Spooks and Spring Water

Owens Wells Hotel, Holmes County Mississippi, photo courtesy of MDAH

“One Fourth of July [our family] took us to Owens Wells, which was somewhere near Durant and sort of a resort where they had gone in years past. There was dinner on the ground with all kinds of good food, and they really enjoyed seeing their old friends and many cousins. We rode the train back to Tchula, and Daddy picked us up there that afternoon. He was all excited and anxious to get back to Greenwood because a Negro, Sylvester Mackey, had shot Deputy Sheriff Frank Smith twice, and a posse had formed to try to catch him.

Congressman Frank Smith, third from right, from Sara's photograph collection

“Smith’s son Frank years later wrote in his book, Congressman from Mississippi, that his father called the Sheriff to his hospital bed and asked him not to let the mob lynch his assailant. They cornered the Negro in a cabin and apprehended and followed Smith’s wishes. Mackey was later tried and hanged. Anyway, I don’t think Daddy joined the posse, and I can’t believe he would have. I remember once seeing the place in the Court House which was used for hangings. Later criminals were put in the electric chair, and the hangings ceased.”

Sara seemed to remember every detail of lurid stories from her childhood, a harbinger of her later career as a newspaper reporter. She followed the Kennedy-Dean murder story (more on that to come) with preteen fascination and could still relate all the twists and turns decades later. It seemed like every house we passed on Grand Boulevard or West Washington held a story and her voice would drop down to a whisper as she shared the scoop, as if those ghosts were listening in on her conversations. No one was ever better suited for being paid to be nosy.

Ed. note: Mississippi was dotted with resorts and spas in the mid-to-late 1800s, usually at a site where “healing waters” had been discovered. Many of these inns were along the Gulf Coast, but there were quite a few further north, including Cooper’s Well (Raymond), Artesian Springs (Canton), Allison’s Wells (Canton), Lafayette Springs (east of Oxford), Stafford Springs (Laurel) and the two pictured here, Owen’s Wells and Castalian Springs. Most were out of business by 1930, and they were eventually torn down or burned down. Owen’s Wells was described in the 1938 WPA Guide to Mississippi as “a large rambling hotel…built near the wells and many people patronized it, especially the Delta people.” It must have been closed soon after that, and a trek down Owen’s Wells Road, between Lexington and Goodman, yields no clues as to the site of the huge hotel. I’m not sure if it burned or was demolished. Castalian Springs Hotel, southwest of Durant, photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter

Castalian Springs, one of the few remaining spa hotels, was remarkably similar to Owen’s Wells, which suggests common ownership or builders. The site’s history dates back to the discovery of deep wells with “healing” water in 1835. A girls’ boarding school opened there in 1854 and the original hotel served as a Confederate hospital after the Battle of Corinth in 1862. A Kentucky soldier left us diary entries of his time there: “April 23, 1862. The [Castalian] Springs are three miles from town [Durant] and the soldiers were brought out in carriages….I am in a room on the second floor, occupied by ‘Morgan’s men,’ the boys I came with, belonging to that ‘layout.’..The building is a two-story frame with ‘wings,’ ‘ells,’ etc. an is accomodating nearly three hundred sick and wounded….nearly all Kentuckians. The grounds are tastefully arranged about the springs, and the scenery in the vicinity is romantic. There was lately a female school kept in this place…..This evening had some pleasant conversation with ladies.”

Forty-three of the soldiers are buried not far from the existing hotel, which replaced the one described above, lost to fire in 1903. After the heyday of spas and springs passed, Castalian sat empty until it was purchased by the Jackson YMCA in the 1950s. For twenty years or more, it was a girls’ summer camp, alive with crafts and tents and archery and swimming and cabins up in the hills. My sister, Cathy, went there for a couple of summers, and I thought that was the most adventurous possible life. She came back with tales of snakes and a general’s ghost in the hotel, and my summer camp dreams evaporated. I could handle one or the other, snakes or spooks, but definitely not both. I never went. But I did venture out there on one of my college-era wanderings in the 1970s and found the old hotel in remarkably good shape. It was occupied by a group of Northern missionaries who would train their people by sending them up to the YMCA cabins with no provisions. They were going all over the world to primitive sites, and survival in the wilds of Holmes County was considered challenging enough to prepare them for almost anything in Borneo or New Guinea. Blazing heat, starvation, massive mosquitoes, snakes as big as tree trunks: Jessie’s old stomping grounds had them all and more.  The only threat that couldn’t be easily replicated was cannibals, which have not yet been sighted in Holmes County. When Mary Rose Carter and I went out a few years ago to take these pictures, the missionary group was closing up shop, moving on and leaving Castalian for sale once again. I must find out who owns it now and see about a tour. If you’re so inclined, take the Castalian Road out of downtown Durant, cross the interstate and just a hundred yards or so from that busy highway, there it sits. Isn’t that amazing?

[From the Shameless Commerce Division: The details above are taken from my books, Lost Landmarks of Mississippi  and Must See Mississippi].

Frank Smith grew up to be the Delta’s representative in Congress and served with great distinction. His progressive views on race relations enraged the political nabobs in Mississippi, who gerrymandered him right out of his seat in the early 1960s. His son, Fred, owns and operates Choctaw Books in Jackson, Mississippi’s most eclectic rare bookstore. Congressman Smith would hold court there, sitting in a rocking chair just to the right of the front desk, recounting his days in Washington and dispensing wisdom gleaned from a long, distinguished career. I wish I had asked him for Greenwood memories, but I was too much in awe to approach him. Another lost opportunity.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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16 Responses to Spooks and Spring Water

  1. Janie Miller says:

    My great grandparents lived there in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, Leon W. Kamien and Rachel Reichenberg Kamien. They married in New Orleans in 1879. My great-grandmother Rachel came over to New Orleans straight from Germany and my great-grandmother came from Poland. When they left New Orleans, the first place they settled was Durant and then after that settled in Boyle, MS and Cleveland, MS and it was in Cleveland where they started their department store, Kamiens in 1904 and is still in operation today in 2012. I wonder if any of your grandmother’s memorabelia included anything on my Kamien relatives. They were probably some of the few Jewish residents there. Would love to hear from you concerning anything that your grandmother may have had in photos or newspapers, etc. that might have something about them.
    Thanks.

    • sec040121 says:

      Janie,
      Thanks so much for your comment. That is fascinating and helpful background for Durant and Castalian Springs. I have not seen anything on Kamien’s in my mother’s things, but will let you know if anything turns up. You might be interested to know that the old hotel and surrounding acreage at Castalian is once again for sale. It’s in amazingly good shape for its age.

  2. zorradog says:

    I found this interesting post by googling “Camp Castalian Springs”. I grew up in Greenville, and spent two happy summers at the camp in the late 1960s. As a child I didn’t realize it wasn’t really very far from home, or in a particularly isolated area. I’d love to see the old place again, but I’m sure most of what I remember is no longer there.

    • sec040121 says:

      Thanks for your memories about Castalian. It’s still a lovely place, barely off I-55 (in fact, you can see it from the interstate, just below the Durant exit). The hotel is in fairly good shape but I have no idea whether the cabins are still up in the hills. If you go to Durant, follow Castalian Road out of town about 3 or 4 miles.

    • Jane Milker says:

      There is a Facebook page for Camp Castalian Spring with members that went to camp there. I went in 1963. There are photos of previous campers. They are planning a reunion soon. check it out

      • sec040121 says:

        Jane, thank you for sharing that. I hope Castalian “alumni” will go soon and possibly rally to help save the hotel. To date, it has been maintained fairly well, but the last time I went by, it was for sale and partially boarded up. Someone with imagination and very deep pockets could turn the place into a luxury hotel/restaurant/spa.

  3. Scotty Pritchard says:

    The old hotel is boarded up and for sale. They are asking to much for it. It has a beautiful lake on the property also. I live nearby.

  4. Sara McNair says:

    Thank you for sharing this information. I am researching Owens Wells because my grandmother’s brother Noah Smith died there while seaking treatment for what I expect was TB. His death was about 1907 or shortly after. Do you know if there is a local cemetery? I’m not sure where he was buried.

    • sec040121 says:

      Sara,
      I’ve looked through a 1955 Holmes County Cemetery book, which does not list Noah Smith anywhere in the county. Of course, I don’t know how comprehensive this book might be. There is one cemetery listed as “Owen Cemetery, Owens Well, Carl Roger’s Place” but the only graves listed are two members of the Owens family. Wish I could be more helpful.

  5. Rodney Hudgins says:

    the 190 ac Camp Castalian Springs was recently bought by Mr. David Lee Miller from around Johns MS. or Pucket. He purchased it about Sept 25. 2013. He and his family are steady painting and making repairs one day at a time. Mr. Miller said this place was put into his hands to do the Lords Work. They have already and planning on having kids at the place for retreats. I own property next door and it is a pleasure to hear Mr. Miller talk about the place and the kids. I hope to encourage Lee to use the kids and my tractor and grandboys to help with the clean up of the cemetary down the road where the 47 confederant soliders are buried. The place is in great need of clear up before it is lost forever. It is a great feeling to go there 4 th july and see all the little flags on all the graves. Cross the Interstate and Camp on your right, go on down road and take first left on county road 36, keep going about 1/4 mile and take left on dirt road and go about 200 yards.

    • sec040121 says:

      Rodney, that is the best news I’ve heard in a long time. It has been so sad to see Castalian all boarded up and lonely. More power to Mr. Miller, and to you, for caring about this corner of Holmes County. My husband and I went out to the Confederate cemetery a couple of years ago and it is just a very special place. My ancestors are buried just a stone’s throw from Castalian at Saron Cemetery, which seems to be fairly well maintained. I will try to get back to Castalian and meet David Miller one day very soon. Thanks for the update.

      • Rodney Hudgins says:

        I made that comment in 2014 and have just read your relpy now, 07/19/15 Still have not gotten the Cemetery cleaned up. I will make that my goal. The Millers are doing great thing at the Castalian Springs Retreatl. Owned by Lee and his brother Coy Miller. They still have great plans for the place and letting the Lord guide them one day at a time. They would love for anyone to come by and talk. They are trying very hard to get the town of Durant involved as much as possible. IT is always a pleasure to talk to Lee or Coy, you get a good feeling around them and also around the Haunted Property. I hope to see the Ghost of the Confederant General. The Millers would greatly be thankful of any donations of any type. They have had equipment and labor donated in the pass for clean up, etc. God Bless

  6. Donna Self says:

    I was born and grew up in Durant and lived there for sixty-six years. i was very familiar with Camp Castalian, and had many opportunities to go there over the years. Talon, a local industry, had their summer picnics there which I attended with my Mother. My husband I were members of First Baptist Church Durant and the 100th Anniversary of our church was held there.
    When New Tribe’s Institute purchased the property and started the boot camp for training and preparing young students for the mission field, many of the students attended our church. Many of them were in my Sunday School Class, and we had the opportunity to visit the camp often. We even had Sunday School at jungle camp and ate cinnamon rolls baked in a dirt oven.
    New Tribes repaired he existing buildings, constructed many others, cleared the surrounding area and kept the grounds immaculate.
    When they closed the camp, it was sold to a group from Jackson that allowed it fall into disrepair.
    Our Grandchildren were fascinated with the Camp and the story about the ghost. We took them there several times, walked the grounds, and looked in the windows, but never saw the ghost.
    We are so grateful someone has purchased the property and is restoring it. It is an important part of history that needs to be preserved.
    My name is Donna Self, and my husband and I now live in Madison,MS.

  7. April says:

    The old camp is open again, hosting retreat mission weekends. It’s still a beautiful place to be! If you have Facebook search Castalian Springs Retreat.

    • sec040121 says:

      Thanks for the update! I try to glimpse the hotel through the trees every time I go down the interstate. So glad someone is taking care of it again.

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