Part I: The Rise of Austin
Springs (First published in Hometown, by
The obsessions, the history, the survival of any
small town usually depend somewhat on the total
national or world picture. Somehow, the fevered
obsessions of a nation can settle in even the smallest
of its communities. One such fever was the 1800s
health-craze for mineral water. The obsession for a
health cure for ailments as diverse as female
weakness, arthritis, gout, neuralgia, stomach upset,
and asthma spread from
Springs, located in the first district of Weakley
It's hard to say how or where this fever started, but somewhere, someone decided that mineral water could cure almost anything. In fact, springs had long been sacred places of healing for Native Americans. In the early 1800s, many doctors, not a few quacks, and several real estate developers touted the mineral water cure through newspaper advertisements, brochures, and word-of-mouth.
Springs of all types were able to lay claim to cures
from the ensuing testimonials of "cured" visitors no
matter the type of mineral contained in the waters.
Most springs contained either salt, silica, sulphur,
potassium, iron, manganese, alum,
iodide, etc., or a combination of several of these elements. As these springs became
crowded with visitors (which increased with rail travel), the social aspects of
the visit may have had as curative an effect on visitors (perhaps more so) than
the waters themselves. Eventually, what would later become known as
It's difficult to say when the spring first became an attraction; however, by piecing together oral histories of the locals with newspaper accounts and Virginia C. Vaughan's book, Weakley County, we can safely place the timeframe in the latter 1800s when Christopher Columbus Austin (better known as Chris), a farmer, owned land on Powell Creek. When Chris discovered a mineral spring on the creek's bank, he walled it in with stone or brick curbing.
How people found out about the spring is a mystery,
but by about 1888 the community sported a hotel to
accommodate the many tourists who came for the
spring's healing effects. And rail travel did help.
Oral histories from the community say that surreys
full of visitors would come from the local train
stations of Mayfield or Fulton. People who came in
their own individual wagons would reside in tent
cities in the campground set up near the spring; some
stayed in the hotel, but all came with empty jugs to
the spring's mouth.
Most locals say that the spring water's curative
powers came from drinking it, not from bathing in it.
It is likely, however, that a few folks drew up enough
water to heat up and to bathe in because some felt
that it took both methods to obtain the greatest
benefit. Nearly everyone who has had personal
knowledge of the water describe it as looking bad,
smelling bad (like bad eggs), and tasting bad (like
iron). It took a brave soul to drink it.
office. Because there was already
The first postmaster was A.M. McQuire (1889-1893),
followed by Aaron W. Duke (1893-1902) and David A.
Frields (1902-1905). At various points in time, the
town also contained general stores, a blacksmith shop,
saloon, lock-up (jail), two gristmills, a cream
station, barbershop, switchboard, restaurant, livery
stable, sawmill, churches, and nearby schools. Tom
Johnson built the first general merchandise store
which his sons, Chap and
operate. Font Gibson (pronounced "Fount") owned
another. During the 1930s, George Harris, uncle to
Howard Harris (who lives
source of much of my information), ran a general
merchandise store, which contained groceries and
millinery full of hats, shoes, and clothing.
Palmersville resident Vivian Rickman well remembers
this store and how much she enjoyed shopping for
clothes there. More on this next month, in part two.
The Rise and Decline of
A town never dies as long as there are people who
remember it, and people who are willing to record and
read about those memories. Vivian Rickman, a
Palmersville resident, remembers her visits
Springs back when it was still a thriving community.
When Mrs. Rickman was a child, tourists were no longer
coming for the healing effects of the mineral spring,
but locals still went there to shop. Mrs. Rickman
says that going to the larger and farther away town of
when relative Charlie Stephenson took her and her
family in his Model T. Since she lived at
only about five miles from
closer to go there in the family wagon.
George Harris owned one of the two general mercantile
stores popular during Mrs. Rickman's day. The Johnson
article written by local correspondent Ela Frields
mentions the Harris Brothers laying the foundation for
a general merchandise store. Residents remember it as
being the larger of the two stores. Mrs. Rickman
liked buying a soda pop for five cents or buying
clothes in the Harris store. One year, her parents
bought her a fur coat with shiny brass buttons.
Sometimes the family would walk on the boardwalk over
to Sam Dudley's place to buy some healing salve.
Howard Harris, former postmaster at Dukedom and a
relative of the now deceased George Harris, remembers
that George had quite a sense of humor. Mr. Harris
told me this story: One day, a woman sent her child to
George's store to buy some sugar. The sugar was in a
barrel, so some had to be scooped out, weighed, and
packaged. As a joke, Harris packaged sand instead of
sugar and sent it home by way of the child. Later,
the woman came back in with her "sugar" and stated
that she had decided she didn't want any sugar after
all. And before George could stop her, she had dumped
her package of sand back into his barrel of sugar.
The joke was on him! Mr. Harris told other delightful
tales on George. It must have been a fun place to
shop. No wonder Mrs. Rickman liked to go there.
reported in a
Johnson General Store had been burglarized on the
previous Sunday. The thieves had stolen overalls,
shirts, cigars, cigarettes, cheese, and money. In
this same article, Mrs. Frields reported that the old
Austin Springs Hotel (mentioned in the last article)
built "some forty years" before had burned down due to
a kitchen flue fire. By this time, tourists were no
longer using the hotel as a place to stay. The
campground near the Springs, too, was no longer in
use. Instead, the hotel had been converted into a
dwelling. Luckily, the then current residents Dewey
Ainley and family escaped and were later installed in
Mrs. Lottie Cantrell's tenant house. Howard Harris
remembers watching the hotel burn from a window of his
home when he was just five years old.
There continued to be stores and businesses after the
hotel's burning. Perhaps a "hall of fame" of a few of
the former owners and residents should be remembered
here. Clarence Berryman, and later, Bant Hall, owned
a blacksmith shop. Carey Frields owned a sawmill,
Charlie Vincent cut hair in 1946 for twenty-five
cents, and George Harris and the Johnson Brothers
owned the two mercantiles. There was also a
beer-joint, cream station, gristmill, switchboard, and
probably several other businesses. There was also a
string band consisting of Carey Frields and Charlie
Vincent, violinists; Delmas Copeland and Bant Hall,
guitarists; and Chap Johnson on harmonica. Other
early residents of the area had last names like Acree,
Murrell, Austin, McGuire, Bynum, Dunn, Gargis, Farmer,
The Decline of Austin Springs probably began when the
last tourist came and put his or her jug down into the
spring. After that, the decline was steady. With the
advent of cars and the ensuing mobility, small towns
could no longer compete with larger nearby towns that
had better buying and job opportunities for the
public. One by one the stores and businesses dwindled
away as the population began traveling away to do
their shopping elsewhere. In addition, as Mrs.
Rickman said, "The people just faded away and so did
Even the mineral spring is no longer there. It is
buried somewhere under the bridge structure nearby.
Community members remember that the highway department
reworked the road and bridge several years back and
covered it up. Some still aren't happy about that
event. Even the road, which cut through the main part
of town, is no longer there. Only the trail in tall
grass marks the spot where Mrs. Rickman used to walk
the boardwalk to Sam Dudley's place. However, there
are still several homes clustered nearby, along with
an empty store, built in the
may have declined from what it once was, but it hasn't
fallen. The community still exists in the people who
live there and in the memories they share about the