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Chamberlin Springs: Rest & Research Since 1875

Published in Beloit Magazine/Summer 1984
By Sarah "Bird" Cupps, '85

 

     The yellow van pulls off onto the side of the country road and its doors open as young people clamber out. The sun is sending its first reddish rays over the treeline; cows move slowly across the early green of the pasture. One of the young women points at a darting bird. "I think it's a brown thrasher," she says. The group begins wandering along an old roadway through an oak/hickory forest.

     This is Chamberlin Springs. Billed in the college catalog as a "45-acre tract of wooded land northwest of the city limits," the property was given to the college for educational and recreational uses by the family of Thomas C[h]rowder Chamberlin, an 1866 graduate of Beloit and a geology professor with an international reputation who went on to become president of the University of Wisconsin.

     The Chamberlin Springs area has not, however, always been the peaceful place Beloit field trip participants find today. Indeed, when Chamberlin taught at Beloit, the springs (then called the Iodo-Magnesian Springs) were one of the most popular watering holes of the midwest.

     In 1875 Chamberlin and his brother saw the possibility of developing their woodlot spring into a money-making venture. What began as a cautious development of a small bubbling water source became, within a few years' time, a profitable spring water business -- both with visitors to the springs and shipments of water to distant retailers.

     To better evaluate the quality of their spring water, the brothers sent a sample from the source for a thorough analysis by Dr. C. F. Chandler at Columbia College in New York. The chemistry professor examined the variety and quantities of minerals found in the sample and reported back the presence of a dozen healthful minerals and barely a trace of organic matter. The Chamberlin brothers took Chandler's evaluation to heart and set about preparing a brochure praising their spring water.

Water "As Clear as Crystal"

     In particular, their brochure called attention to the "uniform temperature" (48 degrees) of the water and its purity -- "It comes forth from the rock clean and pure, and as clear as crystal." In conclusion, they noted that the water is "believed to possess the golden mean between excess and deficiency" of ingredients in "a manner which art cannot perfectly imitate."

     According to their flyer, drinking the extraordinary water was credited with bringing the user relief from a myriad of diseases, including inflammation of the kidneys and bladder, enlarged prostate gland, liver complaints, rheumatism, diseases of the blood, diabetes and dyspepsia. It was even credited with preventing the usual "summer complaints" of children.

     Their brochure also included a "citizen's certificate" signed by the prominent leaders of the Beloit community who endorsed the benefits of drinking the spring water. The city mayor, the president of the bank, President Chapin of Beloit College, numerous industry and business leaders and the four local druggists all endorsed the water. In addition, "the entire medical faculty of Beloit" city -- 11 physicians added their names to the product leaflet as references.

     The brothers then built a gazebo at the location of the springs, and they were in business. Word soon spread of the water's medicinal value, and people began coming to Beloit from as far away as Chicago. Weekend gatherings at the site soon were regular social events, with large picnics held in a nearby clearing.

     Beloit area residents versed in local history explain how carriages, buggies, riding horses and hikers followed a route from Spring Creek Road to the dirt road through the woods to the springs. The old road became heavily eroded from the traffic and is still traceable today. Interest in the springs was so great that consideration was even given to establishing a trolley line from Beloit to the site.

     Visitors to the springs would stay several days at a time to partake of the waters, residing in the nearly Chamberlin farmhouse. For consumers who could not visit the springs in person, the water was bottled for sale at the price of $3 for a case of eight two-gallon cans and $7 for a barrel of 40 gallons. Retail establishments could purchase spring water at a discounted price.

A Natural Laboratory

     By the time the Chamberlin land was given to the college, the springs had fallen out of use and the gazebo was torn down. During the 1920s and '30s the Chamberlin land was a popular spot for faculty and alumni picnics, but today the property is primarily put to use for college science field trips.

     Classes from the biology and geology departments make the most frequent use of the area, doing everything from tracking animals to watching birds to observing geological features. Student and faculty research projects have included studies of animal diversity in the woodlot, observations of the succession of a forest from oak/hickory openings to pine forest land, and the taking of samples of soil and water composition for geology projects.

     Local interest in the Chamberlin Springs area was rekindled this year when a photo of the original gazebo was published in the 1984 Wisconsin state calendar.

 

"Bird" Cupps, a junior from Hampshire, Ill., worked as an intern during the spring semester in the Office of Information Services at the college. Beloit Magazine readers may remember her story in the Summer 1983 issue about Beloit alumnus, cartoonist and naturalist "Ding" Darling.