During the mid-1800s, big plans were bubbling up in Wheelock. A Boston entrepreneur named Royal Winter had visited the town and gotten a whiff of the sulfur water that percolated out of the ground there. He bought an old brick hotel, renovated it, piped the water in – and planned to create a spa community to rival New York’s Saratoga Springs.
Mr. Winter was not the first to recognize the mineral quality of the water in Wheelock. The townspeople had long been aware of it - but far from cherishing it, they had called the area where the water that smelled like rotten eggs pushed up through the ground the “Stinking Spring.”
Last month, work began to disassemble and rebuild a memorial that was created in the form of a springhouse, erected more than a century ago to honor Wheelock’s mineral spring history. It had fallen into disrepair and at Town Meeting last year, townspeople voted an appropriation of up to $5,000 to rebuild it.
Located just off Route 122, the site honors a business venture that was supposed to make Wheelock famous, but instead failed – and it also celebrates Wheelock’s natural resource – smelly water. As well, the marker pays homage to one of the Northeast Kingdom’s most endearing stories.
Perhaps the earliest reference to Wheelock’s “special” water comes from 1834, when a man named Jethro Horn built a house near where the rebuilt kiosk is located on Sulfur Spring Road. The smell of the water annoyed his family, so he kept trying to fill up the wet area, but the water kept breaking through to the surface.
Eventually Mr. Horn gave in to the will of the water, and he sunk a well there. His family started using the water, and neighbors did too. In the summer, the well provided the coldest water in town.
In 1860, there is another story about Wheelock’s mineral water. News came to town with a gossipy stagecoach driver that Lyndon had been chosen as the site of a new secondary school – Wheelock had been passed over for the project.
The stagecoach driver reportedly sang: “Lyndon has the miserable thing. Sutton has the measles. Wheelock has the stinking spring. Pop goes the weasel.”
According to a book published in 1824 called “The American Botanist and Family Physician,” three mineral springs were located in Wheelock. One was near Jethro Horn’s home on the north end of the village, another was behind a brick hotel that had been built in 1830 in the center of town. As to where the third mineral spring might be, there is no known record.
Tangential to Wheelock’s mineral spring history, its brick hotel also has a long and storied past. When it was built, it prompted the main stage route between Montreal and Boston to travel a different way, right through the village. Before the brick hotel was built, the stage route went through a western part of town that no longer has any village settlement.
The brick hotel had several owners and names before it took on its most famous moniker – the Caledonia Mineral Springs Hotel - when Boston entrepreneur Royal Winter bought it in 1864.
In 1842 the brick hotel was called Hiel Bradley’s Inn. In 1845 it became William Johnston’s Bar Room, and in 1846 it was known as Carter’s Bar Room. Several years after Royal Winter’s foray into mineral spa tourism, the hotel also became known as the location of a notorious murder. In 1896 the owner of the hotel, Marshall Way, killed his 44-year-old wife, Ellen. The sensational murder was reported in numerous newspapers.
In 1994 the brick hotel that had presided over the center of Wheelock for almost 150 years was dismantled and moved to Peacham to be restored on private property.
Undoubtedly, the brick hotel’s biggest claim to fame was the short time when Royal Winter owned it. He was a convincing man, and townspeople started believing that their northern Vermont village would become a posh resort. They were told that a secondary business would also thrive. Mr. Winter planned to bottle Wheelock’s mineral water. People dreamed of making fortunes.
Unfortunately, the scheme fell flat – in more ways than one.
It all started in grand style. After buying the brick hotel, Mr. Winter enlarged it and had a French roof and a two-story verandah added. He had the mineral water piped to the hotel through a penstock, both for bathing and for cooking purposes.
He produced a 14-page glitzy brochure to promote his newly named Caledonia Mineral Springs Hotel. It was claimed that the water could help bald men grow hair. It was claimed that the water was a cure for, “dyspepsia, liver complaint, jaundice, eruptions of the skin, scrofula and other humors, ring worm, salt rhum, barber’s itch, piles, costiveness, catarrh, dropsy, Bright’s disease of the kidneys, gravel, stone, mercurial sores, or diseases arising from nervous prostration.”
It was advertised that passengers taking the 8 a.m. train from Lowell Depot in Boston could arrive in Lyndonville at 5 p.m. without changing cars. Mr. Winter had coaches in readiness at the train depot to carry spa tourists the five miles north to Wheelock.
Besides promoting the health resort in the center of Wheelock Village, Mr. Winter also geared up to bottle the mineral-laden water. He bought approximately 1,500 brown bottles, had them embossed with the Caledonia Spring Water tradename, and at first the business seemed to thrive – but not for long.
Soon it was found that the French roof erected on the hotel was too heavy – and it had to be removed. The mineral water proved problematic to pipe in; it corroded the hotel’s pipes. Another snag arose when it was found that the sulfur water lost its flavor when it was bottled. It tasted like regular water instead of like rotten eggs - so people didn’t want to buy it.
Put simply, it all fell apart, and it wasn’t long before the brick hotel was sold again – and the bottles that were purchased for bottling the mineral water remained in piles outdoors for several years, a constant reminder of failure. Finally, the bottles were sold to H.M. Nichols of Lyndon Center, and then they were resold again several times. The quart-sized bottles turned out to have been of low quality, and lawsuits ensued.
Today, if you find one of those bottles don’t toss it out, because they have gained a great deal in value over time. About 20 years ago, a Lyndon antique dealer said Caledonia Spring Water bottles could fetch a price of around $800 apiece. I have found two of the bottles and sold one for $400 and the other, which had a tiny chip in it, for $175.
When Jim Blackbird, a selectman in Wheelock and the point person on the project to refurbish the historic springhouse, learned about the value of the bottles, he was flabbergasted. He said that while digging to remove a cracked concrete floor at the springhouse site and to place new cement piers, he dug up a Caledonia Spring Water bottle, but he left it in the hole and covered it up again with soil.
The springhouse was first built on Sulfur Spring Road at the north end of the village by a man named W.C. Fletcher. That structure was replaced by what some term a kiosk or pavilion by a man named Ferd Chase in 1916. Until this year, the site had testified to Wheelock’s mineral spring past for more than a century.
Mr. Chase loved history, and during his lifetime he donated 25 granite markers, noting sites to remember in his community. Unfortunately, most of the bronze plaques he placed were stolen and the markers were lost over the years.
Visitors to the mineral spring historic site will soon find a new structure approximating the 1916 springhouse. The concrete floor will be replaced by a stone and staymat floor and the wooden structure that covers the old spring will be rebuilt. While working recently at the site, Mr. Blackbird noted that as digging was taking place, a strong smell of sulfur tickled his nostrils.
Other Wheelock residents who worked on the project were Richard and Bobbi-Jo Norcross and Bradley Brewer.
An antique snow-roller that was kept under the shelter of the springhouse will be returned to the site after the restoration work is completed.
The work of the residents of Wheelock to restore a part of the town’s history is a reminder of the boom and bust era when spa tourism to mineral springs was a fad throughout the region, indeed throughout the world.
In the late 1800s, there were 126 named mineral springs in Vermont, and 31 of those waters were attached to hotel businesses.
In the region, mineral springs are listed in various historic books as having existed in Danville, Hardwick, Brunswick, and Newbury. One of the least remembered mineral springs was located in St. Johnsbury, in the vicinity of the current Assisqua Avenue.
According to Edward Fairbanks in his 1914 History of St. Johnsbury, “The sulphur water of Assisqua Spring, pumped up, charged, bottled and distributed by Capt. E.L. Hovey in 1895, brought $1,400 that year from people of this and other towns who did not go to Saratoga or Brunswick Springs.”