By Diane Euston
For thousands of years, people have sought out water from mineral springs because of their alleged therapeutic value for combating various diseases.
The discovery of mineral waters was celebrated throughout the world. Places such as Saratoga Springs, N.Y., originally utilized by Native American tribes, was considered the most fashionable destination for “healing waters” in the nation in the 19th century.
In 1880, a series of events- up for debate- led to a wheat field being transformed into a town when rusty-colored water was discovered. Within a few short years, Excelsior Springs, Mo. was being advertised far and wide as the premier destination for those seeking health- and the creation of the Elms Hotel was the heart and soul of the operation.
Two Stories of Discovery
Anthony Wayne “Wain” Wyman (1838-1883), a farmer and miller, owned a tract of land that was given to him by his father, Christian. On this tract, Wyman farmed wheat.
One story given as to the discovery of the first spring in the area involves Travis Million (1844-1922), a Black man, and his daughter. Numerous stories published over the years indicate that Million’s daughter, Opal, was sick with tuberculosis in 1880. This wheat field owned by Wyman sat to the north of Fishing River, and near the banks, a reddish spring water flowed.
Million (incorrectly spelled “Mellion” in the accounts) had his ailing daughter, Opal drink and bathe in these waters. It was said that within a few weeks, she was cured.
There are a few problems with this story; Travis Million did have a daughter named Opal, but she wasn’t born until 1899! However, he did have several other children around 1880 that could have been sick, and many of his children did succumb over the years to tuberculosis.
Another story that is relayed about the founding of the spring involves a Civil War veteran named Frederick Kugler. Kugler lived on a nearby hillside adjacent to Wyman’s land. A sore on his leg caused by a gunshot wound from the war was causing him extreme pain.
Kugler went to the spring “and commenced using the water internally and mud externally” to treat his wound. Within a month, he was cured.
This spring, known first as the Excelsior Spring and later as Siloam, became the talk of the rural community. By August 1880, the Kansas City Times proclaimed that 1,000 people were traveling to the spring, noting, “Persons have already been cured of dyspepsia, gravel, fever sores, sore eyes, scrofula, throat diseases, liver complaints, etc.”
Early Excelsior Springs
It didn’t take long for Wyman to cash in on the discovery on his land.
Rev. John Van Buren Flack (1840-1906) had been running a store in Missouri City when he caught wind of the supposed healing properties of a spring. Flack traveled to the area and met with Wyman where he encouraged him to plat the land around the spring and have the water analyzed.
Excelsior was the original plan for a name, but Wyman and Flack (who had developed a business partnership) discovered this name was already taken. In turn, the town’s first name was Viginti. The name “Viginti” was first chosen because it translates to “20” in Latin, and they estimated there were at least 20 mineral springs in the area. The town was incorporated in 1881.
40 acres of the land was platted as a town, and Flack sent a sample of the water to James H. Wright, a chemist in St. Louis, to be analyzed. It was found to be a natural supply of ferro-manganese mineral water – the only in the United States.
Within 90 days, 200 houses were constructed and the newspaper reported in 1881, “Where last year there was a corn field is now a little city of 1,000 people.” Rev. Flack built a home in town, a dry goods store and the first church. Wyman also built a new home and continued to sell tracts of land at a mighty profit.
The early pilgrimages to the area found that there was no place to stay, so travelers had to camp in tents and under wagons. The first hotel in the town was built in 1881 by Wyman and a business partner and was called Excelsior Hotel; within a short amount of time, two Kansas city businessmen bought out the partner for $5,000. Two more springs were found and named Empire and Relief.
The little village wasn’t just situated in the middle of springs; it was also a peaceful retreat for city dwellers to visit “a quiet, happy little valley, hills rising picturesquely on every side.”
In 1882, town leaders changed the community’s name to “Excelsior Springs.” Newspaper advertisements boasted of the healing waters, stating “Go to Excelsior Springs and be cured” because “its location is unusually healthy and free from malaria.”
The First Elms
A group of prominent Kansas City businessmen saw the potential of Excelsior Springs and organized the Excelsior Springs Town Company. Howard M. Holden and Joseph S. Chick of the National Bank of Kansas City, L.R. Moore of Bullene, Moore and Emery, S.F. Scott and E.L. Martin (co-founder of the town of Martin City) were the original stockholders.
After purchasing 900 acres which included the original spring, the plan was to build a premier resort with 200 rooms.
Opening in July 1888, the Elms Hotel was the talk of the Midwest. Excelsior Springs Company and created parks, pavilions, and, in 1888, The Elms Hotel. Guests entered through two sets of double doors with two large terra cotta fireplaces on each side. A grand staircase of yellow pine and oak curved elegantly in the lobby to the floors above. At the cost of $250,000, the hotel was “a marvel of beauty in every respect… and supplied with water, incandescent electric lights, elevators, baths, etc.”
A dining room 150 feet long and 40 feet wide could be used as a ballroom for special occasions. Near the outdoor pool, guests could enjoy four bowling alleys and a target range within the lush, well-manicured gardens.
The success of the first Elms Hotel was immediate, and in turn, the investors built a music hall that could hold 1250 people and added a three-story high “annex” building in 1889 that held 75 additional rooms about 100 yards from the original building.
The water wasn’t just enjoyed on a visit to the Elms; the Excelsior Springs Company began bottling their water and selling it across the Midwest. The Sulpho-Saline bottled water from one of the springs was hyped as a “natural diuretic” and a “mild sure laxative.” The Soterian Ginger Ale made from the springs was advertised as “the finest in the world- ask your druggist for it.”
The Elms stood at the heart of a town built upon the healing properties of the water, and businesses capitalized on its popularity to those who were ill. Operations such as the Keeley Institute opened in town “for the treatment of the liquor and opium habit.”
In 1893, the Excelsior Springs Company reorganized into three companies which included a land company, a hotel company and a bottling company. Their Regent spring water won an award at the Chicago World’s Fair for having “the highest iron content of any water.”
The healing waters of the area were the main attraction, and it was hyped that a million crutches had been thrown away because of the swift cure of the water. Doctors and boarding houses were said to have saved the crutches to use as advertisements and decorations within their places of business. Later, there were so many crutches that residents of the town were said to repurpose them. “A garden fence with crutches for pickets is quite ornamental,” one newspaper reported.
Lawsuits haunted the group and created turmoil for years. In June 1896, a judge took over control of the operation due to the financial issues and appointed B.F. Jones “to take immediate possession” and authorized him “to sell the properties if he deems it best.”
In July 1897, the Elms Hotel was sold to Henry Ettenson of Leavenworth with the help of his Kansas City-based lawyer, Issie J. Ringolsky had plans to remodel the property and “bring back the old time popularity.” In all, they purchased the hotel, bottling works and 130 acres for around $70,000.
This new ownership didn’t have much time to make any improvements to the Elms Hotel. On May 9, 1898, the Elms, made entirely of wood, burned to the ground in the middle of the night. Luckily, no one was injured. Ettenson decided it would be too expensive to rebuild. Although there were other hotels in town, the primary draw to Excelsior Springs was the Elms.
The Second Elms
Without the Elms as the anchor, citizens of Excelsior Springs were growing concerned about the future of their town. For over ten years, there was no one to break ground on a second Elms Hotel.
There was one prominent Kansas City family interested in resurrecting the Elms. The Heim brothers, a well-known brewery and Electric Park owners in the East Bottoms, wanted to buy the Elms property and build an electric road from Kansas City. “We will build a hotel that will be modern throughout and as fine as any watering place in the west,” J.J. Heim told the Kansas City Times.
Unfortunately, terms could not be met and the deal fell through.
Kansas City-based lawyer Issie J. Ringolsky had been involved with Henry Ettenson in his purchase of the Elms, and he was able to negotiate terms to buy it. In July 1909, construction of the second Elms hotel was underway. With partner J.H. White, Ringolsky put up $200,000 for its construction.
Good things were happening in Excelsior Springs. In addition to the Elms being rebuilt, renowned landscape architect George Kessler was busy improving the parks, gardens and a 60-foot boulevard, aptly named Elm, in the town.
On July 30, 1909 the second Elms Hotel opened to the public and attracted guests from all over the country. It was reported that 2,000 people came to the celebration.
The celebration was short-lived. Just nine months later, 175 guests were alerted around midnight that a small wooden building on the east side of the hotel was on fire. The blaze was controlled, and about the time that guests thought it was safe to return to their rooms, smoke filled the Elms.
Employees and the volunteer fire department searched the hotel for the source when “flames suddenly burst through the roof at the west end of the building, nearly 100 feet from where the original fire was.”
The building was a total loss.
The Third and Final Elms is Built
I.J. Ringolsky and J.H. White vowed to rebuild the structure and invested $300,000 in the project. Construction began in 1911 and plans included five stories with fireplaces of cut stone in an Old English architecture.
Walls of native stone were carefully constructed with reinforced concrete and a steel skeleton. The owners were taking no chances- the building was entirely fireproof.
220 bedrooms, all with private baths, were planned “to please the most exacting millionaire accustomed to the best hotels in the world.”
Opening on September 7, 1912, the Elms Hotel opened to thousands of eager patrons. Throughout the next 15 years, Excelsior Springs continued on as a well-known health resort. In 1927, the hotel was sold.
Underground, illegal operations were also part of the Elms history. It is claimed that during Prohibition, federal agents raided a cocktail party attended by the governor who allegedly told the agents to go bust someone who was “actually breaking the law.”
A backstairs raid where “the dice were rolling, roulette balls swinging in dizzy circles and slot machines making a mechanical clatter” led to the arrest of an operator of a gambling salon. Another account indicates that a man named Howard Johnson operated a gambling house within the hotel from 1935-1937 and gave a cut to the Elms. Johnson installed air conditioning to keep his patrons cool and had the audacity to sue the Elms in court for the return of the unit.
Under new ownership, the Elms didn’t survive well through the Depression and had to file for bankruptcy in 1931. New ownership took over and revived the Elms before it could be purchased and repurposed into a sanitarium.
A Presidential Visit
Missouri native Harry S. Truman chose to return to Kansas City to watch the election results on November 2, 1948. Staying at the Muehlebach in downtown Kansas City, Truman had his assistant call the Elms Hotel and ask for “a mineral bath and a few hours rest.”
Unbeknownst to the crowds forming that Election Day downtown, Truman was no longer present. At 3:00 p.m., he left his house in Independence (called the “summer white house”) and arrived undetected at the Elms an hour later.
The president entered a rear door and up a freight elevator to a third floor suite. He had no luggage with him, so the hotel manager loaned him his own bathrobe and slippers.
He took no calls.
President Truman later told the Kansas City Star, “I took one of their hot spring baths and a rubdown. Then I ate a ham and cheese sandwich and drank a glass of buttermilk about 6:30. Then I went to bed.”
He woke up at around midnight and listened to election results alone on the radio before going back to sleep until 4:30 a.m. At that time, he opted to return to the Muehlebach Hotel to have breakfast and face the nation.
In one of the biggest election upsets in American history, President Harry S. Truman won with 49.5 percent of the nation’s votes. And he learned of his victory via-radio at the Elms Hotel- alone.
Excelsior Springs and the Elms Today
For the next few decades, the Elms was successful at being the site of many national conventions but popularity waned. It was advertised as a motor lodge and even a Sheraton Hotel for a time before bankruptcy once again faced the property in the 1990s.
Because of its importance to the town, a solution had to be found in order to save the most important property in Excelsior Springs. In 1995, the city purchased the Elms Hotel and began searching for buyers.
In 2011, the Elms closed for $20 million in renovations to update the 153-room hotel, spa, restaurant and grounds. In 2014, the property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Four years later, Hyatt Hotels assumed management of the property under its Destination Hotels brand.
The heart of the community, the Elms still stands situated in the valley amidst mineral springs. With over 130 years of history, the town of Excelsior Springs is anchored even today by this iconic property that brings about questions of hauntings and of its interesting past. The story of the Elms, above all, is the story of survival and resurrection.
In the next issue, Diane will tell the story of one of the Elms Hotel doctors who was a part of numerous scandals that will leave you scratching your head even today.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com