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WOYM: ‘Springlore’ offers insights to Roanoke region's history

WOYM: ‘Springlore’ offers insights to Roanoke region's history

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Two coasts and neighboring regions have been all but drowned. Inferno infests vast regions to the west. Pestilence nears again.

May we return to verdant glades where tall trees shade gurgling waters that offer health, refreshment and peace.

Marshall W. Fishwick called man’s fascination with spring water “springlore,” a term the Roanoke native and man of letters coined.

The definition of the term provided in his 1978 “Springlore in Virginia” is what we “know, think, and say about flowing waters, springs and spas, and the people who gather around them.”

Further, he continued, earth’s natural fountains “can and do serve as healing places, stage sets, touchstones, ciphers, icons — even tombstones of a mass culture.”

If “stage set” defined the once grand then tawdry Blue Ridge Spring, once nestled in Botetourt County’s U.S. 460 corridor, the production would have been melodrama at its most lurid.

“Watering places all over the world are alike — a general muster, under the banner of folly, to drive care and common sense out of the field,” Capt. Frederick Marryat was quoted by Fishwick.

“Folly” defined the twilight years of Blue Ridge Spring, which having finally gone to ruin in the earlier decades of the 20th century turned into a place of the sort of romance enjoyed in the back seat of an automobile.

In the end “the old place couldn’t even succeed as Lover’s Lane,” Fishwick noted.

Before regular forays by deputy sheriffs armed with powerful flashlights put a stop to most of the fun, dealings between another pair of lovers took a darker turn.

Earlier dispatches here described the relationship that developed between the fading resort’s 1930s-era proprietress Mary Jane Hastings and her suitor of ill intent. The man was introduced by Fishwick as the “dashing Major Robert C. Kent Jr., former army officer, horseman, and man of the world.”

It seems the dashing (and soon to be revealed as in fact dastardly) Maj. Kent seduced the fetching widow Mrs. Hastings and ultimately hastened her away, lured for an out-of-state tryst.

Soon after, the resident manager at Blue Ridge received a startling telegram instructing him that upon arrival, Maj. Kent was to be given “all keys, property, checks, and money” for the resort. The cryptic message, supposedly signed by Mrs. Hastings, detailed her plans to embark for Atlantic City “and perhaps to Canada.”

The plot unraveled swiftly when the wicked major turned up with bloodstains on the front seat of his car and the widowed hotel keeper was found dead beside a Pennsylvania country road.

Kent was brought up on federal charges and jailed in Roanoke. The histrionics began at once when he staged a four-day hunger strike accompanied by “strange attacks.” Kent’s jailers described these maladies as “just plain fits.”

These episodes were manifested by the accused lying twitching on the floor “for hours” as though consumed by St. Vitus Dance. Medical authorities pronounced this behavior a fraud and Kent went to trial.

Upon first entering the courtroom, Kent slumped to the floor twitching. Hysteria gripped the proceeding with his wife and other family members rushing to his side. Reviving the accused was impossible and he was taken back to his cell. Further examination by mental health experts sustained the earlier conclusion that the loss of bodily control was contrived.

Kent was found guilty and sentenced to 13 years in the state pen in Richmond, the jury having digested the circumstantial evidence and subsequently rendering its decision in less than an hour.

The resort’s shabby decline took a little longer.

“The crickets got the last chirp,” Fishwick wrote.

Love took more traditional forms in earlier eras at the region’s healing spring resorts. These havens were long the setting for matchmaking and see-and-be-seen courting for the well-to-do of an earlier era. Glamorous belles and their beaux were in constant orbit about each other.

There were of course formal standards of 19th century behavior to be met. That prompted Fishwick to ask whether some of the coquetry may have gone “too far.”

“Few ever raised the question that is all but impossible to answer,” he wrote. “Many were the hints, few the indictments.”

Tragedy and despair were as much a part of springlore as romance. At Montgomery White Sulphur Springs, which once operated near Shawsville, the resort was used as a hospital during the Civil War. A smallpox epidemic ravaged the facility with catastrophic fatality rates.

Fishwick visited the site while researching his book. Meeting an old-timer who said his family “has always been in these parts,” the historian inquired what had become of the graves for all those pox-felled Confederates?

“They’re back there somewhere,” the man said. “But let me give you good advice, Mister, don’t go poking around in them parts. Only one feller ever felt at home over there.”

Who was that?

“The Devil.”

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