Part I: The Rise of Austin Springs (First published in Hometown, by Nelda Rachels)

 

      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 Saratoga Springs in New York to

Ojo Caliente Springs in New Mexico and all points in

between, including Northwest Tennessee's Austin

Springs, located in the first district of Weakley

County.

 

      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 Austin Springs also attracted a heavy volume of tourists.

 

      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.

                                                  

     By 1889, Austin Springs had applied for a post

office. Because there was already an Austin Springs,

Tennessee, the post office took the name of "Unity."

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 Clyde, later continued to

operate. Font Gibson (pronounced "Fount") owned

another. During the 1930s, George Harris, uncle to

Howard Harris (who lives near Austin Springs and the

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 Austin Springs, Part II, by

Nelda Rachels

 

      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 to Austin

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

Dresden was a real treat, which usually only happened

when relative Charlie Stephenson took her and her

family in his Model T.  Since she lived at Fairview,

only about five miles from Austin Springs, it was

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

brothers, Clyde and Chap owned the other.   A 1931

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.

 

      Ela Frields reported in a February 3, 1931 article in

the Dresden Enterprise and Sharon Tribune that the

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,

and Stunson.

 

      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

the town." 

 

      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 sixties.  Austin Springs

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

past.