The famous mineral springs of Adams County

Written and photos by Lillian Barry

In 1840, just south of present-day Peebles, Charles Matheny stumbled upon a spring that winded through Peach Mountain, dipped his hands into its waters, and drank. What he found would prove to be invaluable — Matheny believed he had discovered medicinal gold.   

Matheny’s Medicine 

According to Mineral Springs: Adams County Ohio by Stephen Kelley, Matheny spent the next few months returning to the spring, claiming the sulfurous water had cured his kidney disorder. Word spread of a magical cure-all and soon people from all over flocked to try the healing waters for themselves.  

Elias Matheny, the spring’s owner and a relative of Matheny, became frustrated with the sudden influx of interest. In response, he sold the land with the spring, which eventually fell into the hands of Hillis Rees. Rees took advantage of the natural wonder by constructing a two-story log hotel: Sodaville.    

In anticipation of the hotel’s prosperity, some ambitious individuals purchased land south of the hotel, inadvertently creating a community that would later become Mineral Springs. Thus, the hotel became wildly successful in the coming years and gained recognition for its purported health benefits.  

By the mid-1800s, guests had the opportunity to not only soak in the springs, but hike the mountain, play tennis or croquet and fish. In 1904, another entrepreneur recognized the hotel’s profitability and constructed a separate, smaller hotel near the existing one.    

The success of the main resort peaked just before World War I, and it housed visitors from all over the country. Unfortunately, the war damaged the hotel’s good fortune. It changed ownership multiple times in the 1920s, and by 1924, the hotel was beginning to fall apart, with many of the rooms left empty. It was beyond disrepair when it caught fire in April of that year, the debris scattering as far as two miles away.  

The catastrophe was allegedly caused by a meat block that was placed too close to the fireplace. Although the smaller hotel remained unaffected by the fire, it, too, suffered a loss in popularity and was demolished in 1950.   

Science of the Springs 

Adams County is home to not only mineral springs, but to several karst features, a landform susceptible to sinkholes. This is what Douglas Aden, a geologist at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, specializes in.  

In addition to sinkholes, these karst terrains also commonly contain caves and springs, features Aden helps to map when he finds them. Springs are more difficult to locate— according to Aden, for every 100 sinkholes, he might find one spring.  

The sulfur spring of Matheny’s day is right against the Ohio Shale, a geologic formation that can primarily be found in eastern and central Ohio, separated into three units: the Huron Shale Member, the Cleveland Shale Member and the Chagrin Shale Member, the last of which can be partially found in Adams County.  

Water can’t easily pass through the shale, so it runs into the limestone, causing dissolution. As groundwater travels through the limestones below the Ohio Shale, it accumulates sulfur, which causes dissolution in the limestone and provides the sulfur content of the spring.  

But Aden warns against trying Matheny’s famous remedy.    

“There’s sort of this misconception that spring water is inherently healthy,” he says. “And, you know, it can be fine. It can also be a problem. It’s unfortunately easily polluted.”  

If anything is spilled into a sinkhole, or if the sinkhole is used as a trash dumping ground, pollutants will leak directly into the spring.  

But the Mineral Springs Lake Resort is doing its best to keep up its reputation as one of the cleanest lakes in Ohio.   

The Mineral Springs of Today 

The sulfur spring of Mineral Springs Hotel is one of the 16 major springs that feed into Mineral Springs Lake, where the Mineral Springs Lake Resort resides. Besides its name, the Mineral Springs Lake Resort may not have any connection to the Mineral Springs Hotel of the 1800s, but both realized the potential that the mineral-rich water held.  

Toby Smalley, the son of the resort’s founder, William “Billy” Smalley, says that his father always wanted to build a lake resort.    

The resort opened its doors in 1973 with 60 campsites. The Smalley family, including Smalley’s mother, Phyllis Smalley, Smalley’s father and Smalley’s three siblings helped run the resort. The property ended up containing the largest privately-owned lake in Ohio, as well as one of the cleanest.    

ABOVE: Toby Smalley holding an aerial photo of mineral springs lake

“In the wintertime, you can go out and get your cup and just take a drink right off the surface,” says Smalley.  

In addition to water’s cleanliness, campers have claimed the mineral water has provided health benefits for them. Although Smalley has never experienced these benefits himself, he says the resort’s guests have stated that soaking in the water has provided them with arthritis relief and clearer skin. These campers were Smalley’s favorite part of working at the resort — to Smalley, they were like “a second family.”  

While the benefits of mineral-rich water are somewhat unknown, it could provide some of the benefits that campers described. In a systematic literature review published in the International Journal of Biometeorology, the effects of balneotherapy — a practice that includes bathing in mineral water — could potentially reduce stress levels. Similarly, a paper published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine by two faculty at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid states that a soak in sulfurous water in particular could have benefits for both skin and inflammation.    

In February 2020, the Smalleys sold the resort to Tom Partin after William Smalley’s passing.  

Due to external factors, none of the Smalleys were able to take over the resort, although Smalley still holds a fondness for it. He takes pride in his mother and father’s work, as well as the role he played in helping them. William Smalley’s dream to build a lake resort has not only been realized, but continues to thrive — the resort currently has over 400 campsites.   

“We were always proud that mom and dad had this and that we were a part of it,” says Smalley. 

Adams County’s mineral springs have made an undeniable impact on both the county’s people and its history. Today, Matheny’s discovery echoes throughout Peebles, as is evident in the sprawling Mineral Springs Resort on the aptly named Mineral Springs Road. There, one can also find the historical marker for the old hotel, just across from the springs.  

The importance of the mineral springs has withstood the test of time, and, as it seems, will continue to leave its mark on Adams County.