not alone.
Not only did I stumble onto lifelike Bill Clinton vibrator dolls for sale, there’s even a locally grown wine called Slick Willy’s.
Anyway, so how was your Spring Break?