Our History is a regular column submitted by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, Director of Education and Programs at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history and some related displays at the museum.
Once upon a time, the White Sulphur Springs Hotel just north of Mount Airy along the Ararat River attracted a who’s who list of guests.
Senators, governors, Broadway actresses, Europeans, South Americans, and the elite of the Southeast’s well-to-do families traveled by train to Mount Airy where hotel ‘hacks’ (passenger wagons) awaited to carry them, their luggage, children, and servants to their summer home. There they would ‘take the waters’ in pursuit of fun and better health.
“For fifty years the waters from this bold and buoyant spring have been healing the sick and refreshing the weary,” reads an article in the Mount Airy ‘News’, May 20, 1897. “It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the finest sulphur (sic) springs in the world.”
Tourism is not new for Surry County, but the reasons change. Andy Griffith’s four-times great-grandfather was already a resident of the county when we find the first records of public lodging being licensed in 1779. For a mere six pence you could secure “a clean bed and sheets” for the night while in town for business or passing through to the Wachovia Tract.
As the nation grew, cities became booming centers of industry, attracting throngs of people from the rural areas and immigrants seeking the fabled American ‘streets of gold.’ Sadly, in a time before contagions were well understood, and sanitary conditions were nearly non-existent in crowded cities, they were often ravaged by epidemics of cholera, typhus, and influenza, especially in the heat of summer.
Families with the means to do so “summered” in the country, at the shore, or in the mountains, where the air and water were deemed “pure” and “healthful.” Frequently women and children spent entire months or seasons away from city homes with men coming to visit as business obligations allowed.
They visited family when possible, but many were attracted to a new type of accommodation; resort hotels. Growing belief that mineral or “sulphur springs” conveyed health benefits to those who drank, waded, or swam in the water caused a boom for regions where they existed. One such spring created a mirror-like pool next to the Ararat River.
From about the 1830s such “health resorts” were popular across the country, especially in the South where heat and humidity were bad. As the railroad got closer to Mount Airy, many people prepared to take advantage of the easier transportation of goods and people.
Beginning in 1871 Rufus Roberts, a Tennessee native married to a Carolina girl, built several businesses in and around Mount Airy including tobacco farms and factories and water-wheel-powered Green Hill Cotton Mills and Alpine Woolen Mills. About 1873 he developed 300 acres around the sulfur spring, erecting a hotel with 150 rooms.
Advertisements boasted the hotel offered the finest in entertainments and activities as well as the best food “with the very best the mountain country affords; plenty of fruit and everything fresh and nice – fine beef, mutton, chickens, eggs, Sourwood honey and the richest butter and milk.”
The Panic of 1893 dealt Roberts a blow from which he never recovered. The Springs was run by several men over the succeeding years; TB McCargo, JK Reynolds, Joe Gwynn. It burned in 1900 and was built back larger and more impressive, reopening in 1905. It thrived until the 20s and 30s when the double whammy of the Great Depression dampened tourism in general and cars made travel to a variety of places much easier.
The once grand hotel was finally sold to be used to house chickens. It burned to the ground in 1955. In 2008, Burke Robertson began work to develop homes and rental cabins on the site.
“People come to walk the path, fish in the river, and get water from the spring,” said Schmidty Crossingham, property manager of the “Cabins At White Sulphur Springs” vacation rentals. “It’s just a beautiful place and they come to enjoy that beauty.”
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the Director of Education and Programs for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228