Legendary in the early 1900s for its rumored powers to cure a host of ailments, this tiny Texas community's mineral baths and well water once attracted tens of thousands of tourists, including the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Clark Gable and a future president, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Mineral Wells was thriving in the 1920s-40s, with about a dozen water companies and several hotels providing mineral baths to treat everything from arthritis to mental illnesses. One company even named its product Crazy Water after an elderly woman's "mania" allegedly was cured after she drank from a well in the late 1800s.
Then everything began to change after World War II. Such remedies became less popular as penicillin and other antibiotics became readily available. People stopped coming and most hotels closed. The town's namesake lost its relevance as Mineral Wells began focusing on manufacturing and aviation industries.
More than a half century later, a water company that survived the town's economic facelift has boosted sales of Crazy Water to several states and is again offering mineral baths -- helping revive Mineral Wells' long-dormant roots across Texas and beyond.
"It's always been our goal to make it a part of the living history so the heritage of the town didn't die," said Carol Elder, who bought the 109-year-old Famous Water Co. with her husband 14 years ago and expanded mineral water sales beyond the town. "It's very unique. You'd be hard-pressed to find as much history as this town has."
While water likely will never return as Mineral Wells' main industry, those who live and work in this quiet community of 17,000 residents still embrace its heritage. Some 10,000 people attend the annual Crazy Water Festival in October that features a beer brewed with the special water, described as having a more robust flavor than regular beer. "Keep Mineral Wells Crazy" banners line the main downtown street that features antique shops, eateries and other businesses.
Towering over these buildings is the iconic 450-room Baker Hotel, Mineral Wells' faded jewel that once attracted the rich and famous but now sits unoccupied with shuttered and broken windows across its worn facade. The hotel closed in 1972 after operating about 40 years, but a development company is trying to secure financing to renovate the Baker into an upscale hotel for conventions and weddings.
"Water is such an integral part of our community," said Beth Watson, president of the Mineral Wells Area Chamber of Commerce. "Our economy is based on several industries, but the Baker is still one of the most asked-about points of interest here."
The town 75 miles west of Dallas was founded in 1881 and named for the unusual wells. Although other cities in Texas and elsewhere had similar wells and springs with nearby resorts, Mineral Wells was among the more popular destinations in the early 1900s, with some 150,000 visitors annually. One company shipped just the minerals in packets called Crazy Water Crystals for customers to mix into their water -- making is possible "for people everywhere to `Drink their way to Health,"' according to a 1930s newspaper ad.
While those early ads proclaimed that the water cured constipation, nervous indigestion, high blood pressure, bad complexion, liver trouble, acid stomach, arthritis and neuritis, the Federal Drug Administration doesn't allow health claims for mineral water.
The water contains sulfate, which health experts say helps in digestion; sodium bicarbonate, which maintains the body's pH balance; silica, which helps repair tissues; as well as calcium, potassium, zinc and magnesium.
Brian A. Johnson, a personal trainer and holistic nutrition coach in Dallas, said he recommends Crazy Water because the high levels of electrolytes help people hydrate faster, and the sodium bicarbonate flushes out lactic acid produced during exercise that leads to muscle soreness. But he's not calling it a cure.
"If you're deficient in trace minerals, your body's ability to function as normal is limited," he said.
Last fall, Elder decided to start offering the once-coveted mineral baths of yesteryear. So far the company only has one bathtub -- mostly frequented by locals within an hour's drive -- but it could add a half dozen tubs if the mineral bath demand continues to rise, Elder said.
Local resident Christy McKamey, who has taken several mineral baths at Famous Water, says they are relaxing. The company's small bathroom is adorned with antique furniture and old Famous Water advertising signs -- resembling a room at a hotel where people took baths in the early 1900s.
Crazy Water initially was sold by a competing company, and when it went out of business in the 1970s, Famous Water took over the trademark and has been selling it under that brand ever since.
When Elder and her husband bought Famous Water in 1999, water sales were only local and about $30 a day. She said the company just ended the year with a 45 percent growth increase and sells Crazy Water in about 500 health food stores and supermarkets across Texas and some health food stores in six other western states. Elder credits the expansion to word of mouth from runners, cyclists and other customers.
"Some people in a store see our label and buy Crazy Water because they think it's cool, but the majority of people trying it have had exposure to it," Elder said. "People are looking at simple, easy ways to get more minerals in their diet."