The spring that started the whole Springs Era. The spring that Colonel Richard Dunbar discovered, drank from and became healed. There is not a single man whom changed the course of Waukesha history more than Colonel Richard Dunbar. With a remarkable discovery, a deep religious belief in the healing power of water and a great deal of adroit marketing, Dunbar changed the sleepy little village of Waukesha into a world-renowned resort city. He was only here for ten years, yet he set the course for a great era in Waukesha.
Backstory and Context
One of the largest, and definitely the longest lasting sping, was Bethesda. After Dunbar's discovery and promotion, the business grew phenomenally. Dunbar developed the land surrounding his spring into a park. He desired to build a hotel near the park, and on September 2, 1870, a cornerstone was laid. The ceremony was presided over by Salmon P. Chase, Chief justice of the united States Supreme Court. The crown was estimated to be 5,000. Due to political hassles, the hotel never materialized.
Originally the water was shipped in barrels and demijohns (ceramic jugs) but eventually a bottling plant was built. Dunbar oversaw the improvement of the grounds, including the planting of hundreds of trees.
On December 15, 1878, Dunbar died of heart failure, and the city mourned the passing of a great man. Catherine, his wife, tried to manage the spring for several years, but sold the property in 1881.
The ensuing years were ones of stagnation. A Group of businessmen ran the spring, and while the spring continued to attract visitors, it ran into stiff competition.
In 1885, the board of directors hired Alfred "Long" Jones to manage Bethesda. Jones was a former Illinois senator and a popular figure. Called "Long" because of his 6'3" height, he greeted his visitors and see to their every comfort. He also began charging people to visit the spring, a controversial move that met with much opposition.
Jones purchased stock in the corporation and was elected chairman. He oversaw many improvements to the park. Business grew tremendously. In 1889, 5,000 quarts of water were bottled daily.
The 1890s witnessed more improvements. Jones constructed a large hotel, the Terrace, on Dunbar Avenue opposite the entrance gate.
Dunbar had built a simple spring house in the 1860s. This was replaced by a tent that was erected each summer during the 1880s. In 1892, a final improvement was added. A magnificent spring house was constructed over the magic font. It stood on eight elaborate columns and was built into the hill. Marble footings supported the columns. A marble tile floor surrounded the spring.
In 1896, Jones' son, Alfred Wirt Jones, replaced his father as manager. Business continued to grow, and by 1906, Bethesda shiped 300,000 gallons of water annually.
During the 1920s, the business was reorganized and continued successfully. In 1934, however, felled by the Depression, Bethesda went into receivership. A trio of Chicago investors, Morris Cohn, Herman Glick, and George Brenner purchased the company and moved the Chicago "Bon Ton" business to Waukesha.
Bethesda products continued to be bottled by the Bon Ton Company through the 1970s. The Slogan "Bottled At The Spring" was adopted. Exciting new soda water flavors were developed by the company n the lav, which was installed in the plant.
The company sold most of the park to the city, but retained the rights to the water. In 1949, the beautiful pavilion was demolished. The owners claimed it was beyond repair, and replaced it with a simple concrete block structure.
Bethesda changed owners several times throughout the late 1970s - '90s. The change in ownership led to deterioration of the bottling equipment. In 1997, when the parent company of Bethesda (located in Pennsylvania), went bankrupt, the bottling of waster ceased. The water continues to flow at Bethesda Spring, however, and is said to be of the same quality that Colonel Dunbar discovered in 1868.
, Waukesha Landmarks Commission. Spring City's Past.
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Salb Family Collection
Wisconsin Historical Society Collection