“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.
“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.