Indian Springs Bounces Back
Gallery: Indian Springs Bounces Back [11 Images] Click any image to expand.
By Allison Smyly
Now’s the time for a return visit to Indian Springs. If you haven’t been lately (or especially if you haven’t been since the Central Georgia EMC held its Annual Meetings at Indian Springs State Park), you’ll be impressed by developments in the area, including historic preservation, gardens, the arts, and shopping.
A key figure in the revitalization is Helen “Frankie” Willis, who moved to the once-thriving area and fell in love with its pristine nature and hidden potential. She was one of the founding members of Friends of Indian Springs State Park, the group that began working to improve the nation’s very first state park by planting native flowers, updating cottages, and refurbishing event pavilions. Personally, Frankie has spearheaded efforts to bring shopping, lodging, and events to Indian Springs. This witty and engaging entrepreneur loves nature and people, especially children and seniors, and has a passion for bringing people and nature together. Frankie’s enthusiasm for the area is evident: “We want people to come here and have a good time,” she says. “As a destination, there is something for everyone!”
Five partner organizations work together to help the area achieve the goal of being a “relaxing, refreshing, and rejuvenating” destination: Indian Springs State Park, Indian Springs Historic Properties, Butts County Historical Society, Dauset Trails Nature Center, and the 1893 Indian Springs Holiness Campground.
History and the Indian Spring Hotel
Many walking trails converged where Native Americans came to drink from the mineral spring, and the area now known as The Village at Indian Springs became a crossroads, stagecoach stop, and economic hotspot as new settlers discovered the spring. Originally known as the Stagecoach Inn, the Indian Spring Hotel was built in 1823 by Chief William McIntosh and his cousin Joel Bailey. It was the site of Chief McIntosh’s signing of the Treaty of 1825, which ceded the remaining five million acres of Creek land to the state of Georgia and was so controversial it gave rise to the first U.S. Congressional hearing.
From the 1840s to the 1860s, the Indian Spring Hotel was one of Georgia’s most fashionable destinations, with wraparound porches, a ballroom, bar, billiards room, and the latest amenities. In 1840, a political party held a dinner at the springs; some 10,000 people attended, with 5,000 seated at one time. Orators spoke on the piazza of the Indian Springs Hotel. For over 100 years beginning in 1850, the hotel was owned by the Varner family, with unofficial mayor Miss Jo Varner hosting many dignitaries. The hotel served as a Civil War hospital for Northern troops, which is why it was not burned by Sherman’s cavalry while 12,000 of his men and their horses drank from the spring across the street while waiting to cross the Ocmulgee.
The town of Indian Springs became one of Georgia’s premier resort, casino, and spa destinations in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as the Indian Spring Hotel was joined by other large hotels such as the Foy, Calumet, Elder, and the majestic Wigwam, said to be the largest wooden structure in the country at the time. The town’s “Resort Era” came to an end in 1921 when an arsonist whose identity remains a mystery burned three of the most famous hotels, the Wigwam, Calumet, and Bryans, in one night. Indian Springs enjoyed a revival during the “sock hop” era of the 1950s and 1960s, with the Foy Hotel boasting an amusement park, bowling alley, and Olympic-sized pool. Then the Foy burned, and by the 1970s, as more travelers began visiting out-of-state theme parks rather than resorts, most of the town, including the Indian Spring Hotel, had fallen into disrepair.
Determined not to lose this historic landmark, the Butts County Historical Society rallied to save the Indian Spring Hotel. The historic restoration began in 1977 and was completed in several phases, with a much-anticipated grand opening in 2006. Frankie Willis served as director for the last phase of a $1 million government-funded project to restore the Indian Spring Hotel, now a National Historic Site and museum. Frankie is quick to give credit to leaders of earlier phases of the restoration, including Deryl Lamb and Ann Kelley. She also praises local citizens, who provided what she estimates as at least half a million dollars’ worth of in-kind donations over the years. “People helped with construction, painting, repairs, clean-up, you name it,” Frankie says. “Most of the research, architectural plans, and even the grants were in place, so I just came in and put the icing on the cake during the last phase.” Today, the Indian Spring Hotel is the only known antebellum mineral springs hotel remaining in Georgia.
After renovation of the Indian Spring Hotel was completed, representatives the Tourism Division of Georgia’s Department of Economic Development advised that visitors would need places to “eat, stay, and shop.” Frankie, president of the Butts County Historical Society, began the private campaign to save and restore more than 20 buildings.
Now, the previously blighted area has been transformed into The Village at Indian Springs, an historic district that includes shops, galleries, gardens, and rental cottages. Frankie Willis and Marketing Director Steven Lease treated Kitchen Drawer to a guided tour of the area, and we found that it really is “a sweet secret in the heart of Georgia.”
The Village at Indian Springs
A number of downtown buildings are now quaint shops named for well-known local citizens (and a few local characters). There’s Daisy Pearl’s Fashion Boutique, Village Post Antiques (formerly the post office and general mercantile), Watkins Outfitters (camping, fishing, and hiking gear), Ladybugs & Tadpoles Children’s Store, and Mrs. Lee’s Stagecoach Ice Cream & Sweet Shop. Generations Art Gallery displays the work of local artists throughout the year and provides free children’s art classes on Saturday afternoons from 1:30 to 3:00.
As it has been since the 1950s, the town’s hub remains the Big Chief Country Store. Today, the Big Chief offers a variety of merchandise, including quirky, unusual gifts, as well as sandwiches, salads, and drinks for your day in Indian Springs.
Weekends are best for shopping, as most of the shops are open Saturdays 10-4 and Sundays 1-4. If you happen to be in Indian Springs on a weekday and want to visit a shop or tour the hotel/museum, stop by the Big Chief. You just might find someone who can accommodate your request.
A crowning achievement for the Village is an amphitheater that can accommodate up to 2,500 guests. With its richly stained cypress wood, massive stone columns, 100ʹ X 25ʹ stage, large dance floor, green rooms, two large video screens, and state-of-the art sound system, the amphitheater is equipped to host various special events, including concerts, plays, weddings, and family reunions. Completed in 2014, the amphitheater promises to be a key driver in helping The Village at Indian Springs once again become a weekend destination.
The eight-acre Whimsical Botanical Gardens surrounding the amphitheater playfully salute all seven continents: the European Charlotte Weaver Rose Garden; the African Safari Experience; the North American Garden with Sweet Sara Ward’s Children’s Garden and Clemmie Ward’s Organic Garden; the South American rain forest, called The Enchanted Forest; the Asian Garden with Japanese maples, Chinese cherries, two koi ponds, and many statues and pagodas; and the Australian Outback. An Antarctic Flora and Fauna area is even in the works.
The botanical gardens were born of Frankie’s desire to share her love of nature and gardening with children. “I love to hear children running around the gardens experiencing accidental learning!” she says. “When their parents tell them to be quiet, I tell them it’s okay. They can run and scream here.” The botanical gardens have no admission fee and are open year-round during daylight hours.
Venues and Lodging
The Village at Indian Springs now has nine venues for weddings, reunions, parties, and other special events, including the beautiful Indian Springs Resort, an 80-acre antebellum estate built in 1852 by the Lawson family. The structure, also formerly known as the Hanes House, had fallen into disrepair after being empty for many years. In 1995, Frankie Willis began an 18-month journey to renovate the home, which had few windows and no electricity, plumbing, or flooring downstairs. The home and its grounds are now restored to grandeur and serve as a wedding and event venue, with on-site spa treatments, catered dinners, historic tours, and a private swimming pool.
The Indian Springs Chapel, formerly Indian Springs Baptist Church, was built in 1890 in the Queen Anne style from leftover lumber milled for the Wigwam Hotel. Services are still held occasionally in the chapel, which features beautiful stained glass windows and its original kerosene light fixture and brass bell. It is available for weddings.
Next to the Big Chief Country Store is Pinky’s Parlor and Café. Its ladies’ parlor features tables made of repurposed glass window frames, and the adjoining “man cave” has chairs carved from tree roots and tables made from stagecoach wheels. Seating 80, this venue is available for a receptions or birthday parties or to enjoy the air conditioning while sharing a sandwich from the fresh deli section next door.
Formerly dilapidated houses, now luxurious rental cottages named for longtime residents Bill and Marjorie Holloway, Holloway Cottages feature full kitchens and living areas, spa bathrooms, custom cabinets with granite countertops, hardwood floors, private gardens, stone patios, screened porches, and high-speed Internet.
Springs and State Park
Of course, no visit to Indian Springs is complete without a visit to the spring itself. Visitors still come every day to fill jugs with the mineral water, which for centuries has been believed to have health benefits. A plaque on the Spring House speaks of the Native Americans’ and later travelers’ confidence in the curative power of the spring water: “Such were their belief and confidence in the medicinal virtues of the waters that they came with their sick and invalid and tented on the hillsides that the afflicted might drink of the life-giving stream and be restored to health.” Though the first treaty of Indian Springs is not as well-known as the second (which Chief McIntosh signed at his hotel and which led to his demise), the spring itself was the site of the signing of the first treaty which ceded Creek land to the state of Georgia in return for cash payments.
The Spring House and other enduring stone structures at Indian Springs State Park were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a project of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s program to combat the Great Depression.
There’s plenty to do in the 600 acres of the oldest state park in the nation surrounding the spring, including 23 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails; putt-putt, and a beach with a swimming area. Through a government grant, Indian Springs State Park and nearby Dauset Trails Nature Center are now connected by a three-mile biking and hiking trail. The state park also has group dorms, rustic camping, RV sites, and lake cabins, providing overnight options for all budgets.
One of the biggest annual events is the Native American Festival, scheduled for September 12 and 13 this year. The Indian Springs Hotel/Museum will be open for tours, and visitors will be welcome to stroll through the adjacent Elizabeth Harris garden, a rare example of an early 19th-century resort garden. Another popular event, Artifacts ID and Civil War Day, will be held October 10 on the hotel grounds, and the public is invited to bring any kind of artifact to be identified and dated by members of the Ocmulgee Archaeological Society.
The Village at Indian Springs is just timeless. When I learned about the botanical gardens, I couldn’t wait to take my family, even though it was only two days before my meeting with Frankie. As I watched my children scramble up the same hills I played on as a child while my parents attended the EMC’s annual meeting, I imagined children of hotel guests climbing those same hills 100 years ago. As I stood in the stone pavilion and watched visitors filling their jugs with spring water, I pictured Native Americans filling gourds or clay pots 1,000 years ago. Visit The Village at Indian Springs and experience its magic for yourself.
Special events including concerts, art exhibitions, and tours are held in The Village at Indian Springs year round. Check TheVillageatIndianSprings.com for the calendar of events or call 770-775-5350.