The most notable resort in central Alabama was Shelby Springs, located in Shelby County between Columbiana and Calera. The history of this resort reaches back to the times the Indians enjoyed the healing qualities of the mineral waters. The Shelby Springs Resort is known to have been in existence as early as 1839 when John S. Washington advertised in the Alabama Journal of Montgomery [Montgomery County Alabama]. Also in 1839 Mr. Washington, in addition to his duties as proprietor of the springs, was made postmaster of the Shelby Springs post office.
The completion in 1855 of the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad to Shelby Springs encouraged the partnership of Wimberly and Sparks & Co. to build a two-story hotel and a few cabins. The hotel building contained approximately 30 rooms, was “L-shaped” and a large porch encircled both floors. “A short walk of perhaps a hundred yards beneath the grateful shade of wide-spreading mulberry trees covered with fruit and bearing in their branches numberless gaudy-hued, twittering songsters, brought one to the hotel, which was on the edge of a large grove of gigantic oaks that rear their stately heads far skywards in the little valley wherein were located the springs. There were single story cottages, around the square, all connected with each other and with the spring in the center of the open plot of ground, by well-kept walks. A low, freshly whitewashed board fence surrounded the whole.” The new rail system brought ample numbers of people to enjoy the “healing waters” of Shelby Springs. The springs were six in number [three sulphur, one limestone, and two chalybeate] and were varied in quantity, quality, and analysis. In the hotel yard was an excellent freestone well.
In about 1856 Mr. Jasper J. Norris of Selma leased the property consisting of 2,700 acres of wooded land, including the springs, hotel and cottages. During the Civil War, the facilities were used as a training center for the young Confederate soldiers. In 1862 Shelby Springs was known as Camp Winn. Several students in the University of Alabama Cadet Corps were sent there to drill troops for the Army. In 1863, the Confederate Army as a hospital and a soldier's home used the hotel and cottages. Father Leray and the Sisters of Mercy staffed the hospital after fleeing Civil War destruction in Vicksburg, Mississippi. They brought with them by train many wounded and sick Confederate soldiers.
Unfortunately many of the soldiers found a permanent resting place in the existing cemetery located on a ridge overlooking the springs. On October 24, 2004 the Shelby County Historical Society, Inc. held a public dedication of the Historical Cemetery Roadside Memorial Marker placed there by the society.
Following the Civil War Mr. Norris again took over the proprietorship of the hotel. The Montgomery Advertiser, dated June 13, 1869, stated “The grounds are beautiful, the accommodations ample for five hundred people. In short, this [Shelby Springs] is a delightful summer resort….” The resort saw the reunion of the 10th Alabama Regiment of North Virginia on July 27, 1871, and the 100th Anniversary of the Republic by the Democratic and Conservative Party on July 4, 1876. It was estimated that over five thousand people were present at the springs that day. Another “Democratic Rally” was on July 30, 1880 at which time over three thousand people were present. [The June 1870, Beat 8, Columbiana, Shelby County, Alabama census indicate Jasper J. Norris, age 57 years, born in Georgia, and his wife, Mary A., age 39 years, born in Alabama, “value of real estate” $10,000, and their children, all born in Alabama, (1) Fannie, female, age 18 years, “school teacher”, (2) Johnnie, male, age 14 years, (3) Jasper, male, age 10 years, (4) Charles, male, age 7 years, and (5) Robert, male, age 5 years].
The Shelby Sentinel, dated August 17, 1882, mentions “Mr. J.J. Norris, of the Springs, and his wife have the esteem and regard of all, while their son J.J. Norris, Jr., or 'Mister Jasper' as he is generally termed is very obliging and deservedly popular. The place has the best of railroad and mail facilities and only needs a telegraph office. This and other improvements will be added next summer when a general enlarging and overhauling will be given the hotel, the grounds, springs and cottages.” Shortly after this, with the buildings and property much in need of improvements, Mr. Norris sold his holdings to Mr. Hope Hull Baker and his wife, Mary Murphy Baker. Mrs. Baker was the daughter of John L. Murphy and Martha Booker. [Murphy Grandon Baker, son of Hope Hull Baker and Mary Murphy, married in Shelby County Alabama on October 21, 1906 to Eva Vernon Seale, daughter of George Hampton Seale and Sallie C. Sanders.]
The Peoples Advocate, April 4, 1912, "Mrs. Martha B. Murphy. On Saturday evening, March 30, just at the close of day, the angel of death hovered for a few moments over the home of Mrs. Mary M. McMahon of Shelby Springs, then bore aloft the spirit of her sainted mother Mrs. Martha Booker Murphy. A noble life fitly closed not a pain, just a little flutter of the breath, then the eyes opened wide, and a look of recogination, and a glorious smile of joy radiated her face as no doubt one of the loved ones had gone before and welcomed her, then the eyes gently closed and her spirit winged its flight to her Home above. The closing of such a life leaves but little to grieve for, the vacant chair, the missing of the stilled tongue, the bright smile of welcome which always greeted us, but how little are these in comparison to the joys of her Heavenly Home for which she has longed for many years, she has fought the good fight and now is reaping her reward. Had she lived until July 26th she would have been 85 years old, she came of Virginia ancestry, was of that noble type of the gentle-woman of which the South was so proud. She is survived by a brother and sister, Judge E.W. Booker and Miss Sallie E. Booker, of Birmingham and one daughter, Mrs. McMahon at Shelby Springs and a large host of relatives and friends. Rev. H.M. Millstead of Columbiana conducted the funeral services. She was laid to rest in the cemetery at the Springs. There were many flowers placed upon her grave, it looked like a solid mass of blooms and we lift her. One Who Loved Her."
As noted by James F. Sulzby, Jr. in his book, Historic Alabama Hotels & Resorts, the hotel burned soon after Mr. and Mrs. Baker acquired the property. Later they leased the property to Col. J.M. Dedman, operator of the St. James Hotel in Selma. Col. Dedman built another hotel on the same site as the former one, using the remains of the old foundation for the new building. In addition he built bathhouses for sulphur baths, which made the health resort more complete. In May 1887 the “Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers of Selma” gave their first annual picnic at Shelby Springs. The Shelby Chronicle stated “After a pleasant run of four hours the Springs were reached, where a large crowd from the surrounding towns had already assembled to join in the festivities of the day. Col. J.M. Dedman, the genial and hospitable proprietor, had arranged everything in elegant style for the occasion.” In December 1887 The Shelby Sentinel stated that Shelby Springs was then the resort of the families of Selma gentlemen. At one corner was the main hotel, where the dining room and offices, public parlors and ball-room were located. The bed chambers, at that time, were located in single story cottages around the square, all connected with each other. The Shelby Sentinel dated June 13, 1889 indicates "The present season at Shelby Springs promises to be a very pleasant one. The genial proprietor, Mr. H.H. Baker, and his accomplished wife will spare no pains to secure the comfort and pleasure of guests. Besides daily meals, a telegraph station will be established that will give patrons easy and expeditious communication with distant points. The entire premises have been repaired and renovated, and in their new coat of paint and whitewash, Shelby Springs, with its natural pleasing scenic beauties, presents an attractive appearance."
By an act approved by the legislature on February 16, 1892, the proprietor of Shelby Springs was permitted to sell spirituous vinous or malt liquors to his guests or boarders from June 1 until the first of November each year. Beginning with the 1892 season Mr. and Mrs. Baker again took over the management of the hotel. He advertised that his culinary department would be unexcelled and that the services of experienced physicians had been secured for the sick. The rates were $2.00 per day, $10.00 per week, $20.00 to $35.00 per month. The reputation of Shelby Springs as a resort gained prominence again. These springs were the most popular resort for families and health seekers in Alabama. An elegant dining room that measured sixth-seven by thirty feet was provided for dining and dancing. A billiard room, bowling alley, lawn tennis and game room were added and several new cottages were constructed. A full-time string band was employed to entertain the guests. The buildings were lighted with gas manufactured locally, and the grounds were lighted with lamps placed at intervals. These were but a few of the services and conveniences provided.The obituary, The Peoples Advocate, December 29, 1893, “Died: At his residence at Shelby Springs on the 17th inst. H.H. Baker, of consumption, he had been in feeble health for some time.”
On March 12, 1895 in Shelby County Alabama Mrs. Mary M. Baker married Maynard Pond. During the later part of the year 1896 the hotel was again destroyed by fire. Following the destruction of the second hotel Mrs. Mary Pond leased the property to Mr. Ed Booker of Uniontown [Perry County Alabama]. Mr. Booker constructed another dining room and dance hall to accommodate the guests who lived in the cottages. For the next few years guests at the springs were dependent upon cottages for sleeping accommodations.
On October 30, 1900 in Shelby County Alabama Mrs. M.M. Pond married J.W. McMahon.
The Shelby Sentinel, September 1, 1904, "Just before we go to press we learn that Manager McMahon of the Shelby Springs summer resort, was shot and killed yesterday morning by George Porter, of Calera. The Sentinel was unable to learn the particulars of the shooting."
In about 1905 Mrs. Mary McMahon built another hotel on the same foundation. For the 1905 season Mr. J.A. MacKnight was the manager of the resort. On a Saturday morning in August 1905 members of the Birmingham Auto Club [there being approximately 15 automobiles in the city at the time] assembled and at 11:00 a.m. began their journey to Shelby Springs. All drivers of the cars wore goggles and dusters because of the terrific dust. They arrived at Shelby Springs that day at 8:30 p.m. and there the group spent a pleasant evening.
In 1906 Mrs. McMahon took over the management of the resort. On May 15, 1906 the [third] hotel was destroyed by fire. [The Peoples Advocate, May 17, 1906, “Fire destroyed the large hotel at Shelby Springs Tuesday night, together with everything in it. We could not learn how the fire originated, but are informed that insurance was carried on the building to the amount of $4,000. The pavilion was also burned.”]
The resort was later leased to W.J. Lloyd of Washington, D.C. Cottages were again used by guests and the dining room and kitchen, which were undamaged by the fire, were modernized. The first Baptist encampment in Alabama was held during the week of August 22, 1910 at Shelby Springs. Three hundred delegates from all parts of the state attended sessions in a large tent. The obituary, The Peoples Advocate, September 30, 1920, "Mrs. McMahon Dies in Birmingham, Mrs. Mary McMahon, aged 63, died at her home in West End, Birmingham, early last Saturday morning. Her remains were brought to Shelby Springs, her former home, last Sunday morning, where interment was made."
In 1912 J. Ray McMillan purchased the property. He rented cottages to guests and operated the dining room. In 1915 Shelby Springs was closed permanently as a summer resort. The McMillan family occupied the property as their home until 1926 when the property was sold and the Yamakita Club was established to include an eighteen-hole golf course, a concrete swimming pool, and landscaped grounds.
In 1938 Capt. John Reid Irby purchased the property and built the two-story white Georgian Colonial home that still stands near the springs. He enclosed the spring property but piped the mineral waters to the fence line so that the people in the vicinity could use the water. The original deed stipulated that the water could never be removed from public use. The springs are encircled by rock enclosures. The front of the house has four large Corinthian columns of the Roman order supporting a gabled portico. Above the front door is a pseudo wrought-iron balcony. Located in the living room, the oak mantel of more than 100 years old was originally carved for the William Howard Taft home. In 1944, following the death of Capt. Irby, the property was purchased by Howard Hall of Birmingham for use as a summer home and cattle farm. It was a showplace of interest. On the grounds there is one remaining cottage. Today the property is owned and beautifully maintained by Joe and Carolyn Dorris.
At the risk of boring nearly all of Selma and many of our out-of-town readers, who have been there and consequently know all about the place, the city editor of this paper will attempt a description of Shelby Springs, a resort that by reason of its nearness, attractiveness and healthfulness, has spring into considerable popularity with citizens of the Central City, as seen during a three day's stop there the latter part of last week. Situated sixty-six miles north of here on the Selma Division of the E.T.V. & G. Railroad, four miles beyond Calera, where the L. & N. crosses our trunk line, it is easily accessible from all parts of the State, which advantage is to be desired by all such places since a fondness for summer resorts near home seems implanted in the heads of families which are large and for the most part young.
Of summer resorts there are almost as many varieties as there are resorts; so to enumerate them is akin to impossible. However, to the quiet, homelike, family class, Shelby Springs properly belongs, and as such, for beauty of site, healthfulness of location, excellence of water, and all that lavish nature can accomplish to bring about loveliness, comfort, a freedom from malaria and the countless other ills that frequently beset springs, it is beyond comparison, on an unpretentious mild scale, the best of all I have ever seen.
The Selmian alighting at the little station, on looking around on the gathered assemblage of dainty women in white, hordes of children and sunburned men, for there is ever a crowd down to greet and bid farewell to every train, would imagined himself back in his native place, so familiar are all the faces. A short walk of perhaps a hundred yards beneath the grateful shade of wide-spreading mulberry trees covered with fruit and bearing in their branches numberless gaudy-hued, twittering songsters, brings one to the hotel, which is on the edge of a large grove of gigantic oaks that rear their stately heads far skywards in the little valley wherein are located the springs. The hotel is much better than I had expected to find. It is much better than it was. It can and will be made better than it is. The table is well supplied with all seasonable eatables and the meals are served in good style. A hearty appetite is the delightful possession of every visitor to this place, and prompt responses to the different meal bells, and a lengthy stay at the table are noticeable results, that have as prime causes copious and frequent draughts of health-giving waters, an abundance of exercise and sleep, and good, bracing air to breathe.
About the confines of the grove at regular intervals are placed cottages, glistening in newly taken coats of white wash and looking most attractive and bower-like, with the dense, dark green foliage as a background, and the greenest and most inviting carpets of grass everywhere about. A rather large brook of clear water, that rambles on by mossy banks o'er pebbly beds, takes its musical way through the center of the valley, and adds greatly to the beauty of the woodland scene. The springs are six in number and are varied in quantity, quality, and analysis, viz: three sulphur, one limestone, and two chalybeate. In the hotel yard is an excellent freestone well, the icy waters from which are not much used, since to quaff in health with every drink of mineral spring water seems the intention of visitors, and their ideas apparently lean towards the belief that the more water they consume the more health they will acquire.
Shelby as has been said before is essentially a family resort. It is a great place for children, and the sickliest of youngsters begin to improve almost as soon as arriving there. To the seeker after extreme gayety; to the miss in search of extensive and exciting flirtations; to the man in quest of a game of chance; to the bobby youth whose ambition soars no higher than a spike-tail coat and a ballroom conquest; to the fashionable mother with an eye on her daughter's matrimonial prospect, Shelby would indeed be dull; but to the person of either sex or any age whose summer vacation is wanted to build up his or her constitution; to entice robust health to reign where enervation and sickness have before held death-inviting sway; to the over-worked business man, or others who need complete rest; to the lover of delightful surroundings, improving society and amusements of a not exciting variety; to the admirer of the beauties of nature, and to one long round of lazy delight – Shelby Springs is the haven looked for. Early hours are kept by all the families, the children in particular vieing with each other and his majesty, Old Sol, in seeing which can be stirring first. The damp cool air of night has scarcely been dispelled by the blush of morning, the dew still lies in sparkling beads on the emerald carpet of earth, when the first bell, the dressing bell, rings in the hotel. That its inviting summons is obeyed is proven when a short time after the breakfast bell peals out, and the almost simultaneous opening of room and cottage doors proclaims the hundry procession's starting. The same promptness is evinced at dinner and at supper an equally pleasing state of affairs exists. No unusual attempt at dressing is made. In the morning the ladies without exception wear bewitching white costumes, beautiful in their make-up and simplicity. At dinner a trifle more “agony” is put one, and at supper thicker garments, for the evenings are remarkable cool, such as bright-colored plated waists with white dresses, are donned with a result absolutely charming. Since in a few lines above the early-to-rise circumstances have been described, the early-to-bed portion may be unnecessary to mention. However it may be proper to state that half-past nine or ten at the latest sees the place shrouded in darkness and given over to the chirping of crickets and the meanderings of sundry large watch dogs about the premises.
Of the amusements croquet take first place, and the splendid grounds are never without contestants. Young and old participate in the sport and take equal interest in the result of a game. Minds that are busied for eight or nine long months of the year in studying out the knotty questions of law, marking out political campaigns, and conducting large business transactions of great importance, become as much excited and worked up over the proper direction given a croquetted ball as in the most engrossing questions of their various callings. The boys play base ball at all hours of the day, the little girls with their dolls and pets while away the hours most contented, while their loving mothers visit each other continually and discuss new dresses, possible and probable marriages and other womanly topics ad lib.
The springs are resorted to whenever the proper degree of thirst is reached by any one, and as the short walk to the fountains of health is at all times shaded, it is made with pleasure no matter how high the sun is. In the cool of the evening the men proceed a short distance up the railroad track and bank away at swift flying bullbats. The woods abound with squirrels and Shelby county is noted for its deer drives. A half a mile from the hotel is Camp Branch, a stream well stocked with perch, and the gamest of all the finny tribe, the trout, is found there in plentiful numbers and large size. Delicious fruit grows abundantly in the vicinity and vegetables thrive to a remarkable extent. On the north side of the railroad track the land is sandy, and the forests are altogether of pine. On the south side where the Springs are located the soil is entirely different and the woods are mainly of oak. Good drives are there to tempt the fortunate owners of vehicles, and the walks are “simply exquisite,” to use the language of a somewhat gushing young lady. The mornings are cool, the noons are never unpleasantly warm, and the nights are often chilly enough for wraps. On a pleasant evening, after having liberally discussed a good supper, seated on the wide verandah across which flickeringly weird lights are thrown from torches placed here and there under the somber trees, surrounded by beautiful women and brilliant men, with the distant noise of the chattering of happy children taking a final romp at a farther end of the building, blending with the melodious twanging of a well mastered guitar accompanying some sweet voice in a simple tuneful and familiar ballad, one can easily secure that boon of boons, contentment, and drift far into the realms of blissful dreamland, there to disport until an ill-concealed yawn from some fair charmer announces bed time as nigh and the séance of delight over.
The visitors are all in the best of spirits; pleased with themselves and each other they are bound to have a good time and lots of it. Mr. J.J. Norris, of the Springs, and his wife, have the esteem and regard of all, while their son J.J. Norris Jr., or “Mister Jasper” as he is generally termed is very obliging and deservedly popular. The place has the best of railroad and mail facilities and only needs a telegraph office. This and other improvements will be added next summer when a general enlarging and overhauling will be given the hotel, the grounds, springs and cottages. Shelby Springs may never in the general “fashionable” place, but as a family resort I predict great things for it in the course of another season. It is healthy, its waters are as fine as ever flowed from nature's fount, the situation is of surpassing beauty and convenience – in short it has almost every conceivable advantage, unfettered by drawbacks or disadvantages of any sort. It was with regret that I bade adieu to the place and its crowds of most agreeable people.
It is perhaps fitting that I bring this lengthy article to a close with a list of those of our well-known people who are spending the summer at “Selma's Saratoga;” Judge Jno. Haralson and family, Capt. R.M. Nelson and family, Capt. Jos. F. Johnston and family, Mrs. Wash Smith, Misses Alice and Ida Smith, Captain John White and family, Miss Maud Nelson, Mr. Hugh Haralson and family, Capt. J.W. Hudson and family, Dr. and Mrs. A.S. Wooley, Miss Eula Wooley, Herbert Wooley, Dr. W.H. Johnston's family, Dr. W.C. Phillips's family, Capt. W.C. Ward and family, Mr. D. Partridge and family, Mr. and Mrs. L.J. Hooker, Miss Emmie Hooker, Mr. S.W. John and family, Mrs. F.W. Siddons, Miss Belle Siddons, Mr. B.H. Wilkins's family, Mrs. Geo. A. Wilkins, Mr. Eugene Stollenwerck and wife, Mr. H.L. McKee's family, Mrs. J.J. Williams, Mrs. Morey, Messrs. Mims Coleman, Houston Shelley, and Pierson Ditmars. All of the gentlemen whose families are there go up Saturday night and spend Sunday at the Springs, returning to their business Monday morning. The children there outnumber the adults about three to one.