(named for a quote from The Oldest living confederate widow tells all by Allan Gurganus, which claims what you eat before the battle determines the outcome)
History is Lunch is a monthly gathering at the Mississippi Department of Archives. I was invited to talk about Allison’s Wells, the hotel where I grew up. When I heard “Archives”, I pictured seven or eight historians, armed with facts and quarreling over my version of the story.
O ye of little faith–this may have been my best audience yet.
People sat on the floor and crowded outside the door. I talked about the history of the hotel, which I will share.
In the late 1800s, a New Orleans widow named Mrs. Allison bought some acreage and built a nice two-story house on the property that was Allison’s Wells. She had a well dug in the front yard and hit the sulfur-infused water I knew as a child. People began showing up in her yard on Sundays with buckets and jars, asking for the water, which was rumored to heal many common ailments. The widow built a couple of cottages for those needing to stay longer for a cure.
The scene shifts to Durant, Mississippi, where my grandfather, Sam Latimer, was in charge of engineering the Illinois Central railroad between that town and the capitol, Jackson. He stayed in a boarding house run by Sam Wherry (I still have the brass room key, inscribed with his name). He fell in love and married Mr. Wherry’s daughter Norma. Mr. Wherry saw the possibilities in Mrs. Allison’s ill-tasting well water and purchased the property from her. He and his son-in-law went into the business of running a summer spa. My grandfather Latimer bought him out, added two wings, and the hotel grew to 99 rooms. Guests arrived by train a mile down the road at Way, Mississippi, where carriages met them, followed by wagons loaded with five-gallon crocks of the well water, shipped by rail all over the country. The wagons returned with trunks of guests who came to stay a month or more.
The glory days were gone by the time I got there in the 1940s. No more orchestra playing at lunch or balls at night; but I saw the remains of another of my grandfather’s enterprises: the building where roulette and poker reigned upstairs, while equally illegal cockfights were held below.