Red Springs the Saratoga of the South by K. Blake Tyner

For centuries people have been drawn to the mineral springs in America and around the world. It was claimed that the waters of Saratoga, New York would cure kidney and liver complaints, rheumatism, diabetes, heartburn, cancer, malaria, hangovers and, “weakness of women”.

The red colored waters of Red Springs became a drawing card for those seeking relaxation and health-giving waters. We learn about the legend of the red waters from Beatrice McEachern Bullock’s 1969 booklet “A Brief History of Red Springs”.

“An Indian Brave at sunset, returning wearied from the day’s hunt, knelt to drink from the deep spring that bubbled cool and refreshing from the sands beneath the towering pines. He thought to rest awhile before seeking the lodge where a dark-eyed maiden waited. But alas, his rival for the maiden’s hand, lurking in the forest, sent a death arrow speeding and the stricken warrior fell forward into the quiet waters and sank from sight. Only the bronze hued blanket flung across his shoulder, was left floating silently on the surface.

And even today when the late afternoon sun throws its slanting rays through the trees, the dying light catches the gleam of the blanket that lies always just beneath the surface of the water.”

Gone long since is the wide, deep pool from which the Indians drank and to which many years later, journeyed plantation families seeking the pleasant, health-giving water. In its place came pipes from which the same medicated water gushed freely, leaving behind the familiar russet sediment. Summer cottages, a hotel and a few permanent homes began to cluster about the spring and a tiny village came into being and took its name from its famous water.”

On March 11, 1775 “Sailor” Hector McNeill received a land grant from King George III of England and he purchased the adjoining tract. This property covers most of the present town.

The waters started attracting not only settlers but many visitors. Malcolm McNeill, Jr., grandson of “Sailor” Hector, constructed on what is now Main Street just north of Second Avenue. The hotel opened July 4, 1852 was great fanfare and festivities including the Lumber Bridge Light Infantry. He died two years later and his brother, Hector McNeill known as Squire McNeill or Red Hector, took over the hotel.

In the October 14, 1858 issue of the Fayetteville Observer gives an account of a reporter’s visit to McNeill’s hotel. “Mr. McNeill is an intelligent, industrious man very attentive to his guests and over solicitous of their comfort and enjoyment. Of the water, there can be but one opinion – it is delicious. No one can sit for, on a warm day, beside the gushing fountain, drinking freely of its crystal water, without coming to that conclusion. It is delightfully cool, clear and sparkling. To drink a half dozen glasses in as many minutes is no uncommon thing.”

The hotel and nearby fairgrounds of the Robeson County Agricultural Society were the sites of all major special occasions and events including a visit in the 1880s by former Governor Zebulon Vance.  Vance Avenue was named in his honor.

In 1891 the hotel property was purchased by Solomon Townsend and his son, Benjamin Wesley Townsend, natives of Richmond County. Solomon was married to Hannah Jane Baldwin and his son chose Janie Robeson McMillan, daughter of Hamilton McMillan, as his wife. The Townsends demolished the old hotel and built Hotel Townsend.

The Townsend’s chose Phil Wright of the firm of Wright Bros., former manager of the LaFayette Hotel in Fayetteville as well as hotels in Danville and Charlottesville, VA to operate the hotel. Newspaper articles about the grand opening extolled the hotel and all its amenities which included “electric bells, gas-lighted rooms, hot and cold baths and cuisine worthy of the manager’s reputation.”

The grand opening took place June 30, 1891 to a full house of guests and visitors including a special train with two cars from Fayetteville and another train with guests from Bennettsville, Cheraw, Maxton and Rockingham.

“The board piazza of the hotel, so alluring and cozy for the confidential and even lover-life tete a tete, the embowered walks leading to the spring and the leafy campus with its clumps of overhanging trees.” The declared the hotel in all respects equal to the Atlantic Hotel at Morehead City.

The Fayetteville Observer stated the ball lasted from 11pm until 2am and then went into great detail about the dresses and jewelry of the female guests including “Miss Mamie Bidgood in Blue silk, Marechal Niel roses and pearls; Miss Lida Wright in black China silk with a demi-train, gold trimming and ornaments and carrying an ostrich fan; Miss Ruth V. Smith in cream point lace over white silk wearing diamonds; Miss Vista Dudley in cream dotted Swiss and diamonds; and Miss Bessie Irby wearing cream satin and lace with diamonds.”

An advertisement for Hotel Townsend in 1896 declared it as “one of the best arranged in this part of the state” with indoor baths and toilet rooms, live music during the season. An1897 advertisement heralded that it had all modern conveniences and that the waters could cure stomach and kidney ailments. Rates were $2 a day, $10 a week or $30 a month.

The Hotel Townsend served as the place to host huge events like in August 1905 when it was the center location for all the activities surrounding the annual Home Comer’s Week. This was a time for all former Robesonians to return and renew old friendships. Senator JL McLauirn of South Carolina stood on the porch to deliver his speech about Scottish poetry and history to 3000 people. In September 1910 the hotel hosted a visit by NC Governor W.W. Kitchen.

Lots of people used the hotel host private parties like the All Hallow’s Eve party in 1902 given by Miss Ida Townsend which featured a gypsy, witch and ghosts with weird and fantastic lights. The writer talked in length about the food served which included chicken salad, salmon biscuits, peanut sandwiches tied with ribbons of color, frappe, coffee, chocolate nuts and luscious fruits. The writer then apologized for not being more familiar with many new stylish dainties served on the occasion. The Leap Year Party of 1912 hosted by the young ladies of the town entertained the town’s young men. Lots of amusements filled the evening including the men’s apron hemming competition which Hector Currie won. The Leap Year Party of 1912 hosted by the young ladies of the town entertained the town’s young men. Lots of amusements filled the evening including the men’s apron hemming competition which Hector Currie won.

In June 1907 the property was sold and purchased by The Robeson County Educational Association which was incorporated by C.G. Vardell, J.I. McMillan, J.N. Buie, H. Graham and B.W. Townsend. The association’s propose was to establish a school for boys, library and a nursing school. The hotel was refurbished and the next year was advertising that they had updated to an all electrical system and had installed a new water works system.

It was after this group of new owners took control that the name changed to Red Springs Hotel. In 1910 the manager J.L. Harrison hosted all the stockholders and their families which totaled 100 for a Thanksgiving Dinner. Candles and an oak fire lighted the room and the Levin’s Orchestra of Raleigh played during the dinner.

Lots of guests returned year after year for the healing waters and the plentiful game hunting in the countryside. Couples like Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Craig of Canada who loved the mild climate of Red Springs and its refreshing waters. In the April 28, 1897 Fayetteville Observer appeared a letter from Mrs. Garrason saying that when she first arrived at Hotel Townsend she had not been able to eat for two months. She goes on to say she saw no change in the first week but by weeks two and three she was able to eat without inconvenience and started to gain weight. She finished by saying it had been a year since she went to the springs and she would advise a visit by anyone suffering indigestion.

In 1936 the old hotel was becoming unsafe and it was demolished and the lumber used to construct the gym at Flora Macdonald College.

During the tenure of this hotel there were others in Red Springs including the Exchange Hotel owned by J. McC. Buie and later purchased by A.B. Pearsall and G.H. Hall. Mrs. Nellie Shooter, a very talented milliner, worked hard and in 1891 also built a hotel and added to it in 1894. Known as Hotel Red Springs it had an office, parlors and dining room as well as twenty-one guest rooms. It stood on the corner of Main Street and Third Avenue. She rented it out to several others over the years at times taking over the management of it herself. It closed sometime before 1908 when the Hotel Townsend was named Hotel Red Springs.

The hotels were not the only business to make money from the springs in March 1906 the Red Springs Bottling Works was opened by BW Townsend, Martin McKinnon and AB Pearsall. They produced carbonated water, high grade ginger ale and all kinds of soft drinks.

Red Springs reigned as the South’s Saratoga for almost 85 years and now only survives in yellowed newspapers, faded postcards and memories of older residents. You can still drive down Main Street and see one of the old spring sites covered with a shelter and marked with a sign.

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