Bell speaks at Historic Lebanon dinner

Jake Old • May 12, 2017 at 3:42 PM

Rick Bell, Lebanon city historian, city councilor and Cumberland University history professor, spoke about the history of Horn Springs during the annual Friends of Historic Lebanon Dinner on Thursday evening at Venue 142 in the historic Arcade building.


The event celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Historic Lebanon and also featured a catered meal and silent auction.

“History is made by people, but when you lose the places where history took place, you lose a big part of the story,” Bell said to open his presentation. “Tonight, I’m going to tell you about a place that’s no longer here.”

Horn Springs started as farmland, Bell said. From the time the property was bought in the early 1800s until 1870, that was how the property was used.

“In 1870, James Horn did something that changed the history of his family, and the history of his land,” Bell said.

Horn discovered spring water on the property, and he noticed that it smelled and tasted strange. He sent it to Vanderbilt to be studied, and the results he got back indicated the water was filled with minerals and had some curative properties.

Horn decided to use the water for financial gain and opened a resort on the land. There are not many records from the earliest days of the resort, Bell said.

In 1893, the family business was passed from James Horn to his son, Jim Horn.

“Jim had a lot of new ideas to do with the family business,” Bell said.

Around that same time, the Tennessee central railroad line was built, and tracks were laid just a few hundred yards from the resort.

“People could get from Nashville to his hotel easily,” Bell said. “As the years passed, the business grew.”

In the early 1900s, a dining room and more guest rooms were added to the resort. At some point in this time period, Horn began shipping water throughout the eastern United States.

“Now, not only could you travel to get mineral water, you could also get it delivered to your front door,” Bell said.

Horn Springs was at the height of its popularity from 1910-12, when an average of about 1,100 people visited each year.

“In the 1910s, Jim Horn was very successful,” Bell said. “One problem he had was just on the other side of the tracks, there was another mineral springs resort, and they were bitter rivals. Jim Horn owned Horn Springs, and Jim Hamilton owned Hamilton Springs.”

The two owners clashed about many different things. Bell said people in the area at night could hear bands playing from both hotels, and the music would blend together. Apparently each owner ordered the band at his hotel to play louder in an attempt to outdo his rival.

During a political rally in Leeville, the moderator saw Jim Horn in the audience and asked him to talk about his business. Horn said he had the greatest mineral water in Tennessee.

“Then, the moderator saw Jim Hamilton, and he thought, ‘uh-oh, I’d better let him talk too,’” Bell said. “Hamilton said ‘I’m glad Jim Horn thinks so much of the water, because he’s getting it out of my springs.’ And he was actually probably telling the truth. I would bet they were selling the same water, but advertising it as different.”

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, business slowed, and Jim Horn died in 1933 with his business struggling. His son, Joe Horn, took over and made changes.

“Joe had different ideas about how to do things,” Bell said. “He set special rates, advertised weekend parties. You didn’t have to stay all summer or all week; you could just stay for the weekend. The dining room became known as one of the best restaurants in Wilson County.”

Joe Horn also built a swimming pool on the site, and the pool remained until the 1970s.

The Horn family sold the property in 1945 after keeping it in the family for 135 years.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the resort was no longer a family destination. The focus was on local people and local organizations that would only stay for a brief time.

“After World War II, people had cars, and people had money,” Bell said. “They could travel faster, further. They passed places like Horn Springs by.”

President Harry Truman visited Horn Springs in the last year of his presidency, Bell said. Truman was in town for a dedication of a portrait of Cordell Hull at Cumberland University.

“After the celebration, they needed a place to take the president to eat, so they took him to Horn Springs, the place that everybody said was the best place to dine,” Bell said.

“He signed the registry book … for a long time, we thought ‘no, that’s can’t be true,’ but I visited the Harry Truman museum, and I took a picture of his signature and showed it to the curator and he said ‘yeah, that’s it.’ They also looked in their records and discovered, yes, he was in Lebanon, Tenn.”

Not long after Truman’s visit, the resort burned.

“It was a place that attracted people – some famous people, some not – but people went there to enjoy themselves, whether it was water, whether it was nature, whether it was to relax,” Bell said. 

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