As an eleven-year-old boy living in Albuquerque, New Mexico the Memorial Day weekend ushered in the beginning of two somewhat related and important events, the start of the summer-long respite from teachers, math class and school and the beginning of baseball season.
I looked forward to that first pitch, the sound and feeling of the ball as it fell into my genuine leather Rawlings glove and the sight of the baseball as it soared into the air and over the right fielder’s head. I was particularly anxious for the 1961 school year to die as that was the summer when I was going to spend three hot Missouri Ozark months in Noel, Missouri with my grandmother, Phoebe, my great-aunt, Rosalyn and my grandfather, City Marshal Floyd Fine. The anticipation was almost more than I, or for that matter any young boy, could bear.
A Greyhound bus followed Route 66 as I was transported across New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and finally onto and across the Main Street Bridge that spanned the Elk River and signaled the end of my journey. The bus door opened and carrying one Samsonite suitcase, a genuine Lou Burdette model Rawlings leather baseball glove and a wooden Ken Boyer Adirondack bat I stepped from the bus and onto the Noel street. There Phoebe and Rosalyn stood alongside a green Chevrolet station wagon all the while waving as if to say welcome or perhaps just to garner my attention.
The drive to the North Kings Highway house took no more than a matter of minutes and the conversation focused mainly on the Greyhound bus and my impressions of the trip to Noel. As I exited the dull green station wagon, Phoebe seemed to only then take notice of the bat and glove. “I have some bad news,” she stated. “Noel isn’t going to have a ball team this summer, but maybe you can play on the Sulphur Springs team. I’ll check on that tomorrow.” I didn’t utter a single word as no relevant words came to mind; the sound of the baseball striking the leather suddenly seemed to be so faint.
As the evening hours passed that day I guess that Rosalyn, known by many as a fanatical history buff, saw the disappointment on my face and decided, at least in her own way, to cheer me up. As I sat quietly, yet uncomfortably, in an old chair with a carved lion’s head on the backrest placed against a wall in the home’s small living room the noises created by running water and dishes rattling against one another resonated from the kitchen. Phoebe was busy cleaning up the remains of our hamburger patty, mashed potatoes and steamed carrots dinner.
I didn’t immediately see her enter the room but I heard a soft rustling noise as Rosalyn eased herself into a chair across the room. In her lap she held, and almost caressed, a large cardboard box. I suppose the elderly yet spry woman must surely have discerned the somewhat forlorn although curious look on my face as my eyes became fixated on that cardboard box. On the box, written in crudely scribbled letters, was the name, Sulphur Springs, Arkansas.
“What do you know about Sulphur Springs,” Rosalyn asked. As I came to know Rosalyn better I realized that she was a very blunt and to the point person. I responded, “Nothing, I guess.” Rosalyn reached into that old box and pulled out some papers and what appeared to be photographs. “Well let me enlighten you.” She said. I recall wondering what this conversation and the contents of the box had to do with baseball.
I watched with mild curiosity as the curator of historical documents removed old newspaper clippings and yellowed bits of paper from the cardboard container. “What’s that?” I asked as a photograph of a large building came into view. “Well now that’s a photograph of an old Hotel,” Rosalyn replied. “Let me tell you about Sulphur Springs in its heyday and the Kihlberg Hotel.”
In 1870 the area that is now Sulphur Springs was farmland owned by a family by the name of Whinnery. The natural springs, particularly the presence of a Lithia spring, and their waters began to attract the attention of those seeking natural healing remedies.
In 1884 Charles H. Hibler came to the area and immediately recognized the natural beauty of the valley as well as the potential for financial profit if the area was developed as a location where those seeking benefits from the natural spring waters could come. Mr. Hibler bought the property that is now Sulphur Springs, built the Park Hotel and encouraged investors to contribute to his plan.
Hibler and his group of investors spread the word that the spring waters had almost magical healing properties. White Sulphur water would bring relief to those with liver ailments while black Sulphur water was a remedy for malaria. Lithium was recommended for nervous system problems and the alkaline magnesium laced water provided some relief from intestinal maladies.
The small town realized modest growth and became a minor attraction to those seeking the potential healing benefits of the spring waters however a change was in the wind. That change was carried on steel wheels that rolled on tracks which came to an end in Sulphur Springs. In the year 1889 what came to be known as the Kansas City Railroad ran tracks from Goodman, Missouri to Sulphur Springs. The trains from the north began carrying tourists and those with ailments to the now booming town.
The Sulphur Springs Speaker Newspaper, later renamed The Sulphur Springs Record, reported the local news and published ads which touted the health benefits of the waters which flowed from the local springs. Dr. A.H. Rowley could help those with back ailments and the Spring Street located Rexall Drug Store sold medications. If visitors wanted entertainment they could go to the Electric Movie Theatre or shoot pool at Ed McCormick’s Park Front Pocket Billiard Parlor.
Lodging establishments sprang up throughout the town and all claimed to offer the finest accommodations. For a good night’s sleep, visitors might choose to stay at The Park View Hotel, The Windsor Hotel, The Ozark Hotel or others including the five-story limestone constructed Kihlberg Hotel.
The Sulphur Springs Sanitarium Hotel and Bath Company built the once majestic Kihlberg Hotel, which opened in May of 1909. It was a grand and stately building that, in its day, offered some of the finest accommodations one could expect to find in Northwest Arkansas. The regal structure was emblematic of Sulphur Springs’ growth, prosperity and popularity.
In 1924 evangelist, publisher and educator John Brown bought the hotel and opened a four-year vocational college, John Brown University. In 1926 the school was renamed John Brown College and Academy for Female Students and in 1930 the Julia A. Brown School for Children, named for the founder’s mother, opened.
The year 1937 saw the limestone building become home to a school designed for teacher candidates. The new venture was named after John Brown Jr. and called Camp Buddy. The next four years passed quietly at the campus as ambitious students walked through the doors and exited through those same doors and into the world outside as teachers.
On the second day of January in the year 1940 tragedy struck and fire consumed much of the old Kihlberg Hotel building. A decision was made to rebuild only the first two floors of the structure and in 1951 the remnants of the once stately five-story building became the possession of the Wycliffe Bible Translators.
“Well, what do you think,” Rosalyn asked. My somewhat disinterested response was, “interesting,” after all, her words contained little mention of baseball. “I have a question,” she said. “When a player arrives at the oddly shaped object in the dirt, home plate I believe it’s called, does the tapping of the baseball bat on that normally white colored object indicate that the prospective hitter is attempting to determine the appropriate distance with which to stand from the plate?” I thought for a moment and attempted to decipher her question prior to answering; “Yes,” almost in the form of a question I answered.
If you ask anyone now living in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas about their town they will tell you about the beautiful park where on a summer’s afternoon one can listen to the sound made as the cool waters from the lake flow over the dam. They will talk about the tree filled hills that overlook the town as it serenely rests in the valley below. However, of the five hundred or so residents, primarily those of many years, there are those who will talk about the springs, the day Southern Baptist Minister Billy Graham came to town, and a time when on hot Summer afternoons children played baseball in the shadow of the Kihlberg Hotel.
The then two story limestone building that had once been a glorious hotel was sold to the Shiloh Community in 1968 and for a time it housed a bakery. The deed to the structure is currently in the possession of a Northwest Arkansas business entrepreneur and its future remains uncertain.
Rosalyn, the would-be historian, passed away on the 6th day of July in the year 1994. It was her wish that I receive $1500.00, some old and collectible glassware and a crudely repurposed repository for papers and photographs; a large cardboard box with the words Sulphur Springs, Arkansas written on its side.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that I did play baseball in Sulphur Springs during the summer of 1961, and what a summer of baseball it was.