Hearne: The Truth, Whole Truth & Nothing But About Hot Springs

IMG_2267Ever 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.

IMG_2297Here’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).

IMG_2308Back 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.

Babe_RuthTo 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 – TIMG_2319he 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 thoseIMG_2273 KC Royals bobbleheads don’t look anything like the actual players they purport to be, you ain’t seen nothing.


IMG_2258Hot 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?stomp-1

“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.

IMG_2220As 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.”

IMG_2288You 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.”

wineShe’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?






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12 Responses to Hearne: The Truth, Whole Truth & Nothing But About Hot Springs

  1. balbonis moleskine says:

    I don’t know what is funnier, Hearne trying to tell us he doesn’t know anything about bathhouses (rolls eyes)—or his high maintenance Asian wife getting an Arkansas backrub.

    You can have plausible deniability if you only claim you went to Plato’s retreat. 🙂

    Do us all a favor here in KC. Get a case of Phosphorus Mineral water. Give it to Glazer and tell him it will make his muscles big and strong. Let’s give him explosive diarrhea!

  2. Super Dave says:

    Arkansas to me is only good for camping and fishing other than that who cares.

  3. Jimbo OPKS says:

    In 1933 Frank Nash was arrested in Hot Springs and brought to Kansas City. There he met his untimely end in the Kansas City Massacre.

  4. mark smith says:

    “How was your spring break?”
    I’m 53, WTF is spring break? I hate to break it to you H man, but most grown people, at least those I know, don’t get a spring break. We call em vacations, and I haven’t had one in a couple of years. I’m surprised you didn’t know some of the gangster history of Hot Springs. They had one of the oldest horse and later dog tracks near KC. Not sure if it’s still around but I went years ago. You probably could have saved the trip and just went to the Elms if you wanted a spritz in some stank water. It’s Arkansas for christ sake, your lucky you didn’t end up tied to a tree getting frenched by a toofless hillbilly, or worse, doing a full on Ned Beatty out in the woods. Next time try somewhere a little more suited to your cosmo taste. I hear Hays Kansas is lovely this time of year.
    Q. How do you know the toothbrush was invented in Arkansas?
    A. If it was invented anywhere else, it would have been called a teethbrush.
    I’ll be here all week. Tip your waitress.

  5. smartman says:

    Surely, or perhaps surly, you weren’t expecting a Sedona-like spa experience in Hot Springs.

    Look at Del Dunmire’s Harrisonville or the new-kook plans to turn Lexington into a uber hip artsy-fartsy down. If you build it they will not come. Flyover country is littered with small towns that once mattered and never will.
    Next year I suggest you visit The Villages outside Orlando for your spring chicken break.

  6. Hearne says:

    Well, it was interesting, I’ll say that for the experience.
    The race track is still there and in season. As for Excelsior Springs, that was my suggestion anyway but the fam wanted a farther away adventure.
    Next time

  7. paulwilsonkc says:

    I have to stand up for the Hearnester here. I just got back from Spring Break! And Im older than Hearne. Sometimes in life when you find yourself in a second family, you get your hand stamped, stay for the second session and have a re-do on some of those old activities! And trust me, Mark Smith, you DO NOT call Spring Break a “vacation”, not when its herding kids! Come down to the white sands of P’cola, I’ll show ya vacation – Spring Break, NOT a vacation!

    • balbonis moleskine says:

      Hey pops,

      There is a Hofbrau house at PCB if you can temporarily escape to the land of big beers, oompa bands and big fat boobies pushed up.

  8. mark smith says:

    I wasn’t aware hearne had his kids with him. So the spring break applies.
    Hearne, have you been to the elms since they remodeled? Was curious if it was a real upgrade or still run down.

    • admin says:


      I am dying to check out the Elms and will very, very soon.

      My hunch is it’s in better shape than the Arlington based upon a couple things. They’ve made two or three runs at fixing the place up in the last 20 years and there might be less water damage there than in Hot Springs.

      That entire town is kinda moldy feeling.

      Plus – and I don’t know this for sure – but I also suspect that because of higher per capita incomes up this way and not being quite in the middle of nowhere, the Elms might be doing better on the bottom line.

      Stay tuned, because I will stay there sometime in the next few weeks. Oh yeah, I had my newly 16 year-old daughter and 10 and 14 year old boys.

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