For nearly 100 years, northeast Madison County was home to a pair of resorts known for their baths and swimming holes drawn from local wells and springs. According to the late Canton historian Jim Lacey Jr., Artesian Springs enjoyed its “heyday” in the 1850s and was burned to the ground during the Civil War whereas Allison’s Wells came into being at the turn of the century and went strong until it burned in January of 1963.
Lacey said the resort “was a center of social life in Madison County” from the 1800s until its fiery demise.
Visitors would come in from all over the country by rail where they would stop at the Way Railroad Station just nine miles north of Canton and a mile away from the Allison’s Wells resort. The resort was said to be accessible down a gravel road that twisted into the woods just off Highway 51.
People were drawn to the hotel in rural Mississippi from all over because of the purported curative properties of the mineral water there, reportedly Eudora Welty was a friend of the owners and dined there on multiple occasions. In “Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa,” a small book by one of the last proprietors of the resort, Hosford Fontaine remembers the water was said to treat malaria and acted as a so-called “purgative” as well as tonic water.
Some sources claim when you mixed the water with bourbon, it would turn black. Fontaine says this was due to the high sulfur content of the water.
She described the water fresh from the pumps as “sparkling, bubbling, ice cold and quite palatable out of the well” but went on to say that it was harder to drink after the water was allowed to settle because it develop an oily film.
The name comes from Mrs. Mary B. Allison of New Orleans. According to Fontaine, Allison had a well dug on the property in 1879 that would one day have the resort on it. Reportedly the water tasted strange. “Medicinal,” Fontaine says.
“This health-giving water brought people to come and drink the water and buy it,” Fontaine wrote. “So it was necessary to build the cottages on the hill for health seekers who came for weeks and months, as well as to enlarge the original home for guests.”
Tracking the chain of custody of the land after Allison proves tricky. Lacey records two land owners at various times in the 1890s, Douglas C. Latimer, a civil engineer brought in to work on rebuilding the railroad, and Sam Wherry. Wherry may have been Latimer’s father-in-law, he was married to Norma Wherry who was previously of Durant. Lacey says these two bought 2,400 acres on both sides of Way Road from the Rail Road to where Highway 51 is now.
Hosford Fontaine’s maiden name was Latimer and she grew up on and around the resort property. She would marry a John Fontaine Jr. and they would run the resort until it burned in 1963.
Charlotte Capers, who wrote the foreword for Fontaine’s 1981 book, said the Fontaine’s “dressed for dinner because dinner was worth dressing for and expected you to do the same.” She also said the dinners in the resort dining room- described as dim and cool-where served “culinary marvels” cooked on a “fragrant wood stove."
It is hard to find exact descriptions of the resort, specifically how many it could accommodate. Lacey describes it at one point as a “big old country hotel” but says it was likely smaller than Artesian Springs which boasted 1,200 in a “spacious ballroom” and sitting 600 people for dinner during one raucous Fourth of July celebration in 1850.
Some descriptions include an old bath house and well-house, a gazebo and boat house. Hosford favored fresh cut flowers whenever possible and each room and building was said to be full of them. The resort featured a rose garden and nature path maintained by the Canton Garden Club.
Lacey mentions the dining room and a “shaded swimming pool.” Capers said the center of the resort was The Pavillion calling it the “focal point of constant activity.”
It seems the resort owners were always adding new buildings or renovating old ones. Hosford writes of a ‘Latvian style studio” for artists but said the art interest at the resort outgrew that space within a year and it was then converted to an Episcopal Chapel.
Despite the buttoned-up fair at the evening meal, Capers said a stay at Allison’s produced a “good deal of uncertainty.”
“Allison’s regulars learned to expect the unexpected, and that was part of the fun,” She said.
One memorable weekend at the resort saw the staff accidentally double-booking the honeymoon suite and another saw a makeshift air conditioner, long before such technology was widely available, rigged up in the dining room. It was a fairly simple device, a fan was rigged to blow air threw wet straw. Capers said this cooled the air.
It was not unusual to see Hosford conning a new guest into shelling peas or dredging leaves out of the pool as an activity.
“Regulars knew better, but all had to serve their apprenticeship,” Capers wrote.
Guests who were identified to be “of goodwill” were invited to “The Retreat” a sort of cocktail hour before dinner where a white-coated waiter served the guests drinks. Capers writes that each guest would receive two cocktails-that is both a maximum and a minimum-as “tall tales were told, and the stories got funnier with the second drink.”
The resort was also home to gambling in Madison County. John Fontaine III recounted a Fourth of July celebration in 1927 where he shared a room with his uncle Doug Latimer in a local paper. Lacey reprinted a portion in one of his history bits from 2004.
“The hotel was full and the family squeezed anywhere,” Fontaine wrote.
An “imported professional” would set up in the men’s sulfur bath house.
On that July 4, evening the young Fontaine said he had trouble sleeping and saw his uncle return to bed late at night with a cigar box stuffed with large denomination bills. He put the cigar box by his bed, laid a pistol on top and went to sleep.
“These weren't your everyday greenback silver certificates,” Fontaine recollects. “They were green on one side but orange on the other. Gold certificates! You only got that gambling the old-fashioned way.”
Lacey describes the gambling as semi-hidden and said it ran through the 1930s though the resort in its later years was known for its focus on health focus and family-friendly reputation. Fontaine III even writes that none of this was ever explicitly explained to him.
“Most of this I pieced together over time and fully understood only much later,” Fontaine wrote.
Fontaine III remembers an abandoned gambling hall behind the men’s sulfur house which he regularly explored growing up.
"The frame building was sited down a hillside. above in front were two private card rooms and a larger gaming room behind where dice tables still made imaginative forts for a five-year-old,” He wrote.
The building also featured a fighting cock pit with “several tiers of benches for spectators.” Fontaine said the building was sued as a mule barn while he was growing up. He said his grandfather, though he does not specify who that is, had a known “gaming interest.” He said the mule barn still had large cages where his grandfather’s “pedigree fighting cocks were raised.”
The resort was known to attract artists. Under the guidance of the Fontaine’s the Mississippi Art Colony, which still exists today and calls Utica home, started in the hotel in 1948 and would hold regular sessions at the resort until it burned down. Capers said guests were known to find “experimental art” mysteriously appearing in their rooms. Chicken wire was a favorite material for these art projects.
“Allison’s had many firsts: First American Bridge League Tournament in Mississippi,” Hosfrod Fontaine writes. “First Art Colony in Mississippi… First Continuous Exhibition of Paintings with a Tea … This is a few of them.”
She ends her manuscript with a celebration of the memories made and traditions set at the famed resort.
“Nothing dies—realities live,“ She says.