Monday, July 25, 2011

Roadtrip to Excelsior Springs, Missouri

Here’s another fun place for Central Missourians to visit—a perfect spot for a “staycation”—one that you might not be familiar with: Excelsior Springs. It’s northeast of Kansas City on Highway 10, and it’s a Missouri analogue to Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The Springs and the Hall of Waters

In order to understand Excelsior Springs, you must first understand that natural spring water, of various types, has historically been viewed as a healthful, even medicinal substance. There are plenty of biblical mentions of healing waters, and it was only with our post–World War II understanding of microbes and antibiotics that spring and mineral waters lost their broad appeal.

(Realize: many folks still stand behind the restorative and even miraculous properties of various types of waters. Spas, soaking, and steaming are still quite popular; people are more persnickety than ever about the purity of the water that comes out of their taps and innumerable plastic bottles; and look at the concept of “holy water.”)

For more information about Missouri’s springs and spas history, I heartily recommend Loring Bullard’s book Healing Waters, which provides an informative overview of the mineral water craze that gave rise to dozens of spas, resorts, and towns in our state. It also functions as a sort of guidebook to the specific areas where Missouri’s healing springs and spas were located. Most are in ruins today, but often evidence remains. Fun reading!

Anyway, among the many towns that arose when people flocked to an area to “take the water,” when a local spring had caused some kind of “miracle cure,” Excelsior Springs is the one in Missouri that remains mostly intact. The town’s beautiful Art Deco–style Hall of Waters was built in the 1930s with PWA funds (we would call it “economic stimulus money” today).

Actually, the architectural style might officially be termed “Mesoamerican-revival/Flash Gordon–influenced Art Deco.” It is truly an interesting place.

The Hall of Waters should be your first stop in town! At the heart of the building is a completely groovy, retro “water bar,” which during its glory years dispensed four types of mineral water: Calcium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sulfo-saline, and iron manganese. Some were for “drinking,” others were more for medicinal use.

Currently, the Hall of Waters serves as the City Hall; a large, rectangular swimming pool (directly below the water bar) is unfortunately unusable due to flood damage some years ago. Too bad, because I think it would be neat to go swimming there.

Also located in the building are baths, showers, steam chambers, and other facilities for people to soak in and get sprayed with the waters. A “Scotch Douche,” by the way (apart from being a tremendously alarming idea, even to someone who loves good whiskey), is actually a form of hydrotherapy where you get blasted by jets of alternately cold and hot water. It’s supposed to be very, um, stimulating.

Yes, medical doctors used to prescribe various water treatments for such diseases as arthritis and polio. (I need to go look at some elderly medical texts to see what the doctors were saying about it at the time!)

I understand that the town would love, love, love to have someone come and reopen a spa in this groovy building. Think of the tourism from Kansas City!

The area was first discovered and developed as a mineral-water mecca in the 1880s. There are many springs around here, and what made them so notable originally was that the chemical composition of the waters varied—in a single town, you could find waters with, say, diuretic, blood-building, or mild laxative properties for treating gastric troubles, liver problems, rheumatism, and so on.

The citizens of Excelsior Springs are doing a fund-raising project in order to construct old-style gazebos over many of the historic springs, sort of how Eureka Springs, Arkansas, has made many of its spring openings into little city parks. I’m sure it will be excellent for tourism.

Unfortunately for anyone considering “trying it,” a majority of the local waters are no longer available, although the Excelsior Springs Bottling Company does sell a basic (and local), high-quality mineral water, in plastic bottles.

It tastes pretty good! Eight ounces contains 2 percent of your RDA of calcium; a liter of it has 91 mg of calcium, 6 mg of potassium, 330 mg of bicarbonates, and 23 mg of magnesium—and no sodium.

Excelsior Springs Museum and Archives

Another place you must see in Excelsior Springs is their local museum, downtown in a historic building that used to be an exquisitely appointed bank. It’s worth visiting even just to see the architecture and the glorious old bank vault.

The collections include lots of water-belia, such as old bottles and even older jugs, photographs, and a miscellany of antiques from local donors.

There’s an entire old-fashioned dentist’s office in there, which looks rather scary, and it’s fascinating to inspect.

As museums go, this one is, well, local. It’s a labor of love, devotion, and dedication. It is not a slick, big-city museum. Well, they have very little budget to work with! The two-dollar admissions fees, memberships, donations, and fund-raisers provide their income.

Does it sound rinky-dink? I would hate to make you think that, because everything in there is fascinating and real, and the people who work there (volunteers) are friendly, knowledgeable locals who are eager to answer your questions. They’re open Tuesday through Saturday, 11–4.

Ray’s Diner

There are plenty of good places to eat in Excelsior Springs, but Ray’s is notable for both nostalgia and its proximity to the Hall of Waters and history museum.

Ray’s opened in 1932: They still use the same perfectly seasoned grill that was used back then. Same lunch-counter stools, same cash register. The nifty red sign hanging above the entrance isn’t quite as old; it only dates to 1944!

Harry S Truman liked the chili! And there’s hamburgers. Pork tenderloin. French fries. Breakfasts. You know what I’m talking about. We found the service to be both fast and kind. (No surprise there!)

What more do I need to say about this, really? Only that the prices are entirely reasonable!

Okay—there’s one more thing you’d better take note of: This is a true, old-style diner. They open at six in the morning and close at two in the afternoon; and they’re closed on Sundays. (Also: they don’t take credit cards.)

Ray's Lunch on Urbanspoon

The Elms

On a very different note, another fascinating place is the Elms Resort, not far from downtown. The present building was built in 1912, though the Elms hotel, as a business, was created in 1888 (two previous incarnations of it burned down). It’s a magnificent building on sixteen wooded acres with nature trails, and it has a lot of history.

During the height of its popularity, Excelsior Springs drew people from all over the country—not just for the water, but as a peaceful resort community. The Elms was the premiere hotel for well-to-do visitors.

Primary among the notable events that occurred at the Elms is that Harry S Truman was staying here the night he unexpectedly won the presidential election against Thomas E. Dewey.

The hotel was also a favorite relaxation spot for gangster Al Capone. And as if that weren’t enough, there is speculation that at least one ghost haunts the premises.

The Elms is still open today, and although we didn’t stay there, it looks quite welcoming. It offers spa treatments and vacation getaways as well as a place for events—weddings, conferences, etc.

The restaurant looks promising, too; I noticed they have a Friday night all-you-can-eat buffet featuring prime rib, seafood, and pasta, which might be right up your alley. If you’re a Missourian looking for an interesting, relaxing, and beautiful “staycation” spot, you should consider the Elms.

The Waterfest

The town’s annual Waterfest was what drew us to Excelsior Springs—that, and my desire to see the retro-futuristic Hall of Waters.

A lot of small towns have created—or have resurrected—annual, colorful festivals celebrating something unique about the town. Thus, nearby Richmond, Missouri, has a mushroom festival to celebrate the annual appearance of morels. California, Missouri, has an annual Ham and Turkey Festival, which celebrates two of that town’s main industries. Hartsburg, “Missouri’s Pumpkin Patch,” has its beyond-popular Pumpkin Festival. And Dixon has “Cow Days.”

So Excelsior Springs naturally has a Waterfest to celebrate its mineral water. This year, it was held the last weekend in June. There’s live music, arts and crafts, festival food, car shows, a parade, fireworks, and more. Some of the activities did involve water—a dunking booth and water games for children and a Little Mr. and Miss Waterfest contest, for instance.

There’s Lots Going on in That Area

I guess you’ll have to wait for almost a whole year for the next Excelsior Springs Waterfest, but I suggest you go ahead and visit the town before that. I noticed that the nearby town of Lexington will be having a 150th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Lexington on September 16–18, with a parade, living history events, film festival, and a reenactment of the Civil War battle that put the famous cannonball into the column of the county courthouse.

Also, more immediately, Lexington’s having its “4th Annual Missouri Peach Days” from July 30 to August 7. There are lots of orchards in that area, so this might be a fun (and tasty) event, indeed!

I already mentioned Richmond’s mushroom festival, and that town’s statue of Alexander W. Doniphan is worth seeing, too.

Anyway, we had a great time exploring Excelsior Springs and the nearby communities, and I really think you’ll enjoy it, too.

As usual, the best photos in this post were taken by Sue, and I am forever grateful for her willingness to help me with this silly blog!


Donna Wood said...

I just discovered your blog, and was glad to see Lexington mentioned here. I live 8 miles east in Wellington. My husband's roots are in Versailles, so sometimes we manage to take in "Jeff" on the way home. Nice to find a steady blogger from not so far away.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Well . . . I guess "steady" is a relative term! I find that as my work life increasingly involves staring at a computer, the less "fun" it seems to try to have "fun" with a computer! I hope you have been enjoying my backlog of posts while you wait (no doubt growing cobwebs!) for new posts!

Thank you for your kind comment.

Anonymous said...

I have the green bottle shown in the picture above. Trying to find information on it but haven't been able to. Can you tell me anything about this bottle?

Julianna Schroeder said...

Sorry, I'm not at all a collector of vintage bottles. You might try contacting the historical society in Excelsior Springs. Also, when I'm looking for possible "value," I often look for something identical or similar on eBay and see what IT sold for.

If you're looking for info on the history of Missouri's mineral springs and resorts, you should read Loring Bullard's "Healing Waters." Here's its Amazon URL:

Thanks for commenting!