Tourists enjoy Dixon Springs for nearly 150 years

American Weekend

DIXON SPRINGS -- With nearly a century and a half of history as a resort Dixon Springs State Park still offers visitors a unique experience.

This year represents the 50th year of state ownership for the park, but its history as a resort stretches back to before the Civil War. Although the historical motels and dance halls have disappeared the park still offers camping, hiking and swimming.

Dixon Springs is one of several state parks in the Illinois Ozarks. The park is on a giant block of rock which dropped 200 feet along a fault line that extends northwesterly across Pope County.

The 787-acre park is about 10 miles west of Golconda on Route 146 near its junction with Route 145. It is located about 11 miles east of the Interstate 24 exit at Vienna.

The park includes 39 Class B trailer campsites with electrical hookups. Although there's no showerhouse in the campground area. Campers can use showers at the pool for only $1. Considering mineral baths at the same site were only 25 cents a century ago, the costs haven't kept up with inflation.

Site superintendent Ed Cannon said 10 new primitive campsites for tent camping were created in a pine grove earlier this year.

Unlike most other state parks, Dixon Springs has three cabins with six rooms total that can handle up to 48 campers. These cabins and a separate showerhouse and dining hall are used mainly by youth groups and church camps. The first 4-H national camp was held at Dixon Springs using some of these same facilities in 1948.

Visitors to the park also flock to the modern swimming pool complete with bathhouse and a 45-foot water slide. Lifeguards are always on duty when the pool is open. Towering oaks, elms and birch trees shade the pool.

The state park is just the latest phase of Dixon Springs as a tourist destination as the springs have attracted man and beast since the fuzzy days of prehistoric humanity.

The prehistoric history of the park is hard to gauge. Tradition says the local Indians called the park "Kitchemuskee-nee-be" which means Great Medicine Waters.

Although it's possible that the local tradition was just a 19th Century marketing ploy, it probably is real. Jerry Jones lives just east of the park. His mother grew up in the park when her grandfather James A. Whitesides operated the hotel around the turn of the century.

"My mother remembered when she was a little girl there was one family of Indians that still lived in the park," said Jones.

Jones' mother was born in 1897. Although it seems unlikely that an Indian family might remain in the area, a group of Tamaroa Indians were still living in their traditional lifestyle in Calhoun County north of St. Louis during this same time period.

The legend of the park is that the local Indians considered it either a holy site or neutral ground. The problem is the legend refers to the Algonquin Indians. Most of the Indian tribes north of the Ohio River were part of the Algonquin family of nations. To use the name to identify a specific tribe would be like using Southeast Asian rather than Cambodian, Thai, or Vietnamese.

Three centuries ago before the decline of the Illini Confederacy, the site of Dixon Springs would have been in the Illini's territory. The Indian name for the springs and the translation is similar to the words in the Illini language. The tradition, which has been passed down in a series of park brochures dating back to the turn of the century, says the local Indians fought the Iroquois. "On the great tribe of the Iroquois, who inhabited the territory south of the Tennessee River, the Algonquin Indians waged relentless war, and in their pilgrimages to and from the combat, Dixon Springs was one of their favorite camping grounds," reads the park pamphlet from 1911.

While it's true that the Illini and the Iroquois fought viciously against each other during the 1600s, the Iroquois lived in an area centered in upper New York. The statement of Indians south of the Tennessee River appears to imply the Cherokee which also fought the Illini at various times on their southern flank.

The pamphlet's statement could be used to prove that the whole Indian name and legend is hogwash, or it could be used as evidence that the stories are real and were handed down generation to generation. In that case, the legend may predate the fragmentation of the Algonquins into the various historical tribes since both the Cherokee and Iroquois also shared common ancestors.

The park sits on the French "La Grande" Trace which led from Fort Massac to the French settlements on the Mississippi from Kaskaskia up to Cahokia. The French marked the trail sometime in the early 1700s. Before that, the trail was most likely used by the Mound Builders of the Mississippian Culture from their capital at Cahokia to the village at Kinkaid Mounds east of Brookport.

Although not much is known of the history of the springs when the Americans first came, the land itself was purchased in 1845 by William Dixon who obtained the land as a school-land grant for $100. By 1848, Dixon had built a large log cabin with two tall stone fireplaces. The cabin remained an attraction at the park until early 1914.

According to a paper written by local historian Lillian H. Robinson, Dixon sold the land to George Allen in 1858, for $2,000. John Stafford purchased the land next and sold to Whitesides in 1886. Allen renamed the area Allen Springs and opened a post office August 5, 1857. It operated until April 17, 1865, when it closed for six months before reopening. That time it ran until Jan. 6, 1876. It closed for a month before reopening Feb. 7.

Three years after he bought the springs, Whitesides became postmaster of Allen Springs on April 14, 1889. William I. Cox became postmaster on Nov. 8, 1893, and moved the Allen Springs post office down the road to his store. When he did that Whitesides got the Resort Post Office established on Feb. 1, 1896, to serve the springs and resort. After he sold the springs to James A. Grove the post office named was changed to Dixon Springs on Feb. 11, 1905.

Just when someone built the first resort at Dixon Springs is a mystery, but letterhead for Whiteside's Dixon Spring Hotel in 1900 stated the area had been a resort for 50 years. Allen probably had at least a store by 1857, when he opened the post office. For most of the history of the park the owner of the store and the resort were different people. The last store in the park was operated by I. M. Clemens and located along the main park road at the first intersection where visitors can turn west to go to the pool. Nothing remains of the store today.

Dixon Springs was also a crossroads community with three churches located side by side north of the store where they still stand today, and a blacksmith shop which was located behind the store building on the south side of the road leading to the pool.

When Whitesides owned the park, he operated the hotel which was located where the playground is at today -- the southeast corner of the main intersection inside the park above the rock retaining wall still visible. He also had a large dancing pavilion located just south of the hotel above the concrete retaining wall also still visible.

"During hot weather fans were made from paper and made to move by pulling a rope. A man would stand outside the dining room and pull the rope to stir the air and keep the flies off while the guests ate," recalled Robinson.

The turn of the century letterhead advertised that a string band was available and played before dinner every night with a big dance every weekend during the summer.

"When the first telephone was put in people would call the Dixon Springs Hotel and ask the band to play a number. When asked what to play they always told the band to play anything they wanted to play... People would listen over the telephone. There were no radios then," Robinson added.

That era was also a different one for race relations and lacked the full opportunities and respect for African-Americans taken for granted today. Most of the staff was black. Robinson wrote that the band's favorite was a song named "All These Coons Look Alike to Me."

Many of the workers were descendants of slaves brought to Illinois and freed by Whitesides' grandfather who operated a plantation a couple of miles north of the springs as early as 1811.

"The people who worked there in the kitchen, doing the laundry, cooking and cleaning would get done with their day work and at night they would bring out their instruments and play in the dance hall," explained Jessie Veach, another one of Whitesides' great-grandchildren. "The people who worked there worked full days if they worked all day long then played all night."

One of the oldest artifacts in the park is the Rainbow Lake dam north and upstream from the pool. Whitesides built it sometime in the 1890s and created a small lake where there was fishing and canoeing. Today the lake has silted in, but the rock wall dam is still visible below the youth camp.

Although it was called a resort, by today's standards it was somewhat primitive.

"There was no bath tubs in the rooms, only a pitcher and a wash bowl. There was an old hall down by one of the Springs. At the end of this hall was a bath tub for the guests The guests had to pay 25 cents for a bath," Robinson wrote.

The old bathhouse was located where the current one for the swimming pool is today. At various time the two story structure included an Oddfellows Lodge Hall, a juke box, showers for the pool, pool tables and a concession area. Before it was torn down in the 1950s to make way for the current pool house it was known as the Park Store. Regardless of who ran the resort, most of the food served in the dining hall came from nearby farms. Whitesides had one of the most extensive farms which included three orchards and cattle.

"Almost everything other than sugar and coffee came off that farm and fed the people," Veach said.

Whitesides sold the park to James A. Grove who sold it to the Wheeler Brothers in 1911 or 1912. Under the Wheelers the park expanded with two physicians on staff and more attractions in the park. In the 1920s, a deer park was located where the park's sewage lagoon is today. Robinson also wrote of a mule-operated merry-go-round. The first swimming pool was built in 1917. It was removed in 1953, and the present pool installed in its place in 1957.

At some point a Hotel Annex was built on the hillside overlooking the pool and above Spring No. 1, Old Ironsides. There were nine named springs in the park. All of which were said to have medicinal value. "At one time it was a very prosperous and active place. The mineral water was a great attraction. People would come in by train, wagon, horse and buggy to the place," Jones recalled his mother as saying.

"She remembered seeing them bring people in lying on their backs in the back of a wagon. They would soak them in those mineral springs for four or five days and get up and walk out," Jones recalled.

Another spring was named Little Nemo.

"Back in my great-grandfather's or great-great-grandfather's day a little black boy drowned in the spring and that's how it got its name," Jones explained.

Early in the resort's history the springs formed natural pools. Later the springs were capped and springhouses with spigots built around them.

In the early days people would come to Dixon Springs for the whole summer.

"They came in on the train and brought trunks of clothes with them," recalled Jane Franks, whose grandfather Clemens ran the grocery store at the park.

The early brochures of the springs ran testimonials from people who swore by the medicinal value of the springs. One of the shorter ones was this one written on May 26, 1906.

"This is to certify that I have resided within one mile of Dixon Springs for 50 years. I have known hundreds of people to come to these springs afflicted with kidney and liver trouble who were all benefited and a great many of them entirely cured by the use of these waters.

"I have been afflicted myself with kidney trouble and find that no medicine will do me half as much good as the waters contained in these springs," wrote John T. Farmer.

When the State of Illinois purchased the park in March 1946, it included 378.2 acres. Since then, about 400 acres have been added, according to Charles Robbs, the assistant site superintendent.

"We've added the campground, organized group activities, and a new swimming pool," Robbs said adding that pool house was renovated in 1985.

The preceeding article was printed in the June 28, 1996, issue of American Weekend, a special weekend section of the following Southern Illinois newspapers: Benton Evening News, DuQuoin Evening Call, Eldorado Daily Journal, Harrisburg Daily Register, Marion Daily Republican and the West Frankfort Daily American.

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Created July 17, 1996 by Jon Musgrave