Keeping A Promise – American Travel

Visit Excelsior Springs!

HAVE you ever heard of the city of Excelsior Springs, Missouri? I never had until the letters began to come. The first one reached me in Detroit. It told me that Excelsior Springs desired to be “written up,” and offered me, as an inducement to come there, the following arguments: paved streets, beautiful scenery, three modern, fire-proof hotels, flourishing lodges, live churches, fine saddle horses, an eighteen-hole golf course (“2d to none,” the letter said) four distinct varieties of mineral water, and-Frank James.

The mention of Frank James stirred poignant memories of my youth : recollections of forbidden “nickel novels” dealing with the wild deeds alleged to have been committed by the James Boys, Frank and Jesse, and their “Gang.” I used to keep these literary treasures concealed behind a dusty furnace pipe in the cellar of the old house in Chicago. On rainy days I would steal down and get them, and, retiring to some out-of-the-way corner of the attic, would read and re-read them in a kind of ecstasy of horror—a horror which was enhanced by the eternal fear of being discovered with such trash in my possession.

I had not thought of the James Boys in many years. But when I got that letter, and realized that Frank James was still alive, the old stories came flooding back. As with Maeterlinck and Hinky Dink, the James Boys seemed to me to be fictitious figures; beings too wonderful to be true. The idea of meeting one of them and talking with him seemed hardly less improbable than the idea of meeting Barbarossa, Captain Kidd, Dick Turpin, or Robin Hood. I began to wish to visit Excelsior Springs.

Before I had a chance to answer the first letter others came. Mr. W. E. Davy, Chief Correspondent of the Brotherhood of American Yeomen, wrote that, “Excelsior Springs is one of the most picturesque and interesting spots in that portion of the country.” Ban B. Johnson, president of the American Baseball League, also wrote, declaring, “I believe Excelsior Springs to be the greatest watering place on the American continent.” Then came letters from business men, Congressmen and Senators, until it began to seem to me that the entire world had dropped its work and taken up its pen to impress upon me the vital need of a visit to this little town. The letters came so thick that, from St. Louis, I telegraphed the Secretary of the Excelsior Springs Commercial Club to say that, if he would let up on me, I would agree to come. After that the letters stopped as though by magic. Until I reached Kansas City I heard no more about Excelsior Springs. There, however, a deputation called to remind me of my promise, and a few days later the same deputation returned and escorted my companion and me to the interurban car, and bought our tickets, and checked our trunks, and put us in our seats, and sat beside us watchfully, like detectives taking prisoners to jail. For though I had promised we would come, it must not be forgotten that they were from Missouri.

Excelsior Springs is a busy, pushing little town of about five thousand inhabitants, situated in Clay County, Missouri, about thirty miles from Kansas City. The whole place has been built up since 1880, on the strength of the mineral waters found there—and when you have tasted these waters you can understand it, for they are very strong indeed. But that is putting the thing bluntly. Listen, then, to the booklet issued by the Excelsior Springs Commercial Club :

Even as truth is stranger than fiction,’ so the secrets of Nature are even more wonderful than the things wrought by the hands of man. Just why it pleased the Creator of the Universe to install one of His laboratories here and infuse into its waters curative powers which surpass the genius and skill of all the physicians in Christendom is a question which no one can answer. Like the stars, the flowers, and the ocean, it is merely one of the great eternal verities with which we are surrounded. Whither and whence no man knows.

Having paid this fitting compliment to the Creator, the pamphleteer proceeds to expatiate upon the joys of the place :

There are cool, shaded parks and woodlands, where you can sit under the big, spreading trees which shut out the hot summer’s sun—where you can loll on blankets of thickly matted blue grass and read and sleep to your heart’s content—far from the madding crowd and the world’s fierce strife and turmoil…. . Here the golf player will find one of the finest golf links his heart would desire. The fisherman will find limpid streams where the wary black bass lurks behind moss-covered rocks… . Here you and your wife can vie at tennis, bowling, horseback riding, and a dozen other wholesome exercises, and when the shadows of the night have fallen there are orchestras which dispense sweet music and innumerable picture shows and other forms of entertainment which will while away the fleetings moments until bedtime.

Though the writer of the above prose-poem chose to assume that the imaginary being to whom he addresses himself is a married man, the reader must not jump to the conclusion that Excelsior Springs is a resort for married couples only, that the married are obliged to run in pairs, or that those who have been joined in matrimony are, for any reason, in especial need of healing waters. If unmarried persons are not so welcome at the Springs as married couples, that is only because a couple spends more money than an individual. The unmarried are cordially received. And I may add from personal observation, that the married man or woman who arrives alone can usually arrange to “vie at tennis, bowling, horseback riding, and a dozen other wholesome exercises” with the husband or the wife of some one else. In short, Excelsior Springs is like most other “resorts.” But all this is by the way. The waters are the main thing. The paved streets, the parks, the golf links, even Frank James, sink into comparative in-significance compared with the natural beverages of the place. The Commercial Club desires that this be clearly understood, and seems, even, to resent the proximity of Frank James, as a rival attraction to the waters, as though under an impression that no human being could stomach both. Before I departed from the Springs some members of the Commercial Club became so alarmed at the interest I was showing in the former outlaw that they called upon me in a body and exacted from me a ‘solemn promise that I should on no account neglect to write about the waters. I agreed, whereupon I was given full information regarding the waters by a gentleman bearing the appropriate name of Fish.

Mr. Fish informed me that the waters of Excelsior Springs resemble, in their general effect, the waters of Homburg, the favorite watering place of the late King Edward—or, rather, I think he put it the other way round : that Homburg waters resembled those of Excelsior Springs. The famous Elizabethbrunnen of Homburg is like a combination of two waters found at the Missouri resort-a saline water and an iron water, having, together, a laxative, alterative, and tonic effect. Mr. Fish, who has made a study of waters, says that Excelsior Springs has the greatest variety of valuable mineral waters to be found in this country, and that the town possesses two among the half dozen iron-manganese springs being used, commercially, in the en-tire world. Duplicates of these springs are to be found at Schwalbach and Pyrmont, in Germany ; Spa, in Belgium, and St. Moritz, in Switzerland. The value of manganese when associated with iron is that it makes the iron more digestible.

Another type of water found at the Springs is of a saline-sulphur variety, such as is found at Saratoga, Blue Lick (Ky.), Ems, and Baden-Baden. Still an-other type is the soda water similar to that of Manitou (Colo.), Vichy, and Carlsbad, while a fourth variety of water is the lithia.

In 1881 the present site of the town was occupied by farms, one of them that of Anthony Wyman, on whose land the original “Siloam” iron spring was discovered. This spring, the water of which left a yellow streak on the ground as it flowed away, had been known for years among the negro farm hands as the “old pizen spring,” and it is said that when they were threshing wheat in the fields, and became thirsty, none of them dared drink from it.

Rev. Dr. Flack, a resident of the neighborhood, having heard about the spring, took a sample of the water and sent it to be analyzed—as my informant put it, “to find out what was the matter with it.” The analysis showed the reason for the yellow streak, and informed Dr. Flack of the spring’s value.

From that time on people began to drive to the Springs in the stagecoaches that passed through the region. First there were camps, but in 1882 a few houses were built and the town was incorporated. In 1888 the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad began to operate a line through Excelsior Springs, and in 1894 the Wabash connected with the Springs by constructing a spur line. The Milwaukee & St. Paul tracks pass at a distance of about one mile from the town, and this fact finally caused the late Sam F. Scott to build a dummy line to the station.

I was told that Mr. Scott had handsome passes en-graved, and that he sent these to the presidents of all the leading railroad companies of the country, requesting an exchange of courtesies. According to this story, Mr. Scott received a reply from Alexander Cassatt, then president of the Pennsylvania system, saying that he was unable to find Mr. Scott’s road in the Railroad Directory, and asking for further information. To this letter, it is said, Mr. Scott replied: “My road is not so long as yours, but it is just as wide.” Perhaps I should add that, later, I heard the same story told of the president of a small Colorado line, and that still later I heard it in connection with a little road in California. It may be an old story, but it was new to me, and I hereby fasten it upon the town where I first heard it.

Excelsior Springs is the headquarters of the Bill Club, which has come in for humorous mention, from time to time, in newspapers throughout the land. The Bill Club is a national organization, the sole requirement for membership having originally consisted in the possession of the cognomen “William” and the payment of a dollar bill. Bill Sisk of Excelsior Springs is president of the Bill Club, Bill Hyder is secretary, and Bill Flack treasurer. By an amendment of the Bill Club constitution, “any lady who has been christened Willie, Wilena, Wilhelmine, or Williamette, may also join the Bill Club.” The pass word of the organization is “Hello, Bill,” and among the honorary members are ex-President Bill Taft, Secretary of State Bill Bryan, Sena-tors Bill Warner and Bill Stone of Missouri, Bill Hearst, Colonel Bill Nelson, publisher of the Kansas City “Star,” and Bill Bill, a hat manufacturer, of Hartford, Conn.

The head waiter at our hotel was a beaming negro. As my companion and I came down to breakfast on our first morning there, he met us at the door, led us across the dining room, drew out our chairs, and, as we sat down, inquired, pleasantly :

“Well, gentamen, how did you enjoy yo’ sleep?”

We both assured him that we had slept well.

“Yes, suh ; yes, suh,” he replied. “That ‘s the way it most gen’ally is down here. People either sleeps well or they don’t.”

After breakfast we were taken in a motor to the James farm, nine miles distant from the town. Never have I seen more charming landscapes than those we passed upon this drive. An Englishman at Excelsior Springs told me that the landscapes reminded him of home, but to me they were not English, for they had none of that finished, gardenlike formality which one associates with the scenery of England. The country in that part of Missouri is hilly, and spring was just commencing when we were there, touching the feathery tips of the trees with a color so faint that it seemed like a light green mist. It was a warm, sunny day, and the breeze sweet with the smell of growing things. There was no haze, the air was clear, yet by some subtle quality in the light, colors, which elsewhere might have looked raw, were strangely softened and made to blend with one another. Blatant red barns, green houses, and the bright blue overalls worn by farm hands in the fields, did not jump out of the picture, but melted into it harmoniously, keeping us in a constant state of amazement and delight.

“If you think it ‘s pretty now,” our guardians told us, “you ought to see it in the summer when the trees are at their best.”

Of course such landscapes must be fine in summer, but the beauty of summer is an obvious kind of beauty, like that of some splendid opulent woman in a rich evening gown. Summer seems to me to be a little bit too sure of her beauty, a little too well aware of its completeness. The beauty of very early spring is different; there is something frail about it; something timid and faltering, which makes me think of a young girl, delicate and sweet, who, knowing that she has not reached maturity, looks forward to her womanhood and remains unconscious of her present virgin loveliness. No, I am sure that I should never love that Missouri landscape as I loved it in the early spring, and I am sure that such a painter as W. Elmer Schofield would have loved it best as I saw it, and that Edward Redfield or Ernest Lawson would prefer to paint it in that aspect than in any other which it could assume. I should like to see them paint it, and I should also like to see their paintings shown to Kansas and Missouri.

What would Kansas and Missouri make of them? Very little; I fear. For (with the exception of St. Louis) those two States seem to be devoid of all feeling for art. I doubt that there is a public art gallery in the whole State of Kansas, or a private collection of paintings worth speaking of. As for western Missouri, I could learn of no paintings there, save some full-sized copies, in oil, of works of old masters, which were presented to Kansas City by Colonel Nelson. These copies are exceptionally fine. They might form the nucleus for a municipal gallery of art—a much better nucleus than would be formed by one or two actual works of old masters—but Kansas City has n’t “gotten around to art,” as yet, apparently. The paintings are housed in the second story of a library building, and several people to whom I spoke had never heard of them.