Vita Spring

by Rev. Silas Hawley

"The recent [1879] discovery, within the corporate limits of the city of Beaver Dam, of a mineral spring possessing unexcelled medicinal properties, lends an additional charm to this beautiful place, and brings it within the pale of the most attractive of summer resorts. The history of Dr. Swan's spring cannot better be told than by reproducing articles from the Citizen, written by Rev. Silas Hawley to Judge L. D. Livermore, soon after the fortunate discovery was made:

From conversations with early settlers, much ancient history has been secured in regard to what has hitherto been familiarly known as the Ackerman Spring. The recent analysis having proved its efficacy by modern science, a brief recital of its knowledge by the Indians will be of interest. And although it may appear romantic or fictitious, the statements made are vouched for by reliable informants, and the authority is given in one or two instances, and we give it as related to us. The subsequent findings, in the shape of relics, etc., also corroborate, in incident, the statements made: This spring was well known to the red men of the forest, probably centuries ago, as the 'healing spring,' and was called by them the 'much good water' [nįpixjįra]. Much-kaw, the great medicine chief of the Winnebagoes, continued to visit this spring as long as he lived. He died about the year 1860, at the great age, as he said, of over 120 years, and his appearance fully warranted his assertion. In talking about this spring, he said, so long ago as he could remember, it had been known to the Indians as 'healing spring;' that, long years ago, there had been contentions between his tribe and the Potawatomies for the possession of it for a 'medicine water' and a hunting-ground, it being a great resort for the wild animals, especially in times of great drought; that when all other water was dried up, this spring was running full. And this story is corroborated by the fact that it has never failed or materially changed its volume since it has been known to the white man. It is also corroborated by the great number of relics found in and about it while clearing it out and preparing the grounds this season, such as pieces of human skull-bones, other human bones, and a large number of the bones of animals. There were also found many elk and deer horns; one very large elk-horn was found in the center of the spring, several feet below the surface of the ground, on the stones that surround it, in perfect state of preservation. Some of those found outside the spring were in a partial state of preservation, while many of them were in such a decayed condition that they could not be saved. Other relics were found, such as pieces of gun-stocks, gun-barrels, arrow-heads, etc. The doctor has saved many of them."

Wiscopawis, chief of the Winnebagoes, prior to the tribes being removed to their western reservation, in conversation with M. Shafer, Esq., of Beaver Dam, told him this spring was much prized by his tribe. He called it 'the much good water'. And this is confirmed by the many Indian trails leading toward the spring. The great novelty of this spring is a bank or wall of large stone, found embedded in the clay, about twelve feet wide, lying out from the spring on either side about eight feet, and sloping toward the center of it, with a line of this bank of stone on the west side of the spring, extending to the hard land, about thirty feet. Whether this bank or wall of stone was made by man or eruptions of the earth, can never be determined. Some parts of it appeared to be quite regular, and other parts promiscuous."1

Vita Spring

Commentary. "Rev. Silas Hawley" — "son of Silas and Elizabeth (Marsh) Hawley, of Amherst, Mass., was born in Amherst, Mass., 15 Aug., 1815; attended the common school a number of years, then 'studied some five years in the academies of Holland Patent and Whitesboro', and at the Oneida Collegiate Institute, all in Central New York. Also studied with the Rev. Stephen W. Burritt, brother of the author of the Geography of the Heavens.' He was licensed to preach in the Spring of 1835, and ordained the subsequent year. The principal places of his pastorate were: Cazenovia, Penn Yan, Phelps and Peekskill, N. Y.; New Bedford, Mass.; Fond du Lac, Wis.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Wyoming, one of the beautiful suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. He married 1st, Melinda Benedict, youngest daughter of Stephen Benedict, Esq., of Sherburne, N. Y., and sister of Hon. Joseph Benedict of Utica, and of O. M. Benedict, a leading member of the Rochester bar. They had three children. His first wife died at Penn Yan, 23 Dec, 1848, and he married 2d, 24 Jan., 1850, Harriet Joy, daughter of Leander Reddy, and they had two children. She died in Fond du Lac, 24 May, 1857, and he married 3d, 22 May, 1860, Andalusia Gillette, the youngest daughter of Dea. Kirkland Gillette, and they had one child. Rev. Silas Hawley was one of the original Abolitionists, and was present at the formation of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society in October, 1835, in Utica and Peterboro, N. Y., and continued in that line to the end. In the autumn of 1873, Rev. Silas Hawley retired from regular pastoral work, and located at Beaver Dam, Wis., where he continued to do evangelistic work. He died 3 Nov., 1888." His only son Erskine lost his leg at Vicksburg fighting in the Wisconsin Volunteers "to set men free" as the old song has it.2

"the fortunate discovery" — "On June 2, 1879, while looking about for a pasture for his cow, the Doctor inspected the spring from the stream of which the cow had been drinking in a lot below; he discovered that the water was decidedly alkaline by taste and touch, and delightful as a beverage; the same morning he purchased the spring of A. Shipman, including about two acres of land, for $250, and, on further simple tests of the water, felt justified in additional purchases of land adjoining, so that in a few weeks he was in possession of seventeen acres; on July 28, he sent two gallons of water from the spring to Gustavus Bode, Chemist, of Milwaukee, for analysis, and, on August 12, received the result of the analysis, in which the Professor declares the water to be the same and fully equal to the far famed water of Waukesha; at this writing, in September, the work of improving the spring and grounds is being vigorously pushed, and, in the season of 1880, the Doctor will have a charming mineral spring and park; he is a public-spirited citizen, and will, no doubt, be the means of making Beaver Dam a widely known and well-patronized place for summer visitors."3 On the old 1873 Map of Beaver Dam the site of Vita Spring can be located on a vacant lot enumerated "91"; in contrast, see the 1890 Map, where Vita Park, as it was then called, has been developed. The location of the spring is 43.451928, -88.829940.

"Much-kaw" — probably a corruption of Mącgú(ga), "Bow," a Bear Clan name.

"120 years" — Chief Yellow Thunder was also said to have lived this many years. This is something of a perfect number: 120 = 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 = 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 + 9 + 10 + 11 + 12 + 13 + 14 + 15.

Library of Congress
Dr. Swan

"the doctor" — this is Dr. George Elbridge Swan, born in 1838 in New York. His family not long afterward removed to Greenfield, Ohio. In 1855, he set out on his own to achieve an education, the poverty of his family making difficult for him to accomplish anything. He studied in New York, and later in Michigan. Due to his rigorous study habits and general privation, he succumbed to a disorder termed "lethargy." (This sounds rather like lyme disease.) He seems to have recovered by 1863, when he took up the study of medicine. He completed his studies in New York City in 1866, moved to Indiana, then Ohio, and married into money in 1870. He took over a practice in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin (the site of Vita Springs) in 1876. Not long after he fashioned his own patent medicine, having perfected "a remarkable specific for the cure of female weakness, which proved so effective, and its demand became so extensive, that he had no time to devote to the further regular practice of his profession, and has now, in 1879, a cash sale of this medicine, called pastries, of between 8,000 and 4,000 boxes per month, with 1,600 lady agents, in all parts of the United States."4 He became mayor of Beaver Dam in 1881, and died in 1913.5

"Wiscopawis" — if this is a Hocąk name, it is corrupted beyond my ability to reconstruct it.

Links: ...

Stories: mentioning springs: Trail Spring, Merrill Springs, Big Spring and White Clay Spring, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, Bear Clan Origin Myth, vv. 6, 8, Bird Clan Origin Myth, The Woman Who Fought the Bear, Bluehorn's Nephews, Blue Mounds, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, The Lost Child, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Wild Rose, The Omahas who turned into Snakes, The Two Brothers, Snowshoe Strings, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Nannyberry Picker, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, Rich Man, Boy, and Horse, The Two Boys, Waruǧábᵉra, Wazųka, The Man Who Fell from the Sky, Turtle and the Witches.

Themes: ...


1 The History of Dodge County, Wisconsin (Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1880) 477. This story is also found in Dorothy Moulding Brown, Indian Legends of Historic and Scenic Wisconsin, Wisconsin Folklore Booklets (Madison: 1947) 11; Wisconsin Archeologist, 7, #4 ns.: 216.

2 Elias Sill Hawley, The Hawley Record (Buffalo: E. H. Hutchinson, 1890) 568, Note 233.

3 The History of Dodge County, Wisconsin, 598-599.

4 The History of Dodge County, Wisconsin, 598-599. Men of Progress, Wisconsin: a selected list of biographical sketches and portraits of the leaders in business, professional and official life, together with short notes on the history and character of Wisconsin (Milwaukee: The Evening Wisconsin Company, 1897) 500-501.

5 Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy, Volume 6 (1913): 265.