The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Shatley Springs - Food, Water at Historic Health Resort Still Draws Crowds

By NC Department of Travel and Tourism

Issue: March, 1991

CRUMPLER, NC - Martin Shatley's vivid description of the affliction he suffered for seven long years before stumbling upon a cure in the waters of a spring on his Ashe County, North Carolina farm sounds like a vision from a nightmare.

A "most terrible skin disease," perhaps the result of an attack of the measles, appeared on his stomach when Shatley was in his 20s; within six months' time it covered him "from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet." Boils and an excruciating itch he sometimes scratched "till my skin bled most all over" kept him from sleep; on occasion his face swelled so acutely "I had to hold my eyelids up with my hands to see to walk," Shatley recalled in a written testimonial in 1925, 45 years after the malady appeared.

Trips to doctors, much-vaunted cures at Arkansas hot springs, patent medicines, herbal remedies, and use of waters from the bromide and arsenic springs not far from his farm in Ashe County - Shatley tried them all, to no avail. The skin condition persisted, often accompanied, especially during the last few years, by indigestion, coughing, night sweats, and bleeding of the lungs. In despair, Shatley considered suicide, and had even picked a spot on the South Fork of the New River on which to end his suffering.

But a happier escape from his travails awaited him. Walking on his farm one day, Shatley chanced upon a spring whose waters he splashed upon his tortured flesh "to cool the fever down in my face as I had often done where there was cold water." Though he expected only momentary relief, "in less than one hour I realized my face was better, and so much better that I became excited about it." He returned to the spring that evening, and on subsequent days, to bathe in the water. Within three days "every bit of fever was gone out of my skin. I was so glad I felt like shouting."

Since that day nearly a century ago, thousands have made the pilgrimage to the Ashe County, N. C., mountains to drink and bathe in the waters in search of cures to a variety of ills - eczema, poison ivy, stomach ailments, kidney problems and even cancer - from the spring that bears its discoverer's name.

Though investors who bought the spring from Shatley in the 1920s sought his (and other) testimony concerning the spring's healing powers to drum up business for the little health resort they were developing, current owner Lee McMillan, who bought Shatley Springs in 1958, is uneasy about the claims (though he says he has seen the spring water clear up poison ivy). A decade ago, when a story about the spring ran in a supermarket tabloid, the resort was besieged with telephone calls and more than 600 letters, most of them "begging us to send some of the water. The people were desperate for cures for all kinds of things. It was really sad," said Ella Mae Ham, a longtime resort employee who tried to answer as many letters as she could.

Until he sold the spring, Shatley kept an old tin bathtub and a woodstove near the spring for his baths, and later erected a small bathhouse on the property before he sold it, according to Blan Blevins, and elderly man who has lived on the farm adjacent to the springs all his life. A 1930 photograph hanging in the resort office (the original bathhouse), shows what Blevins calls "the tearoom," the bathhouse, and the stark line of cabins extending in a row beyond the spring.

In its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, water from the spring was bottled in clear five-gallon glass jugs (McMillan still has a few of them around) and shipped to buyers. A truck load carrying 600 gallons of the water brought $840 in 1927, and a New York City firm reputedly offered the owners a cool million dollars for the springs and surrounding acreage during that period.

Early visitors tented out on the grounds, or boarded with nearby families while they sought cures from the spring's waters before the cabins were built, Blevins recalls. The original cabins are still in use by guests today; some are supplied with water from the spring to allow guests that want to bathe in the waters to do so.

Though McMillan does nothing to encourage them, longtime believers in the spring's curative power still show up every year, in Cadillac's and pickup trucks, from as far away as Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Idaho, New York and Florida, to stay in the cabins a few days, and to haul off as much of the spring's water in their car trucks and pickup beds. The water is pure and tasty if nothing else, and in a day when municipal water supplies are heavily treated, and when groundwater in rural areas is increasingly threatened by various pollutants, the water's popularity "is growing rather than declining," McMillan said.

Not a day goes by without at least one car or truck arriving at the spring with a load of plastic jugs to fill from the spring, which flows ceaselessly from deep in Little Phoenix Mountain, and is carried through a pipe to an outlet at the bottom of a set of worn concrete steps. Many visitors plan their arrivals to coincide with a meal at the resort's famous restaurant, which serves an average of 1,000 meals a day on weekends throughout its May through October season.

Even when the resort is closed, McMillan keeps access to the spring open "so that people from the community can come here to get water if their pipes break in the winter" and so those who rely on the spring for drinking water can replenish their supplies.

Until the health department intervened and required that the spring be enclosed and covered, the rocks from which the spring waters emerge from Little Phoenix were visible, encircled by a marble slab covered with a piece of plate glass. Decorative iron railing on which roses grew surrounded the pretty spot, resort employee Norette Brinegar remembers.

Though the resort never closed, it was in decline when McMillan purchased it, staying open from June 1 through July 15, and consisting of a one-room restaurant, a small kitchen area, a lobby, the bathhouse and the cabins. "When I took it over, if we had 50 for Sunday dinner it was a big crowd," he said.

Not any longer. Over the years several additional dining areas have been added, the kitchen has been expanded, and the Shatley Springs Inn, as it is now billed, has built a reputation for excellent country cooking that keeps the dining room busy from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. "We have people who drive up from Charlotte or Greensboro - all over, really - just for breakfast," McMillan said.

Despite the fact the restaurant doesn't advertise, and is located off N.C. 16 about seven miles from the Ashe County seat of Jefferson, the parking lot is full at lunch and dinner even in mid-week. Reservations are a must on weekends; those without them risk a several hour long wait to be seated. Diners waiting to be seated can, however, take it easy in a rocking chair on the porch, listen to the musicians who play on the grounds, browse through the little shops that occupy several of the cabins above the restaurant, look at McMillan's collection of antiques (including a player piano, and an old Wurlitzer jukebox with its stack of thick 78s in the wavy-floored old lobby), gaze into the fierce eyes of Martin Shatley himself, whose photograph hangs above the door in the office - and fill at least a few jugs with the famous water. Regular users swear it's so pure it will stay fresh for years in a clean jug. Jugs are available for sale at the resort for those who forget to bring their own, and you can't beat the price of the water: it's free.