It’s a quirky destination in a quirky little Montana town.
Spa Hot Springs Motel and Clinic in White Sulphur Springs — population 939 as of the 2010 census — is a link to the past.
The resort features three pools fed by natural hot springs, a chiropractic and acupuncture clinic run by Spa Hot Springs owner Gene Gudmundson as well as a number of hotel rooms.
Though the hot spring water has a strong smell of sulfur, it was reportedly said by Native Americans to have healing powers.
“It’s got a fascinating history to it,” Gudmundson said of his spa. “I bought it in ’88, and I have been here ever since.”
There are a couple of newspaper clippings about the hot springs taped to the counter in the reception area when you walk into the spa — one of them is from The New York Times.
Hanging behind the counter is a faded swimsuit — probably dating at least to the 1920s, Gudmundson said.
The swimsuit was made specifically for the spa, as indicated by the “White Sulphur Springs” stitched on its tag.
The spa itself dates to the 1860s, when a man named James Brewer settled next to the hot springs that give the town its name, according to Gudmundson’s history of the place.
Around 1900, John Ringling, of the Ringling Brothers Circus, bought the property with the intention of building a grand resort.
A German chemist Ringling hired to analyze the water from the springs reported the water “… possessed such high virtue that it is doubtful whether better springs can be found on the Western Hemisphere.”
But the Great Depression ended Ringling’s plans for the resort and the property fell into disrepair for decades, changing hands several times before Gudmundson, a Montana native, bought it in the late '80s.
Most of the rooms at Spa Hot Springs are the motel variety, but Gudmundson added 16 hotel rooms on the west side of the pools about a year and a half ago. The building, which has direct access to the pools, features rooms comparable to what you might find in a newer motel.
At about the same time, he added the spa’s third pool, which features a man-made waterfall and an alcove with Jacuzzi-style water jets.
‘The best water on planet Earth’
“When my body starts aching, I go down there … I call it the miracle pool,” said Rick Seidlitz, the retired sheriff of Meagher County, as he ate breakfast on recent morning in the Truck Stop Cafe — a good stop if you’re looking for a hearty breakfast.
Seidlitz, a father of five and grandfather of nine, said a soak in the hot springs is a great way to recuperate after trudging through the Montana wilderness while hunting.
“Usually, normal thing is, you wake up next morning and can’t even move,” he said of his hunting trips. “We go to the hot springs that night and wake up next morning … totally refreshed. It definitely does something for you, and I’m not much for believing in that kind of nonsense.”
“I’m a little bit biased, but I think it’s the best water on planet Earth. The water you see coming out of the pipe there … that was in the ground 30 seconds ago,” Gudmundson said of the fresh, steaming water that fills the two outdoor pools at the spa.
There are two wells at Spa Hot Springs. One reaches down just 30 feet. It produces about 100 gallons of water per minute at about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This shallower well feeds the geothermal system that is used to heat the resort.
The second and newer well was dug a year and a half ago as part of the renovations and additions. It reaches down about 280 feet and produces about 200 gallons of water a minute at 115 degrees. That well feeds the spa’s three pools.
Gudmundson aims to keep the water in the largest pool at 98 degrees, the newest pool at 102 degrees Fahrenheit and the indoor pool at 105 degrees.
The water coming out of the springs is all about the same temperature when it surfaces, Gudmundson said, and to control the temperatures, he has to fill the pools and then regulate how much water flows through the pools throughout the day.
“It’s quite a juggling trick all day,” he said.
Can you find the fly?
The walls surrounding the spa’s two outdoor pools are covered in murals depicting Montana wildlife, landscape and Native Americans.
“One newspaper once called them the ‘legendary murals of White Sulphur Springs,’” Gudmundson said. “We like that.”
He said the mural featuring images of Native Americans gathering at the hot springs is especially important.
“They’re opposing tribes, signifying the Valley of Peace here,” he said.
The murals have been painted and added to by four different artists over the years, Gudmundson said, but it was the most recent artist to work on the paintings, Mike Mahoney, who really took ownership of the artwork.
“One time I was in the Louvre in Paris. I saw the Mona Lisa, among other things,” Gudmundson said. “The odd picture that really hit me was (of) this bowl of fruit with a fly on it. And I’m standing in this room, looking at this thing and I can’t figure out if that’s a real fly, or if it’s the artist’s painted fly.”
That painting inspired Gudmundson’s only requirement of Mahoney as the artist painted the murals:
“You’ve got to put a fly in there somewhere,” he said with a chuckle.
But Gudmundson won’t say where in all the murals the little insect is.
“It’s on a rock,” he said. “You gotta go find it.”