Healing Waters and Everlasting Roots: The Story of Glenn Springs, South Carolina
Snap. Snap. I take a few photographs of the weed-infested, boarded-up Presbyterian church (top photo), knowing it won’t be around much longer. Snap. Snap.
The building to its right, the old Cates Store, will die before the church. The grand hotel and spa that once graced this property were reduced to ashes in a 1941 fire.
Farewell, Glenn Springs Historic District, I think. I appreciate you letting me wander your forgotten grounds. Such a shame that so few of the next generation will know that George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and members of the United States Senate once sampled your waters; that the mineral-laden waters were so famous that they were shipped all over America and to parts of Europe; and that the now-gone grand hotel and resort spa with its fancy ballroom, tennis court, tin pan alley, and other amusements was a destination for so many folks from all over the country.
My dad used to say, “I’ve seen this before” when confronted with a new place with a familiar-sounding history. Well, Dad, I’ve seen this before. Here’s to you, Glenn Springs, South Carolina.
After a last look, I make my way through the weeds and kudzu, stumble down a muddy bank, and take my leave of the two stop sign town.I was so wrong.
Four years later and just a few months ago, a couple elected to use the church grounds for their wedding, and now even the Cates Store now has a future. No, the men and the women of the Glenn Springs Preservation Society won’t be able to resurrect the grand hotel from its ashes, but, as they shared with me, they plan to keep its history alive: “If we lose the church and the store, our community will lose nearly all our connections to the past. We aren’t going to let that happen.”
I looked around our meeting room. There were no signs of deep “I’ll write that one check” pockets, just ordinary townspeople—Barbara Eubanks, Linda Powell, Rebecca Bray, Margaret Burnette, Warren Faber Smith, and Marion Eubanks, to be precise. Most of them have deep roots in the communities, while others simply have a love of history and community.
Similar to Saratoga Springs, New York, Glenn Springs became prominent around 1835 due to the belief in the restorative properties of mineral-laden water. In the case of Glenn Springs, John B. Glenn purchased the five hundred acres of land that surrounded the springs for eight hundred dollars in 1825. Sensing an opportunity, he opened an inn for the traveling public and allowed rich folks to build cabins surrounding the springs.
In 1836, the Glenn Springs Company built a grand hotel that became known for its elegance, gentility, and the prominence of its guests. All of that was duly promoted, as were the health benefits of its water. Was it as good as it was advertised?
It seems so. William A. Law, one-time president of the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company of Philadelphia, wrote:
"In July 1886, I slowly and painfully got out of my buggy at Glenn Springs, hardly able to walk. Rheumatism made dressing and undressing a painful and tedious job for me, lasting nearly an hour. I could not turn over in bed without severe suffering. I commenced at once to use the water systematically, drinking three glasses before each meal. Under this treatment I steadily improved, and in one month left Glenn’s able to walk with ease and almost entirely relieved."
Travel to the hotel was difficult, particularly for those who traveled great distances. In the late 1800s, a narrow railroad was built to service Glenn Springs from nearby Roebuck, but that was discontinued around 1915.
By the late 1920s, the once-robust business had faded. A local Spartanburg bank rated only 72 of 100 rooms in “fine” condition. Some say that by giving people more mobility, the automobile hastened the downfall of the once-famous hotel. Others also point to the economic hardships caused by the Great Depression. No matter. When the hotel burned in 1941 it was never rebuilt. In 1961, the old Presbyterian Church was abandoned.
On March 8, 2016, the NewsHour hosted by Judy Woodruff broadcast a long feature on “cities that work.” Out of the dozen or so American cities that reporters James and Deborah Fallows studied, my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, received the most acclaim. No, we are not perfect, but our business, political, and religious leaders work together to figure things out. Plus there is one more important ingredient to this cities that work, and that is “place.”
The Fallows contend that successful communities need a place to live where a “there” is “there.” We in Greenville know our city's "story" and believe in our future. Our “there” is a stunning downtown area that connects the past to the future. In Glenn Springs, thanks to Barbara, Linda, Rebecca, Margaret, Warren, Marion, and others, their town now has a “there.”