Wesselhoeft Water Cure, Brattleboro, Vermont

The Wesselhoeft Water Cure, at the corner of Elliot and Church Streets in Brattleboro, probably around the 1860s. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

During the first half of the 19th century, a number of alternative medical treatments gained popularity in Europe and the United States. Among these was hydrotherapy, also known as water cure, which involved wraps, baths, and drinking large quantities of water in order to treat a wide range of ailments. The thinking was that water – particularly cold, pure spring water – would flush out impurities in the body, and would restore a person to health. Like most of the other medical treatments of the era, these claims were often dubious, but hydrotherapy was certainly less harmful than many of the often dangerous patent medicines that were peddled turing this time period. It was marketed as a natural alternative to such drugs, and these water cure facilities enjoyed a heyday in the United States around the middle of the 19th century.

One of the earliest and most prominent of these water cure establishments was the Wesselhoeft Water Cure, which was opened here in Brattleboro in 1845 by Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft. A native of Germany, where hydrotherapy had gained popularity in the early 19th century, Wesselhoeft subsequently immigrated to the United States, and earned his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1841. Several years later he came to Brattleboro, after determining it to be an ideal location with pure water. As he described it, “Fresh springs issue from all the hills. The water is the purest I could find among several hundred springs I have visited and tested, from Virginia to the White Mountains, within two hundred mines of the seacoast.”

In 1844, Dr. Wesselhoeft purchased the buildings at this location, on the northwest corner of Elliot and Church Streets. After some additions and remodeling, the water cure was ready to open the following year, on May 29, 1845. The water cure had only 15 patients at first, but this soon increased to around 150, with men housed in a building on the west side, and women in the east building, which is seen here in the first photo. By the following year the water cure had nearly 400 patients, which was beyond the capacity of the buildings, and many to stay in nearby hotels and boarding houses. The facility was expanded over the next few years, and by 1848 Dr. Wesselhoeft has to hire a second physician, fellow German immigrant Dr. Charles W. Grau, to keep up with the demand.

The book Annals of Brattleboro, 1681-1895 provides a description of a typical patient’s treatment, which was written by Dr. Wesselhoeft:

The patient is waked about four o’clock in the morning, and wrapped in thick woollen blankets almost hermetically; only the face and sometimes the whole head remains free; all other contact of the body with the air being carefully prevented. Soon the vital warmth streams out from the patient, and collects round him, more or less according to his own constitution and the state of the atmosphere. After a while he begins to perspire, and he must continue to perspire till his covering itself becomes wet. During this time his head may be covered with cold compresses and he may drink as much fresh water as he likes. Windows and doors are opened in order to promote the flow of perspiration by the entrance of fresh, vital air. As soon as the attendant observes that there has been perspiration enough, he dips the patient into a cold bath, which is ready in the neighborhood of the bed. As soon as the first shock is over he feels a sense of comfort, and the surface of the water becomes covered with clammy matter, which perspiration has driven out from him. The pores, which have been opened by the process of perspiration, suck up the moisture with avidity, and, according to all observations, this is the moment when the wholesome change of matter takes place, by which the whole system gradually becomes purified. In no case has this sudden change of temperature proved to be injurious.

Such treatments were believed to cure a wide range of illnesses. The 1848 book The Water Cure in America, which was co-authored by Dr. Wesselhoeft and several other physicians, included a number of case studies and testimonials from patients here in Brattleboro. According to these claims, the water cure could treat conditions such as lumbago, hemorrhage from the liver, scrofula, scarlet fever, paralysis, swelling of the knee, lung disease from measles, fever and ague, chilblains, typhus of the lungs, typhoid fever, iodine poisoning, boils, bronchitis, dyspepsia, rheumatism, curvature of the spine, and even smallpox.

The book also promised relief from “Headache, Cold Feet, Costiveness, and slight attacks of Hypochondria and Hysteria, from depression of Spirits.” This group of ailments primarily afflicted patients who were “of the female sex, and of students, who, by their sedentary habits, contract congestion of the blood in the lower abdominal organs.” The cure for this was “cold washings, sitz, and foot-baths, two injections a day of one tumbler of water 72º each, wet bandages on the abdomen and loins, drinking of nothing but water; a light diet, and removal of woollen underdresses.”

A stay at the Wesselhoeft Water Cure cost $10 per week in the summer, and $11 in the winter. This covered all expenses except for laundry, but patients also needed to provide the following items, which could be rented or purchased:

  1. At least two good large woollen blankets.
  2. A feather bed, or three comforters.
  3. A sheet of coarse linen, which can be cut, or at least one piece of inch linen, six qrs. long, and six qrs. wide; also, pieces of linen, and cotton, for bandages.
  4. Two coarse cotton sheets.
  5. Six towels.
  6. One injection instrument.

In addition, Wesselhoeft’s description in The Water Cure in America advised that “Very sick, and helpless patients, for whom the ordinary attendance would not be sufficient, must hire a nurse, or waiter, who can be boarded at $2.50 per week.” Those who did not wish to stay at the establishment could stay at one of the nearby boarding houses for $3.50 to $5.00 per week, plus a $5.00 per week fee as a day guest at the water cure. However, these charges were advertised as being negotiable, with Dr. Wesselhoeft offering reduced rates for poor patients whenever possible.

During its heyday in the 1840s and early 1850s, the Wesselhoeft Water Cure attracted patients from around the country, including a number of prominent figures of the era. Former President Martin Van Buren was a patient here, along with poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, abolitionists Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe, and authors Richard Henry Dana, Francis Parkman and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The latter spent 11 months here in 1846 and 1847, several years before she achieved widespread fame as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ironically, the same establishment that catered to so many prominent northern abolitionists was also popular among southerners in the antebellum era, and they comprised about a third of Wesselhoeft’s business.

Dr. Wesselhoeft returned to Germany in 1851, where he died the following year, but his widow Ferdinanda carried on the water cure even after his death. However, by this point it was in decline, and this would only get worse after the start of the Civil War in 1861, when southerners stopped traveling to the north. The first photo was probably taken around this time, and the water cure finally closed in 1871, after having been in business for just 26 years. The building, which had once attracted some of the most prominent Americans of the mid-19th century, was subsequently sold and converted into tenements. It remained here for some time afterward, but it was eventually demolished, and its former location is now the site of the current fire station.

Connecticut River, Brattleboro, Vermont

The view of Brattleboro, Vermont, seen looking northwest from the bridge over the Connecticut River, around 1894. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The scene in 2017:

These two photos were actually taken in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, since the state line runs along the western side of the Connecticut River. However, the subject of the photos is Brattleboro, a town that developed along the banks of the river during the 19th century. Located near the southeastern corner of Vermont, Brattleboro was among the earliest towns in the state, and was settled soon after the conclusion of the French and Indian War, when French invasions from Quebec were no longer a threat. Its location along the Connecticut River made Brattleboro an important center for both trade and manufacturing, and by the middle of the 19th century it was rapidly growing as a mill town.

Many of the buildings in downtown Brattleboro date back to this period, and some of these are visible in these two photos. The left side of the first photo shows the rear of the buildings on the east side of Main Street, most of which are still standing today, although hidden by trees in the 2017 photo. Further in the distance, on the far left of both photos, is the tower of the Brooks House, a large hotel that was built in 1871 at the corner of Main and High Streets. Two other landmarks in this scene include the steeple of the 1870 First Baptist Church in the center, and the steeple of the 1842 Centre Congregational Church on the right side.

Today, this scene has not significantly changed, more than 120 years after the first photo was taken. The Connecticut River appears somewhat higher in the present-day view, perhaps a consequence of the 1908 construction of the Vernon Dam, which is located a few miles downstream of here. Overall, though, Brattleboro has remained well-preserved over the years, with many historic commercial buildings still lining both sides of Main Street. Most of the buildings here in this scene are now part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Deacon John Holbrook House, Brattleboro, Vermont

The house at 80 Linden Street, at the corner of Chapin Street in Brattleboro, around 1894. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The house in 2017:

John Holbrook was born in 1761 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, but as a young man he moved to Vermont, where he found work as a surveyor in what was, at the time, largely uncharted territory. He originally settled in Newfane, where he later ran a general store, but he subsequently moved to Brattleboro, where he continued his business career. Holbrook was affiliated with merchants in Hartford, Connecticut, and in 1811 he relocated to East Windsor. However, he only remained in Connecticut for a few years, returning to Brattleboro soon after the death of his son-in-law, William Fessenden, in 1815. Upon returning, Holbrook took over Fessenden’s publishing company, and he was also selected as a church deacon.

Holbrook had no prior experience in the publishing industry, but he grew the company into a prosperous business, which specialized in producing Bibles. Although located far from the major commercial centers of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, Holbrook’s Brattleboro-based business fared well in competition with the more established publishing houses in the major cities. His Bible proved popular, thanks in part to its quality paper and abundant illustrations, and over the next few decades he and his firms would produce 42 different editions.

Holbrook retired in 1825, and moved into this newly-built home in the northern part of the downtown area. It was designed and built by local builder Nathaniel Bliss, with a Federal-style design that was likely inspired by the works of Asher Benjamin, a prominent New England architect who published a number of architectural handbooks in the early 19th century. As was usually the case in Federal architecture, the front facade is nearly symmetrical, with the only exception being the off-centered front door. The house also includes a distinctive, and somewhat unusual front porch, although it does not seem clear as to whether this was part of its original design.

By the time John Holbrook and his wife Sarah moved into this house, most of their ten children were already grown. The youngest, Frederick, was born in 1813 during the family’s brief residence in Connecticut, but spent most of his childhood in Brattleboro. He was about 12 when this house was built, and presumably lived here for at least a few years before leaving to attend school. Returning to Brattleboro after a tour of Europe in 1833, Frederick became a farmer, eventually serving as the president of the Vermont State Agricultural Association for eight years. Along with this, he also had a career in politics, serving in the state legislature from 1849 to 1850, and as governor from 1861 to 1863.

In the meantime, John Holbrook lived here in this house until his death in 1838, and his widow Sarah sold the property three years later, to Dr. Charles Chapin. Originally from Orange, Massachusetts, Dr. Chapin attended Harvard, and he subsequently began practicing medicine in Springfield, Massachusetts. His first wife, Elizabeth, died only a few years after their marriage, and in 1830 he remarried to Sophia Dwight Orne, the granddaughter of prominent Springfield merchant Jonathan Dwight. A year later, the couple relocated to Brattleboro, where Dr. Chapin became a businessman and a government official. His long career included serving in the state legislature and as a U.S. Marshal, and he was also a director of the Vermont Mutual Insurance Company and the Vermont Valley Railroad.

Dr. Chapin had one child, Elizabeth, from his first marriage, and he had five more children with Sophia: Lucinda, Oliver, Mary, William, and Charles. All but the youngest were born before the family moved into this house, but they all would have spent at least part of their childhood here. The two older sons, Oliver and William, would later go on to serve in the Civil War, and William spent time in the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond, after being captured by Confederates. By the 1870, their widowed daughter Mary was their only child still living here with them. The census of that year shows Charles with a net worth of 40,000 – a considerable sum equal to nearly $800,000 today – while Sophia had $25,000 of her own, possibly an inheritance from her wealthy Dwight relatives.

Dr. Chapin died in 1875, and Sophia died five years later. Shortly after, the property behind the house was sold and subdivided. Chapin Street was opened through the property, just to the left of the house, and was developed with new houses by the late 1880s. The first photo was taken only a few years later, and one of the new houses can be seen in the distance on the far left. However, the old Holbrook and Chapin house remained standing, even as the surrounding land was divided into house lots for the growing town population.

Today, the house’s exterior is not significantly different from when the first photo was taken over 120 years ago. Although now used as a commercial property, the house has remained well-preserved as a good example of late Federal-style architecture, and as one of Brattleboro’s finest early 19th century homes. Because of this, in 1982 the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Williston Street, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking west on Williston Street in Brattleboro, around 1894. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The street in 2017:

During the second half of the 19th century, Brattleboro developed as a small but prosperous mill town, becoming a commercial hub for southeastern Vermont. As the population grew, so did demand for new housing, and this period saw the development of new, middle class neighborhoods near downtown. This included the opening of Williston Street in the mid-1880s, on land that had previously belonged to merchant and bank executive Nathan B. Williston (1798-1883). The parallel Chapin Street was also developed around the same time, with these two streets connecting Asylum (now Linden) Street and Oak Street.

The first photo shows Williston Street around the early 1890s, shortly after it was developed. The most visible house in this scene, on the left side of the photo, was also probably the most architecturally noteworthy of the houses on the street. It was probably built sometime in the late 1880s, with a Stick-style design that includes a prominent tower on the corner closest to the camera. Around the time that the first photo was taken, it was owned by John S. Brown, a wood carver who worked for the Estey Organ Company here in Brattleboro. Brown was 76 years old and listed as being retired in the 1900 census, and he was living here with his wife Harriet. He would remain here until his death in 1908, and Harriet died in 1916, presumably while still residing in this house.

Nearly 125 years after the first photo was taken, this scene on Williston Street has not significantly changed. Although paved now, the street is just as narrow as it was in the 19th century. The right side is partially hidden by trees and bushes, but all of the houses from the first photo appear to still be standing. Most of the houses have been well-preserved on the exterior, including the one on the left, which hardly looks any different from its appearance when the Browns lived here. However, the building’s use has changed over the years, and at some point it was converted from a residence into a commercial property.

Brattleboro High School, Brattleboro, Vermont

The Brattleboro High School, at the corner of Main Street, Linden Street, and Putney Road in Brattleboro, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

This school was built in 1884, replacing an earlier wooden high school building that had been used since 1832. Its design is a somewhat more subdued version of the High Victorian Gothic style that was popular in the 1860s and 1870s, and features a brick exterior with contrasting marble trim, pointed dormer windows on the roof, and three turrets on the front of the building. It was built at a cost of $48,000, and served the needs of a growing town that, by the 1890 census, had a population of over 6,800, more than triple the size of the town from when the old high school building had opened in 1832.

When this new school opened, the principal was Benjamin F. Bingham, an educator who served in this capacity from 1863 until his death in 1889, at the age of 65. The 1921 book Annals of Brattleboro, 1681-1895 includes a description of Bingham and his tenure at the school, describing how:

Every year there came up under Mr. Bingham’s hand a new class of boys and girls, many of them timid and shrinking and watching with half-scared eyes his quick, alert movements and his ominous eyebrow. On some of these he inflicted severe discipline; some he admonished with all a father’s tenderness; the obstinacy and conceit of others he pierced with a ridicule that was worse than blows; but everyone was loyal to the High School where truth and honor were taught by precept, discipline and example in the original methods employed by Benjamin F. Bingham to develop the mental character of his pupils.

This building was used as Brattleboro High School until the mid-20th century, and during this time the school had several notable graduates. George Aiken, who may have been a student when the first photo was taken, graduated in 1909, and went on to become governor from 1937 to 1941, and a U.S. Senator from 1941 to 1975. Another graduate was Aiken’s political ally, Ernest W. Gibson, Jr., class of 1919, who served as a U.S. Senator from 1940 to 1941, governor from 1947 to 1950, and a federal judge from 1949 until his death in 1969. Aside from politics, other noted graduates included Major League Baseball pitcher Ernie Johnson, who graduated in 1942 and played for the Boston Braves, Milwaukee Braves, and Baltimore Orioles before starting a long career as a radio and television broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves.

The school finally closed in 1951, upon completion of the present-day Brattleboro Union High School in the southern part of the town, at the site of the old fairgrounds. This new location allowed for more expansion as the student population grew, compared to the relatively confined space here in the center of town, and there was also room for athletic fields. Following this move, the old school building was converted into town offices. The exterior remained essentially unchanged, though, and today it remains in use as the Brattleboro Municipal Center, with hardly any noticeable difference between the two photos.

Wells Fountain, Brattleboro, Vermont

The Wells Fountain, at the corner of Putney Road and Linden Street in Brattleboro, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

The Wells Fountain has been a feature here in the center of Brattleboro since 1890, when it was given to the town by William Henry Wells, a New York businessman who had grown up in Brattleboro. The fountain was originally located about 20 feet from here, but it was moved to its current site in 1906. The first photo appears to have been taken shortly before this move, because the photo shows it closer to the street than it is now, so the original location was probably on the far left side of the present-day photo.

The fountain was the the work of William Rutherford Mead, a noted architect who, like Wells, was a Brattleboro native who moved to New York as an adult. Mead was a cousin of President Rutherford B. Hayes, whose family also had roots in Brattleboro, and he was a partner in the prominent architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. Mead did not have the same architectural genius of his two partners, Charles Follen McKim and Stanford White, and he designed few works on his own. Instead, his talents were as an office manager, serving as a stable, practical-minded counterbalance to the more fanciful McKim and White. Under his leadership, the firm became one of the country’s leading architects of the late 19th and early 20th century, with commissions such as the Boston Public Library, the Rhode Island State House, and Penn Station, along with many other public buildings and Gilded Age mansions.

The original location of the fountain marked the spot where Mead’s older brother, Larkin Mead, had created an eight-foot-high snow sculpture in 1856. The Recording Angel, as it was called, stood here for about two weeks, and the subsequent publicity helped to launch his career as prominent sculptor. He would later go on to design works such as the statue atop the Vermont State House, a statue of Ethan Allen in the United States Capitol, and the statues on Abraham Lincoln’s tomb. He died in Florence, Italy in 1910, and his grave was topped with a replica of his original Recording Angel sculpture.

Today, the Wells Fountain still stands here at the corner of Linden Street and Putney Road, although its surroundings have changed significantly. The trolley tracks in the foreground of the first photo are long gone, as are many of the surrounding buildings. The land just up the hill behind the fountain was once privately owned, with a house that once stood just out of view to the right. However, this land is now a small public park in front of the courthouse, and part of the foundation of the old house can still be seen on the far right side of the present-day photo.