Where once stood a kitchen, only an old stove remains. It lays on the ground, flopped on its side, once-white enamel slowly rusting to grey-brown. Sheet metal and tin scatter across the grounds, holding back the scotch broom and blackberry bushes. Bedsprings jauntily poke out of the creekbed, sagged and twisted. Among the debris, a thick piece of handblown glass dating from the turn of the 20th century sits, only a small slice of what once was a gallon jug. The winter sun barely pokes through the hazy sky.
It doesn’t look like the map Steve Prather had scribbled on the bottom of a 24 pack of 7-Up a week earlier. His map had squares on it, marking houses and the location of the spring. I look at the torn piece of cardboard in my hand one more time, then look up. There’s nothing here. Only couple of flat spots in a steep-walled notch that drops down into the depths of Big Canyon. In the tip of the notch, some fir and pine trees that made it through the Valley Fire still stand. A trickle of a creek winds through them, shaded in the depths.
I squint, trying to see any hint of the life and vibrancy that once lived in this place. Old pipes poke out of the ground in a rusty jumble. More broken glass litters the creek. But as I scan further up into the tree-darkened mountain, a fountain appears, hidden by broken tree branches and overgrown grass. It rises out of the ground like it had always been there, slowly appearing as the mountain eroded over millennia around it.
Covered in moss and peppered by small fir trees growing in its circumference, it’s all that remains of Adams Springs. In its heyday, people from all over the world came to partake of its famous carbonated mineral waters, enjoy nature, and soak in the Northern California sunshine. Depending on the decade, they showed up in covered wagons, Model T’s, or Camaros to stay anywhere from a weekend to a few months. The valley must have echoed then with the sounds of big band music, children’s laughter, and the murmur of conversation.
William Robert Prather, known as W. R. to some, Doctor Prather to others, was not much like his dad. His father, a self-taught dentist (Yes, that was possible then), ran a successful business and wanted the same for his son. But W. R. had different plans. After finishing dental school and passing exams to be a doctor, he immediately chose another lifestyle. W. R. bought a small tent campground next to a mineral spring in the Mayacamas Mountains of Lake County and quickly transformed it into a world-class health spa: people came flocking from all over the world to “take the waters.” Adams’ Springs natural carbonation and unique combination of minerals made it popular with the guests.
W. R. was always an innovator, looking for opportunities to grow and gain an advantage over his many other competitors. In the heyday of the hot springs, Lake, Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties were chock full of mineral spring resorts, all touting the benefits of their waters. But W. R. was a smart promoter. One of W. R.’s crowning triumphs was to bring electricity to Adams Springs. Desirous to have electric lights for his clients, he wrote Thomas Edison in the late 1890’s. And Edison wrote back, giving not just detailed instructions on how to create a Pelton Wheel in Big Canyon Creek, but also where to get the necessary supplies. W. R. took Edison’s advice, and Adams Springs had electricity before the city of Santa Rosa.
Where the Adams Springs golf course is now, W. R. planted orchards and ran his own farms and herds. Of course, to ensure that the guests were happy, he offered, according to historian Nina Bouska, “An on-site physician, barber shop, salon, a power plant and Adams Springs’ own post office were on the premises as well as a candy store, soda fountain and darkroom where guests could develop their film and print photos.”
Soon, W. R. had added multiple cabins and campsites, including tent cabins that surrounded the concrete and rock fountain; within a few years Adams Springs was able to accommodate over nearly four hundred guests. And people kept pouring in, due largely in part to W. R.’s extensive advertising. He placed full page ads in numerous newspapers, created flyers, brochures and matchbooks to send out, and aggressively touted the superiority of Adams Springs, calling it “The Springs That Made Lake County Famous.”
But it’s impossible to tell from the old photos where anything is now. Steve’s map helps. I turn it sideways, then look again. There’s the old spring house over there. I can tell by the size and shape of the rock foundations. The wooden housing is gone and all that remains are a few pipes and charred lumber. The Valley Fire in 2015 likely burned whatever was left. Before then, it housed the famous Adams Springs. The water sat in the ground, and guests would lower a bucket down into the spring, pull it up, and imbibe the carbonated, mineraly waters.
People came from miles around to enjoy the uniquely flavored water. Historian Lyman Palmer was not impressed, however. In his 1881 History of Napa and Lake Counties, he says, “If you wish to know how it tastes just get a piece of tarred rope from some sailing vessel and chew it. That taste is its twin sister.” According to Nina Bouska, “Analysis of the waters showed it contained magnesium, soda, lime, silica, sodium chloride, organic matter, and iron with traces of potash and nitric acid. It was said to be healing for liver and kidney complaints and for malaria and dyspepsia.”
When I ask the Prathers about it, I get mixed responses. “It tastes. . .” Danny Prather pauses, thinking. “Funny.”
“It’s. . . different,” his brother Steve adds.
“You know, it’s got this . . . taste,” Danny continues. “It’s . . . unusual.”
“But they had this thing,” brother Mike says. “Next to the spring on the wall, like a little faucet. And you could put it in your water.”
“It was lemonade flavoring,” Danny chips in. “They called it Adams Springs lemonade.”
Needless to say, I’m disappointed when I can’t find the original springs. But a small trickle creeps out of the ground further up the hillside, where the cottages of the workers clung to the side of a steep gully. A small pool of water rests there, a twisted bedspring crazily cartwheeling out of a pile of tangled brush nearby. This pool must be the same water source as Adams Springs. The spring house sits right next to the creek. Carefully, I dip the edge of my water bottle in the puddle of clear water and take a closer look. It’s clean-looking, not orange-colored or chunky. There’s no smell, from what I can tell. What the hell, I think, and take a sip.
It’s. . . different. A first it just tastes like a glass of water, but then the other flavors start to come out. There’s something about it that leaves a strange taste in my mouth. Chalk? Paste? No, it’s near, but not quite like that. I take another sip. Yup, it’s weird. It has to be the magnesium and lime combined. One more sip, and that’s enough. It’s definitely medicinal, for sure. It just tastes healthy.
W. R. added a new resort building on the hillside in 1927, extending the reach of Adams Springs until it filled a large area off of Highway 175. This hotel was much more magnificent, a large building sitting on the edge of Big Canyon. Its many windows and large, wraparound deck created a perfect space for the type of vacationer: the automobile tourist.
Adams Springs moved into the next era of its existence, one that would last through World War II. W. R., always the publicist, brought in the famed Merced Band to play some tunes “whenever guests desire to indulge in a hop.” Every evening, after dinner, the band would start up and the dance floor filled. And the swinging jazz music filled the pine-scented mountain air as the summer day’s heat slowly cooled until the crisp night took over and the stars speckled the clean air.
It was a good time to be in Lake County; resorts dotted the Cobb Mountain area. Because people had to ration their gas during WWII, most people from the bay area could only drive so far. And Lake County was just the right distance. People would save up their gas ration coupons and they could just make it up to Adams Springs For most of the guests, each Friday night worked the same: Dad, getting off work somewhere in the city, would make the drive up to the resort to meet up with Mom and the kids, who had rented a cabin and spent the week in the mountains. After dinner, and, once the kids went to bed, Mom and Dad would head to the bar/ballroom for a nightcap. All weekend the kids played, swimming at the pool, horseback riding, or hiking. Mom and Dad had a few drinks to work off Friday night’s hangover and to get them ready for Saturday night’s dancing, bingo, and, at Adam’s Springs, gambling. Then, Sunday evening or early Monday morning, Dad would leave again to the city, to work through the week before coming back up for another weekend of partying and fun.
But in 1943, the new resort burned. Lilburn Prather, known to most as Bob, was there that day. “The resort was full when the new hotel on the hill burned to the ground,” he says, remembering back to the moment. “The two small fire trucks that were on the scene were completely inadequate to stop the fire; the water turned to steam in the air before it reached the flames. Jim and I tried to save some of the cars, but they were too hot to touch.”
Guests stood in the parking lot and on the hotel balcony, watching it burn. The hotel quickly became fully engulfed and was a total loss. One woman, distraught over the loss of her jewelry, ran back into the building, and died from asphyxiation.
W. R. Prather never saw his life work go up in flames. He had passed away five years earlier at his home in Southern California.
His second son Clarence Prather had taken over by then, and kept the resort running for several more years, slowly losing income each year, until Adams Springs Resort was finally sold and the massive amounts of debt incurred paid off. The land was broken up and sold in pieces.
The old resort in the valley remained, closed and unused, until it became condemned and was deliberately burned in the sixties. Now there’s not much left; no post office, no horse corral or tennis courts. The hiking trails have overgrown, leaving only little indents in the mountainside to indicate their existence. All the young families grew older, and their children who used to play shuffleboard and ride their bikes around the resort became parents and grandparents themselves. Only the brick fountain standing underneath the pines and a few memories remain of the hotel.