History of Armstrong Springs Resort
By MILDRED KITTS STAERKEL
he history of Armstrong Springs, “the celebrated health resort” founded more than 150 years ago nine miles west of Searcy, is intertwined with the family of Armstrong's. According to a promotional booklet about the resort published in the early 1900s, the Indians had used the spring for nearly a century and had guarded its location before the Armstrong's arrived. In 1851, Jacob Douglas Armstrong and his family set out from Athens, Alabama, with several other families to seek land grants in the west. This was not the first move for Jacob. Years earlier, he left his native Tennessee for Alabama where he met his wife, Susan Eliza Americus Bullington. She had come to Alabama with her parents from Virginia. Jacob had established a blacksmith shop in Athens but the thought of new land called to them. At least six children had been born to this union before the move: William (1838-50), Martha (1839-40), John Carson in 1842, James Benjamin in 1844, Amanda in 1849 and Albert Kelly in 1850. This was a major move for the family, but they were not alone. It is not known how many families were in the group or who acted as their guide. There is no information as to their route along the way. As they traveled along the way, they reached an area northwest of Searcy. Jacob was not well. He was 36 years old but “broken down” and losing his eyesight. When they came across the spring they stopped to rest a while. The group as a whole split at this time. Some of the families decided to stay with the Armstrong's near the spring while spring water, and his general health improved as well. After regaining his spring and the the rest went on to Texas and Oklahoma. Jacob’s eyesight improved after bathing in the spring, Jacob and Susan decided to settle near the spring. The surrounding area seemed fit for farming, and Jacob could set up a blacksmith shop nearby. The other families staked out farms in the adjoining area.
Talk of the healing properties of the spring soon spread. The Armstrong's built their home and blacksmith shop a short distance away. The surrounding area was platted to allow neighbors nearby. C. Satterlee built a home across the road from the Armstrongs and a small general store near the spring. A Maddox family located about a block away, as well as several other homes in the vicinity. The Armstrong's advertised the spring, built a small hotel where visitors could stay while using the spring. It became a gathering place on Sunday afternoons.
Now, the Armstrong family was growing, first Angeline, then Straud Douglas (1853) and Carrol Boyd “Dink” (1855). However, Angeline died as an infant and is believed to be the first person to be buried in the church cemetery at Smyrna. The Smyrna church was a central meeting place for the group that had traveled together. The men had shared their spare time to construct the small building and clear the adjoining area to start a cemetery. The first church in the area had originally been used by the Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. They each had their services one Sunday a month, then a joint meeting on the extra Sundays. The Methodists weren’t happy with this arrangement and built their own church at the Smyrna location, which still stands. Jacob Douglas was one of the signers to the deed to the property donated by Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Petty. The congregation pitched in to build and maintain the building and property. Some of the ministers that served the church were R.G. Brittain, John Boswell, J.M. Talkington and Dr. John H. Dye. Many all-day Sunday meetings, singings, weddings and funerals were held in the building. It served as a meeting place for the youth down through the years, giving them a place to go when there was time for relaxation and fun such as pie suppers.
Two stories were told about incidents relating to the Armstrongs:
Amanda was attending a Sunday service when she felt something unusual in the sleeve of her “Sunday” dress. She put up with it as long as she could and found a nest of mice in her “leg of mutton” sleeve. It created quite a stir when she left her seat. It seems their clothes hung on a nail on the bedroom wall (there was no such thing as a closet) and the mice found a happy home in the dress.
The other story was about the son, James Benjamin, who served with General McRae’s Regiment, Co. B 36th Arkansas Infantry for three years. Unknown to his family, he was shot in the chest in action at Pleasure Hill, Louisiana, and the family didn’t know what happened to him – whether he was dead or alive. The war ended and they still didn’t know. One Sunday, the Armstrongs were in their usual pew near the front of the church listening to the sermon. Several small boys slipped outside to play when they saw a man riding a horse coming toward the church. They recognized him as J.B. One boy slipped back inside and whispered to someone, “J.B. is coming!” The word soon reached Susan and Jacob. It seems Susan didn’t bother to go to the end of the pew; she climbed over and ran out the door to meet her son. Needless to say, this broke up the sermon for that day. A slightly different version of this story is told by J.B.’s grandaughter, Leah Dewberry Moss of Paris, Texas. In hers, Jacob was on his knees in the church praying when J.B. arrived and, although Susan sprang to her feet and ran outside, Jacob continued his prayer then joined his wife and son.
The use of the spring continued to grow and became more than Jacob could handle. He died at 69 in January 1881, and Susan ran the resort until others took over. A large hotel was erected in 1895. It was a two-story frame building with a tin fireproof roof, a frontage of 80 feet and a wide veranda facing the springs. A sewer system for the hotel was also established, which afforded toilet and bath facilities. A long-distance telephone “connected to all points” and a local post office provided mail service. A hospice was built in 1908 and staffed by the Brotherhood of St. Paul, whose membership came chiefly from France. During this time, a physician “who has had 16 years of personal experience with Armstrong Springs” had his office in the hotel. Lots nearby had cottages on them for the summer visitors. The resort was open during its early years from May 1 to September 1. In its early years, Jacob Douglas built a pavilion over the spring to protect it from the weather. Some of the residents of the cottages were the Blacks, the Rottikens and the Wirges. They came from Little Rock each summer for many years. Other visitors came from Stuttgart, Helena and some as far away as St. Louis stayed at the hotel. There were hunting parties to entertain, croquet tournaments, dances at the hotel, card games, dominoes, ice cream socials, and often the men would gather at the blacksmith shop to visit and swap yarns. Jacob Armstrong was a notary public and justice of the peace. He made shoes for the horses and caskets for those that needed them.
The main attraction of the resort, though, was the mineral water from the spring. Promotional material stated it cured Bright’s Disease, diabetes, all kidney and bladder troubles, dropsy and many stomach troubles, liver diseases, especially those caused by malaria, nervousness and several kinds of paralysis, muscular rheumatism and diseases of the blood. “More than 50 percent of sick people need nothing more than a pleasant resting place, where the worn down faculties of mind and body may be restored by mild agencies to their natural state,” according to the resort’s promotional material. Most of the Armstrong Springs advertisement was devoted to 45 personal testimonials from 1881 to 1910, mostly from residents of central Arkansas, including the respected Civil War chaplain and Methodist minister John H. Dye. Typical is this statement from Daniel W. James of Cotton Plant: “Six years ago, while I was hauling rails on my plantation near Cotton Plant, a large, heavy rail fell across my back (near where I had received a gunshot wound during the war), injuring my spine, and from this I was confined to my bed for six months, after which time I was able to visit Hot Springs, where I remained for a period of eight months, receiving no benefit from the water, and left there more dead than alive, and I returned home to prepare for death which I felt was fast approaching. I lingered at home for four months and was told by a friend of Armstrong Springs and at once prepared to come here, where I arrived the second day of August, 1881. My body and arms were twisted all out of shape and I could scarcely walk. I remained here 27 days, and when I arrived home the 1st of September I was able to walk all over my farm of 300 acres without resting. I was wounded at the battle of Stone River, December 31,1862, by a grape shot passing through my right leg four inches below the hip joint, tearing the bones and nerves to pieces, and when the wound had healed all sense of feeling was entirely gone. But while here I was awakened by the itching of the leg, something that had not occurred for 19 years, and on scratching found the feeling restored and it has remained so up to this date – August 22, 1883.”
At first there was no school for the children, so private tutors were hired for those that could afford them. As the number of children grew, it became obvious that a regular school was needed. A school building was built about two miles away. When the weather was good, all the children had fun walking to school, but it could be a mess on rainy days. The building was only one room, so all grades were together. The older students helped teach the younger ones. Some students completed the work earlier than others, but most were “graduated” by the time they were age 14 or so. They had a split year to let the children help work on the farms, especially strawberry picking, cotton chopping, and cotton-picking times. One of their teachers was Henry Neal. There were activities at the school at times such as spelling bees and history competitions.
After Jacob’s death in 1881, Susan had supervised things for a while, then Straud was placed in charge until the spring was taken over by a Catholic Church group to manage. The nuns helped in the hospice, where a doctor was available. The hotel expanded and a Catholic church was built. With visitors from near and far, activities expanded also. The spring and hotel became a magnet for the local folks. By the time Jacob Douglas died, most of the children had married and moved away. John was in Texas, James in Searcy and Amanda and Kelly in south Arkansas. James Benjamin would be elected to the State Legislature in 1899. Straud was still in the home and Carrol “Dink” was in Crosby. Straud married Mary Belle “Molly” Wortham in October, after his father had died in January. Straud and Molly made their home with Susan. Straud had learned the blacksmith trade from his father and continued to keep the shop going. Susan remained the matriarch of the family, keeping in touch with all the family. This was home, and the door was always open. A little cottage was built down in the field back of the house for a black family that helped with the farming and, when needed, helped at the house. Their children became playmates for the children at the house.
Straud and Molly soon became parents. Young Jacob was the first son and the pet of Grandma Susan. There followed Quinton Straud, Sarah Elizabeth “Sadie,” Paul William, Mary Douglas, Narah Belle, Straud Douglas “S.D.” and Frank. There were four little girls that didn’t survive. There were cousins galore. They hardly knew which were brothers, sisters and cousins. Each child had his or her own chore to do. With farming, cows, chickens, goats, hogs, gardening and the blacksmith shop, there was something to do for everyone. There was lots of fun with so many around, always some mischief to be involved in, teasing and bantering, but lots of love.
As Grandma Susan’s health began to fail, she was never alone. When she was about 80, she got more excitement than she bargained for. It was around 1895, on a Sunday in April. Young didn’t go to church, but went fishing. He wore old clothes and was barefoot for the first time that spring. “Aunt” Margaret Montgomery (she was Ida Montgomery Armstrong’s sister) was keeping Grandma company while the rest of the family went to church. They were in the front bedroom, where the fireplace was located. There was a fire going, to take the chill off the room. Somehow, the fire got out of the fireplace. It was supposed that Grandma had prodded the fire with her wooden walking stick, had left it in the fire too long and caught fire. No one ever really knew. The two women were not hurt, but most everything in the house was lost. Everyone had just the clothes they had on. A few iron pots and pans survived. Mary Belle’s trunk full of quilts was gone. Only the fireplace was left standing. Susan died October 10, 1899.
The little house that the hired hand had used became their temporary home. Straud found some timberland near Joy Mountain that he bought, cut enough trees, had them dressed and made into lumber to build a new house around the standing fireplace. The whole community pitched in to help out any way they could. Molly had the additional job of making new clothes for the family. The children all went barefoot during the summer and waited until cotton picking time to earn money to buy shoes.
Straud needed extra money to build the new house, so he sold the rights to the spring to the Catholic Church group. They rebuilt the hotel and hospice. Sometimes visitors there needed a meal that was not available at the hotel, and the Armstrong home would provide. A hunter might need feed for his dogs and again, Molly would see to that for the sum of 15 cents. When she had surplus eggs and butter she would sell them to Mr. Satterlee or maybe swap them for a spool of thread. A record was kept of all income and expenses.
It was always a treat when the salesman came around with all his wares. They didn’t have money every time he came, but there was usually something they just had to have. He made a point of having a piece of stick candy for each of the children, which was really a treat. It was a sight to see and hear him coming down the road, so everyone was ready for him when he reached their house. He’d get a fresh drink of water and bring the family up to date on all the goings-on in the neighborhood. The children often said they didn’t know they were poor because everybody else was in the same fix they were.
It was a treat to go with their father, Straud, to the county seat, Searcy. He only went when he had special business, or to buy supplies. These supplies were in 100-pound amounts – enough to last several months. He went in the wagon to have room to bring everything back home. By the time they jogged and jolted all the way to town they were hungry. Sometimes they would eat lunch at a relative’s house, but once in a while they were allowed to spend 10 or 15 cents on something to eat at the store. Oh, what fun to see and smell all the sights in town and get to eat there, too!
When Frank was a baby, Straud became ill. After a while he became bedfast and required constant care from Molly. The older children had to take charge of running the farm and doing all the daily chores around the house. Young looked after the blacksmith shop; the others filled in where they could. Straud died when Frank was two years old.
The Catholic Church bought the spring and the land adjacent to it. They expanded their services, remodeled all the buildings and enlarged their business. The railroad ran near the community, stopping at Crosby, bringing patients and visitors from far and near. At Kensett, the Iron Mountain Railroad was crossed by the Missouri and North Arkansas, which extended from Helena to Joplin, Missouri. Changing cars at Kensett from the Iron Mountain and boarding the M&NA, visitors went 11 miles west to Crosby, which was the station for Armstrong Springs. Young or Quinton would meet the train in the horse-drawn buggy to bring them the two miles on over to the hotel. The younger children might tag along on an old mule so they could visit Uncle Dink and Aunt Ida and their children. It was great to see the train come in. Uncle Dink had a little store just across the road from the railroad tracks. Aunt Ida was a tease and everybody loved her. She was also the area midwife and a great source of information.
The hotel was becoming modern – it had a telephone, and one of the regular visitors had an automobile. This was around 1914."bodytext center"'text-align:justify;text-indent:.5in'>The housekeeper asked Molly Armstrong if Mary D. could work at the hotel. She would have to do a little of everything, help prepare food, serve the guests, do laundry when necessary, even milk the cow every once in a while. In other words, what she had been doing at home. She had a room of her own there, but could go home – one block away – when she wanted. There is no record of what she was paid. She did have to wear a special dress when she waited tables. She was proud of that. Once in a while business was so good that other girls were used. "bodytext center"'text-align:justify;text-indent:.5in'>The priest of the church resided at the hotel; the nuns had their own building. Mary was fascinated by the nuns’ habits and the priest’s robes and his privileges. He came and went as he pleased, often staying out of town a week at a time. He always got to ride in the automobile when there. "bodytext center"'text-align:justify;text-indent:.5in'>Mary often played cards with the housekeeper, Nora Kettler, her son Ed, and Father McDermott. She could even read at night as long as she wanted. During the week, things were pretty quiet, so she did lots of mopping and polishing. On the weekend, it was another story. Exciting. Lots of people, lots of food to prepare, lots of food to serve, then lots of dishes and pots and pans to clean and put away. Sometimes it was 1 o’clock before she was through. She became good friends with some of the girls who stayed at the hotel and corresponded with them when they went home.
Armstrong Springs flourished briefly as a health resort and a major recreation center. In 1908 Bishop John B. Morris purchased Armstrong Springs and invited a religious group from France, later named the Brothers of St. Paul, to be in charge of St. Paul’s Hospital, which he had built here, and also to assist in the different missions in the area. The Brothers remained until 1911. From 1911 until 1915 part of the hotel building served as a school staffed by the Olivetan January 20, 1921, marked a significant day in the history of the Franciscan Brothers and also of Armstrong Springs. It was on this day that the first brothers arrived from Cincinnati to begin the arduous task of converting the former health resort into a boarding school for boys. A labor force consisting of the Brothers spent several months converting the hotel into a suitable classroom building and the hospital into a residence for the Brothers. Bishop Morris reluctantly consented to have the school named in his honor and it was in September 1922 that Morris School opened its doors to 50 students. By the end of the 1920s, Morris School had several new buildings to provide the best possible facilities for its apostolate within the Little Rock diocese. By this time most of the Armstrong family had dispersed. Young was working in North Little Rock, Sadie married Noel Woodson and had children, Quinton was still at home with his bride Nettie Kitts, Paul worked wherever he could, Mary married A.A. Kitts and lived with his family
just a block away. Narah, S.D. and Frank were still at home. By 1921 most of them were living in North Little Rock, and the Armstrong farm and home was rented out. In 1951 Young retired from his job with Swift and Co. and he and his wife returned to the old home. They spent the next two or three years modernizing the house, getting water in the house, etc., built a new barn, made a small lake on the back field, then decided to sell it. vvv
(The author is a member of the White County Historical Society and a granddaughter of Jacob Douglas Armstrong. She lives in Kansas City.)