South Mountain Resorts— A High Road to Health
By MALCOLM J. MACCALLUM
Nestled against the slopes of South Mountain, a few miles due west of Reading, there are many imposing structures dotting the green of the forests and glades of the elevations that rim the Lebanon Valley.
To the stranger who motors along Route 422 these buildings may resemble the ruins of medieval castles. Even now, and in this new world which has no castles, these edifices bespeak the grandeur of an earlier day. But it was not the glory of feudal might that these elaborate structures proclaimed. Their nobleness was in their dedication to the restoration of health for those who suffered pain and their splendor reflected the high purposes of the men of medicine who built them.
One hundred years ago medicine was not the exact science that it is today. Progress in any field of study must evolve through theory and experiment. During the second half of the 19th Century there were many persons who believed that cures for certain maladies could be found in Nature’s larger sphere of climate, fresh air, pure water, exercise, and baths of various kinds. For such practitioners, the chief reliance could not be placed in processed forms of nature such as pills, injections, and other materials of modern medicine. This should not be interpreted to mean that there was no knowledge of medicine or that modern treatments scoff at the efforts of the earlier practitioners. The change we know today is a matter of the degree of emphasis. With the advancement of laboratory science and medical research the “water cures” or hydropathy became less significant in treatment for disorders; and the elaborate buildings, near water-spas and on mountain tops, fell into disuse for such purposes.
Most of the health resorts, known as sanatoriums were located in that segment of South Mountain which lies within what is now South Heidelberg Township, Berks County. Wernersville was then, as now, the nearest community that had the advantage of frequent passenger railway service and, in earlier days, rail transportation was the chief means of travel between distant points. From the first year of the opening of the Wernersville Station of the Lebanon Valley branch of the Reading Railroad (1857) until the automobile came into general use, all patients, guests and freight destined for the South Mountain resorts arrived at the Wernersville station. Several hundred guests, arriving or leaving on any train, was a common sight.
Old-timers remember that Rear-Admiral Edwin Longenecker, a resident of Wernersville after his retirement (1912) from 45 years of service in the U. S. Navy, was the unofficial welcomer to strangers as they emerged from the coaches of the trains and then hurried to waiting carriages which were parked near the station to take them to the resorts of their choice. The cost of a trip by horse-drawn carriages from Wernersville to the mountain was twenty-five cents per person. The carriages could accommodate from four to twenty passengers.
These resorts were known by various names during the three quarters of a century in which they operated. We shall designate them, here, by the names most commonly applied near the close of their operations, supplying a brief history for each of the major establishments.
The first person to be attracted to South Mountain with a view to establishing a health center was Dr. Charles E. Leisenring, a native of Germany. He had come to southeastern Pennsylvania for the single purpose of building a sanatorium. After investigating possibilities in Ephrata, Lancaster County, and the various springs close to the city of Reading, he decided that these spots, although good, could not assure him of the abundant supply of water that he needed for his enterprise.
Cushion Hill on South Mountain suited Leisenring’s purpose. Between 1847 and 1855 he built his first cottages and covered the springs which he found in his newly acquired 50-acre plot. His venture was known by various names, most common of which was “Cushion Hill Water Cure,” another, “Cold Spring Water Cure” and sometimes “Mountain Resort.” Leisenring’s death in June 1857 cut short the extension of his elaborate plans. The establishment was operated by a “Mr. Adolphus” (first name not known) until 1865, when the property was purchased by Dr. and Mrs. Aaron Smith. Both Dr. Smith and his wife were graduated from a School of Hydropathy. They renamed the place “Hygiean Home,” in order to distinguish its purposes from the “water cure” of Dr. Leisenring. The Smiths introduced many new practices such as massages, “electrical treatments” and the like. They expanded the buildings, added new ones and operated successfully from 1865 to 1873.
Dr. Reuben D. Wenrich and Dr. James W. Deppen, two local physicians, purchased the property from the Smith estate (1879), renaming it Grand-View Sanatorium. The main building (now known as the Hotel) was enlarged to a size that would accommodate 150 guests.
Its situation commanded a magnificent view of the Lebanon Valley. The solarium on the sixth floor was enclosed in glass; here, those suffering from rheumatism, nervous exhaustion and other ailments could bask in the sunshine, securing the benefits of a southern climate.
The diseases treated were principally those of a chronic but curable character. The physicians considered the climate especially helpful for catarrhal conditions, rheumatism, gout, nervous prostration and liver complaints. Their treatments other than medical included massage, electricity in various forms, salt rubs, vapor and sulphur baths.
The “Pavilion Spring” water which had proven most beneficial in kidney, liver, and stomach diseases was well known. Water from this spring was sold in nearly every state in the union. In 1890 the price of 1 bbl., 40 gallons, was $6.00; 1/2 bbl., $3.50; 1 case of 12 1/2 gallon bottles, $2.70; 5 gallons in 1/2-gallon bottles, $2.00, delivered f.o.b. Wernersville.
The Grand-View Chapel (non-sectarian) is a beautiful edifice, built of gray limestone, with stained glass windows, and has a seating capacity for 100 people. The chapel is surrounded on all sides by evergreen and dogwood trees, which give it a very picturesque setting.
After the death of Dr. Deppen in 1895, Dr. Wenrich continued operating the “Grand-View.” He had as his associates his two sons, Dr. George G. and Dr. John A. Wenrich. Dr. William F. Muhlenberg and Dr. Daniel B. D. Beaver of Reading were consulting physicians and surgeons.
This sanatorium was closed after Dr. Reuben Wenrich’s death in 1926. The main building is still standing, but has never again been occupied as a health resort. Today the major portions of Grand-View are owned hy two brothers, Anthony and Sebastian Bodanza.
Drs. Walters’ Mountain Park
During the interval between 1873, the end of the Smith family’s operation of the Hygiean Home (Grand-View) and its purchase by Drs. Wenrich and Deppen (1879) the resort was leased from the Smith estate by Dr. Robert Walter and his wife, Eunice, also a physician.
During his three-year tenure at the Hygiean Home, Dr. Walter came to the conclusion that some other establishment was needed to combine all of his ideas. His own youth had been spent as an invalid, forced to move from one curative institution to another.
At one point, in 1868, he records that he was “at the point of death.” He attributed his own recovery to a combination of pure air, fresh water, exercise, the Swedish movement, massage, and electrical applications of various types.
In 1876, he founded the institution which, for many years, bore his name as Walter’s Park, on South Mountain, below Wernersville. Of his method of treatment he said in 1909:
This system of treatment was first organized at Wernersville by myself and its success is best declared by the innumerable institutions throughout the country who have adopted the title and administered the treatment as best they know. Dr. Robert Walter was indeed an individualist. The inscription he wrote for his tombstone (located in Hain’s Church Cemetery, Wernersville) five years before his death (1921) provides an insight into his personality and belief: WALTER-Dr. Robert Walter, twice paralyzed and pronounced hopelessly incurable, has carried a so-called heart disease for sixty years; impoverished through medical empiricism in 1873, he came to Wernersville burdened with a great idea, but aided by a noble help-meet, began a system of health treatments entirely new, with results of surpassing importance to himself and 15,000 others. Hence, THE TRUE SANATORY IDEA, the power of life derivable from the patient is the only power of cure. All medicaments which appear to increase this power, do instead reduce it through expenditure and tend to prevent recovery, all the while they appear to be promoting it. This was Walter’s conclusion after ten years’ experience, now confirmed by 50 years’ verification. The Just Shall Live by Faith, the Only Scientific Basis.
At the time of its greatest development, Walter’s Park comprised 500 acres of mountain land. The main building was 300 feet long and five stories high. Built like a medieval castle it snuggled against the green slopes of South Mountain, a beautiful sight to behold from any vantage point in the Lebanon Valley to the north.
“No malaria, no mosquitoes, no dew” was a proud boast of Walter’s Park. Many distinguished guests sought its shelter, among them the widow of General Stonewall Jackson and the great statesman, William Jennings Bryan. The place was equipped with electric lights, a hydraulic elevator, a circulating library, and a livery stable which featured standard-bred horses for riding. Pool, billiards, tennis, bowling, croquet and many other diversions were offered discerning guests.
After the death of Dr. Walter, the “park” became the property of a corporation which renamed the spot “South Mountain Manor” and for a number of years thereafter it continued to supply some of the services which the former institution had offered.
In more recent years it became the headquarters for a sporting fraternity, attracting mountain-lovers from nearby metropolitan areas. Today it is a “white elephant” owned by a Philadelphia textile manufacturer and his associates.
The “Preston Sunny Side” summer resort was established by Dr. James S. Preston in 1880 and operated by his son James after 1882. The buildings were of stone and frame, three stories high, and were connected by covered piazzas. There were accommodations for 125 guests. The piazzas commanded a magnificent view of the Lancaster Valley. The grounds were picturesque and attractive, comprising an extensive woodland park. The mountain in the rear of the resort reaching to the doors was studded with large pine, cedar, and dogwood trees. A beautiful sight, especially in the spring of the year. The resort consisted of over 500 acres, mostly woodland. The observatory on the mountain summit presented a panorama, including the most complete view of both the Lancaster and the Lebanon Valleys.
In 1913 Mr. and Mrs. Preston sold their resort to the Galen Hall Co., of Atlantic City, New Jersey. It has been enlarged considerably and since has been conducted as a first class hotel. This is the only resort on the entire mountain operating today. It is well known for its beautiftil and tricky golf course as well as for its conventions held in the spring and fall. One of the first conventions which attracted considerable notice over the entire country was held in 1915 by the moving picture industry. Wernersville was a-buzz with reporters at that time. Some of those attending the convention were the motion picture stars Pearl White, Mabel Normand, Marguerite Clark, Francis X. Bushman, John Bunny, “Fatty” Arbuckle-and I can still picture Mary Pickford driving through Wernersville with her bridegroom, Tom Moore, in their red Stutz roadster.
Mr. Francis Grosch, who operated a resort in Schuylkill County, built the “Mt. Sunset House” in 1876. The resort had accommodations for 200 guests. But Mr. Grosch, who was a stone mason by trade, preferred his trade to the operating of a summer resort. Thus after several years, the management was left to his son-in-law, Dr. Donald Moyer, a local practicing physician. After his death in the 20’s the resort was sold to Mr. George Gaul, who for many years was secretary of the Grand-View Sanatorium.
Under the management of both Dr. Moyer and Mr. Gaul the resort was well known for its view of the sunsets and also for its Sunday duck dinners. Today the resort is known as “Villa Maria”, and is used as a retreat and hospital for aged Catholic Sisters.
Belle Alto (meaning beautiful height) on the summit of the South Mountain, commands a magnificent view of the Lebanon Valley and the city of Reading. This resort, built of stone with its wide porches on the three sides, was a favorite place for the “Rocking Chair Set.” There were accommodations for 60 to 70 guests. In 1894 a Mr. E. Yenny purchased the resort, but was not very successful in its operation. In 1898 the place was sold to Mr. Samuel B. Keppel. When I visited Mrs. William Delp of Wernersville, a daughter of Mr. Keppel, I noticed a large painting by Ben Atistrian ( a Reading artist) in the living room. Mrs. Delp informed me that the picture was given to her father in payment for the artist’s board and room. His name appeared many times on the guest registry.
Mr. J. Howell Cummings, president of the Stetson Hat factory, purchased the resort in 1905 and used it as a summer home. Mr. Cummings died in 1927 and the family of Mr. James Sisk of Reading bought the property from the estate in 1939.
The records of the building which we now know as Bynden Wood are sketchy. Perhaps some enterprising student of local history will be able to find some solid answers in detail. The same statement may be made concerning the other mountain homes which were not, primarily, health resorts. Among these there were Pomeroy’s, Highland House (now known as Chit-Chat), Hillside, Park Mansion (later Indiandale), and other resorts in the WernersvilleVinemont area.
Bynden Wood was originally constructed in 1869 by John B. Stetson, the founder of a world-famous hat company. He built it as a summer home. The structure, which he named Bynden Wood, overlooked areas in Berks and Lancaster counties. In 1888 the property was purchased by John Tolbert of Philadelphia. Mr. Tolbert used it as a summer home until his death in 1896. For the next two years it was used as a summer residence by Mr. and Mrs. William H. Luden of Reading. In 1898 the property was converted into a summer resort and operated by the Tolbert heirs.
Around the turn of the century the Bynden Wood property was purchased by Doctor Octavia Krum, who operated the sanatorium until her death. Miss Mary Morton, daughter of Levi P. Morton, was the next owner of the property. During her ownership, the structure was used as a private summer home. From 1932 to 1947 it again became a summer resort. In 1947 the Wyomissing Foundation purchased the property and presented it to the Central Y.M.C.A. in Reading. It is currently being used as a cultural center.
The South Mountain resorts, during their heyday, provided employment for many persons in western Berks. Their decline coincided, in time, with the rapid development of the textile industry in areas west of Reading. And most of those employees displaced by the closing of the sanatoriums found ready employment elsewhere.
The rise, decline, and abandonment of the health resorts along South Mountain is history. The vestiges of their day of glory may still be seen and the leafy paths, cool springs, and grand views may still be enjoyed today.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 1962 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.