Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Taking the waters


spa: word origin undetermined.  Possible origins: Spa, Belgium, itself from Latin spargere, to sprinkle or moisten. 

The joke goes

Q: How many Virginians does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: There is nothing wrong with the lightbulb we have.

In this spirit, consider that there is nothing wrong with the way visitors to the Jefferson Pools (formerly that Bath Houses of Warm Springs) have taken the waters since the 18th Century.  Let me explain.  BlueRidgeSpringsAd

The baths at Warm Springs, Va are the oldest spa structures in the US, and what was good enough for Mr Jefferson (any Virginian can tell you) is better than good enough for you.

You will be hard-pressed to find them, because it is far off any interstate and not likely on your way to anywhere unless it is Virginia’s swankiest spa structure, the venerable Homestead.


Another joke

Q: Why aren’t there any street signs in New England?

A: If you don’t know where you are, you probably don’t belong here.

Because she is equal parts Virginian and New Englander, your Auntie Carrie, world’s oldest living mill-girl, will explain all.

The Homestead manages the pools today, and they will do their best to confuse you about what they are.  Just LOOK at the picture they put on the Jeff Pools page on their own website.  This is a complete deception – in the words of Edwardian healing, flim-flam.  The pools look like this.  jeffpools4

They are 2 wooden buckets off the side of the road, down a narrow and impossible parking lane and over a wooden culvert bridge.  No guest from the Homestead would hang their Ralph Lauren in the changing alcoves, and you will be glad for that.  That means only real people like us are inside.

Before 2pm, the bathhouses are mixed, as “family time.”  I wondered who would bring their family – maybe their Japanese family – but later I realized that married couples might like to experience the soak together, and after 2, the genders are separated and clothing may come off.

Much of what you need to know you can read on-line.  The Homestead’s tips are accurate, and helpful, but a true picture of the inside of of one of these buckets better sets your expectations.  jeffpools1

This is the ladies.

Here is the gents.


Here is Rita.  She will talk you through your experience, and sssh youKYLE GREEN | THE ROANOKE TIMES<br />September 17, 2008 - Rita Rector (left), Pool Attendant at the Jefferson Pools for 13 years, folds towels while Veronica McLymont (right), Director of Food and Nutrition Services at Memorial Sloan_Kettering Cancer Center in New York, New York, enjoys a dip. when you make too much noise.  Because get this about The Soak: nobody talks.  “If you MUST talk,” say the signs, “Please Whisper.”  You won’t be able to read the sign, because you will have surrendered your glasses, contacts, and hearing aids. 

So don’t make her ssh you.

What else will surprise you:  The water is indeed warm, but not “hot tub” warm.  The water is minerally, but not stinky, not thick, and not gritty.  It is about as clear as reservoir water – the rocks on the bottom are clearly visible, as are the silvery bubbles that pop up from beneath them.

Do not swim.  Hang there on your pool noodle (the water is only 4 1/2 feet deep) for an hour.  You will think at first, an hour is not very long.  But it is more than long enough.  You will be a little woozy, and certainly pruny, after it is done.

Not long ago, the good people of Virginia considered giving the pools a makeover, mostly for structural safety’s sake – even The Constitution gets the occasional fresh tar -- but “modernizing” was everyone’s fear.  (note the real quote from real life Virginian Hella Armstrong - "It's perfect just the way it is,")  Celebration Associates (local preservers of the Homestead, the Old Dairy, and NH’s Mount Washington Resort), promised a 90 day assessment in 2008, and I am unable to find an update outlining their plans.  Yes, they are the same Celebration you think you know, and that does cause some worry, but founders Adams and Kiloren have since left Disney.  Perhaps these links to their site will inspire them to comment and let us know what they recommended for Mr Jefferson’s pools.

I agree there are some structural… worries.  A little ADA-compliance would also not be a bad idea. I mean, for a mineral spring, you would think…..FDR 

A sink next to the toilet, or even just a hand sanitizer.  But keep the rest.  Keep Rita.  Keep the $17/hr charge.  it’s so random it feels like it must be right.  Keep giving out towels.

Do not pipe in music.

And keep it hard for the Homesteaders to find.



  1. Sounds like quite the charming experience - minus the clothes coming off piece. Virginia definitely has a number of one a kind stops. I still have fond memories of Natural Bridge VA(which we happened across by accident while driving to New Orleans one year). Really enjoyed it.

  2. How in the world did you get a picture of Rita?!? I also hope you enjoyed the soak more than it sounds like in your post. M

  3. I think it sounds lovely, but I personally would opt for the clothing optional part - oooooooooooh! Yet another quaint olde Virginie way.

  4. Old Dairy Heritage Festival, October 5-7,2012

    If any of you happen to be in Virginia on October 5th, I hope you will make a stop in Warm Springs, VA for a talk I'll be giving titled, The Historic Warm Springs Pools - An African American History: A Pride of Place & Race.

    The talk will feature a recently discovered trove of family photographs that date as far back as the late 1800s and give a glimpse of the pools and the African American lives associated with them.

    Speaker: John T. Reddick


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