What Remains Of Waukesha's Springs Era

Feb 10, 2020

On Tuesday night, the Waukesha Common Council may decide whether to OK tearing down a key part of the last intact resort from Waukesha’s springs era. It’s a controversial proposal. But before we get into that, let's share the story of how Waukesha became known as a 'Spring City.'

READ: Former Hotel From Waukesha's Springs Era Survives Demolition Request

Bubbler Talk question asker noticed historical markers for springs all over the city, and wonders why the springs seem to have vanished.

Left: The Silurian Spring springhouse in downtown Waukesha. Right: Author John Schoenknecht looking at the water in Silurian Spring.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

We’re talking about naturally occurring springs where water seeps up through cracks in limestone on top of the shallow aquifer underneath much of Waukesha County.

About ten of the springs are still around, a few of them on public property. That’s according to author John Schoenknecht. He’s a retired Waukesha teacher and author of the book, The Great Waukesha Springs Era 1868-1918.

Schoenknecht says that era began when Col. Richard Dunbar, a diabetic, came to Waukesha. He drank many glasses of water from a spring he named Bethesda, and said the water helped heal him. Thousands of people eventually came on trains for vacation or to move to the city, and Schoenknecht estimates about 35 of the 60 past or present springs he's been able to locate had resorts or bottling plants nearby.

Schoenknecht took WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach on a rare tour of the springhouse at Silurian Spring in downtown Waukesha. A springhouse was a building often put up to protect the flowing water. He says about 140 years ago, Silurian Spring was the key feature of a big complex that also included a pond, an island gazebo, a hotel and other buildings.

What the Silurian Mineral Spring Company looked like over a 100 years ago.
Credit Courtesy of John Schoenknecht

"On the grounds there was a bottling plant, bottling works. A cooper shop. So, they made barrels and the boxes to ship the water in. Yeah. It's amazing to think that all that was just in that space, “ Schoenknecht shares.

A key reason the era ended was, he explains, due to a federal law passed in 1906.

"If you look on the labels on the bottles before then, they'll say it was a cure for dyspepsia, diabetes, and it claimed all these things the water could cure. And after the federal Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, you had to prove that," Schoenknecht says.

Many bottlers or spring owners, he says, had to rebrand themselves as providers of “refreshing table water." The author says the growth of the automobile — making people less reliant on railroads — and the start of World War I punched more holes in the Waukesha springs era.

After the federal Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 the labels had to change. The label on the left is from before the act and the label on the right is after the act passed.
Credit Waukesha County Museum Collection

Schoenknecht says one question now is whether Waukesha should do a better job of preserving and promoting the city's spring history.

Standing at the edge of Hobo Spring in Frame Park, near the Fox River, he points out that the Lannon stone around the water is in a bit of disrepair. “There's some kind of mystique or mysterious quality to these springs. Just the fact that the water's bubbling out of the ground. And there's a lot of people very sad that the city and other people just haven't valued what they have, or had,” Schoenknecht laments.

Other history enthusiasts are concerned about what may happen a few miles up the hill near the Waukesha County Courthouse. County officials want to tear down a 109 year-old vacant, county-owned building that began as a hotel for the Moor springs and mud baths.

The former Moor Mud Baths resort hotel. Waukesha County officials want to tear down the vacant building.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Mary Emery is working to preserve the springhouse. She's with Waukesha Preservation Alliance.

Emery says the complex, which includes the Moor Downs Golf Course and clubhouse as well as the springhouse, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and a key part of the springs era. "It is our last intact resort in the city of Waukesha. All the others are gone. There's just a few remnants here and there, but they are not intact resorts," she says.

Mary Emery, of the Waukesha Preservation Alliance, in front of the former Moor Bud Baths resort.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Emery says she enjoys the architecture of the former resort hotel, and the way it looks at the top of the hill. "I like the way it interacts with the site. When you're standing down and looking up across the golf course, to the building, the way everything fits together. You really get the feeling of what that resort was like back then,” she says.

Her group, Emery says, wouldn't mind if the county sold the building to a developer that wants to preserve most of the structure and turn it into housing for seniors or the developmentally disabled.

But Waukesha County Public Works Director Allison Bussler says a past offer from a private developer wasn't sufficient. She says the biggest obstacle to maintaining the building, which the county used for its health and human services department, is a leaky roof, which would cost taxpayers nearly $1 million to replace.

Waukesha County Department of Public Works Director Allison Bussler
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"The county is watching its tax dollars closely. We are required to by law. So the roof on that vacant building, that million dollars has to compete with everything else we do,“ she says.

Before any demolition, Brussler says Waukesha County has an agreement with the State Historic Preservation Office to photograph key parts of the building, maintain a historical display of the mud baths, and allow the local Historical Society to salvage items. Bussler says those and other steps would make the history more accessible to the public.

"Right now, that building is shuttered, and no one can go in and enjoy that building," Brussler says.

The city of Waukesha's landmarks commission opposes tearing down the building. The future of the complex might be more clear come Feb. 11, when the county will try to get the Waukesha Common Council to overrule the commission and allow demolition.

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