The grand hotels that command the landscape around French Lick and West Baden Springs remind us of the health spa craze at the turn of the previous century. Although the twin Orange County towns remain well known for having been a hub of spa activity, another Indiana town was known in its day as “one of the three best known watering places in America.” These days, a sign perched atop a downtown building is one of the only lingering traces of “Martinsville City of Mineral Water.” While drilling for oil on the property of Sylvanus Barnard in 1887, workers discovered instead an aquifer bubbling with foul-smelling water. Although it wasn’t black gold, artesian mineral water was at that time valuable in its own right for the miraculous healing properties it was believed to possess. Those seeking relief for rheumatism, acne, depression, impotence, stomach troubles, or any number of other ailments soon flocked to the Morgan County seat.
Barnard constructed Martinsville ‘s first sanitarium in 1888; within ten years six facilities had created artesian wells on their premises. Between 1890 and 1930, a total of thirteen resorts had sprung up in town. The spas catered to a heterogeneous clientele–from working class mid-westerners to industrial moguls, political leaders and idle rich from all over the world. Martinsville also boasted two sanitariums exclusively serving the African-American community. Services offered at the various resorts ranged from mineral baths, vapor baths and Turkish baths, to Swedish massage, physical therapy, and electric treatments. Physicians were usually on staff; one facility even included a diagnostic laboratory and a radiology department. The sanitariums’ therapeutic purpose was, however, often shadowed by their hedonistic appeal and prestigious status. Velvet draperies, terrazzo floors and multi-course banquets figured as prominently as soaks and saunas.
Martinsville ‘s heyday as a resort town began to decline in the thirties during the Great Depression. The interurban street car line that serviced Martinsville folded, making the town less accessible. The post-war trend toward antibiotics and away from alternative cures discouraged others from coming to take the waters. The Home Lawn Mineral Springs, Martinsville ‘s last spa in operation, shut down in 1971. In 2002, the aquifer in the town once known for its healing waters was found to be dangerously contaminated with dry cleaning chemicals.
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