In the summer of 1936, Virgil Sampson went to drilling for oil on his property in the Smith County community of Rock City. Immediately, he hit (what else?) rock. He kept drilling and soon hit three different streams of water.
It didn’t take the enterprising Sampson long to figure out he had struck gold.
After putting up a six-foot diameter wooden water wheel that helped bring the cool, clear artesian mineral water to the surface, he began offering the refreshing liquid to the public from drinking fountains.
“Daddy Sampson was before his time. Nobody was buying water then. Now everybody goes to the store and buys water,” said his only grandchild, Mary Neal Manning Smith.
“You could drink water from the water fountains for free or pay a penny for a paper cup. He sold it for five cents a gallon if you had your own jug. It was 25 cents if he furnished the jug. He bought his jugs from Coca-Cola Bottling in Nashville and shipped water in those jugs all over the U.S., even as far as Washington state. He never retired, although he quit shipping water when postage got too high.”
For the rest of his life this jovial farmer-turned-water salesman, who always clenched a cigar between his teeth, made a comfortable living sitting less than 100 feet off Highway 70 North, about 13 miles east of Lebanon, at his Sampson’s Mineral Well. There he sipped the all-natural beverage twice daily and conversed with the hordes of customers who came seeking his personal brand of H2O.
For nearly half a century he preached, “I’ve been drinking the water every day since the well has been here. It must make people live longer if they drink it, because it’s made me live longer.”
In “The History of Smith County,” the late Frank Gibbs wrote that Sampson’s Mineral Well, owned and operated by Virgil Peyton Sampson, was likely the most famous spot in Smith County during the first half of the 20th century.
Known to many as “the sulphur well,” it gushed an artesian stream of clear mineral water, reported to have traces of 14 minerals, at the rate of 50 gallons a minute. Inside his well house, Sampson had a sign that described the physical and chemical characteristics of the clear liquid noting that it was “highly recommended for Rheumatism, Neuritis, Arthritis, Sciatica, Lumbago, Constipation, Indigestion, Nervousness and Kidney Ailments.”
Smith described the birth of her grandfather’s business, saying, “He had a cousin, T.J. (Tom) Sampson, from Glasgow, Ky. Tom told my grandfather, ‘There’s a lot of oil around here. Let me come down and drill for oil.’ If they found it, he planned to build an elaborate hotel and restaurant. Tom told my grandfather, ‘There’s got to be oil in Smith County — 100 percent.’ Granddad was still farming. All he had was plenty of land.”
The seekers of black gold found three varieties of water.
“They first hit plain water at 102 feet and tapped it off. They hit black sulphur at 220 feet and mineral water at 1,300 feet. He had a pipe and that dumped water in the wheel, and the wheel turning pulled out the other two waters. The wheel was turned by the artesian water,” said Smith.
She, like almost everyone else in the vicinity, imbibed the beverage that made Sampson famous near and far.
“I liked the mineral water and the plain water. I didn’t think the sulphur water was that bad. Course, I lived with it,” she said. “Daddy Sampson would get a drink every morning and took a drink before he came home at night.
“Some people called him ‘V.P.’ Some called him ‘Mr. Virge,’ and some called him ‘Virge.’ I called him Daddy Sampson,” said Smith, who grew up with her parents and grandfather on the opposite side of Highway 70 from the spring in a house that had been built in 1838.
(Sampson’s wife, the former Bertha Kinslow, died in 1905, and Sampson remained a widower until his death.)
About her grandfather’s personality, Smith said, “He was outgoing and always had something to say to somebody. A car full of young girls came by one day, and he told them, ‘Drink that water and it’ll make you beautiful.’ They said, ‘What happened to you?’ He said, ‘You should have seen me before I started drinking it.’ He was a good salesman.”
More than just water
Smith recalled that the mineral well grounds with its numerous attractions were in their heyday from the late 1930s into the mid-’50s.
The site featured the well house, a dance hall with a jukebox, a sanitarium, six, white-frame cottages and a dining room, first operated by Mary Watson. A baseball diamond proved to be a big hit as community baseball teams convened there to play Sunday afternoon games.
Other diversions included croquet, horseshoes and picnicking, while Sampson’s estate also drew crowds for family reunions, religious revivals, singing conventions, political rallies and parties.
The enterprising Sampson peddled a variety of sweets and snacks such as popcorn, candy bars, penny candies, Dixie Cup Ice Cream and soft drinks.
Reminisced Smith, “Back then he sold candy and Cokes for pennies, nickels and dimes, and on a weekend, he would gross $500. He had five employees helping on busy days. There were times when cars were parked on the side of Highway 70 from Plunketts Creek bridge to the wooden bridge you crossed to get to the well.”
Sampson once told a reporter, “I have seen more than 1,000 people come through here on a Sunday. We had the baths, a restaurant, horseshoes and a baseball diamond. We had about everything for those days.”
A creative, eye-catching advertisement for his water came in the shape of metal silhouettes of a man and woman poised atop the well house. Each held a bottle in hand, and as the water-powered wheel turned, they see-sawed up and down, which made it look like they were drinking from the bottle.
The Sampson Sanitarium at the Well, which sat behind the well house, was opened in 1938 by Dr. Thomas Dewitt Patton and his wife, Geraldine. Patton previously had practiced for 20 years at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Mich. He and his wife, a nurse, offered mineral baths, hot steam baths, Swedish massages, a healthy diet and physio-therapeutic treatments for patients. Some folks came from other states and would rent a cottage for a week so they could take daily mineral baths.
“There was a guy from Carthage who had arthritis and couldn’t walk very well,” Smith recalled. “They brought him here in an ambulance. He got to the point where he could take the bus. People came from Cookeville to take the mineral baths. I was close to Mrs. Patton and called her Mama Patton.”
Dr. Patton also had a petting zoo of sorts that included white rabbits, white ducks and peacocks.
According to “The History of Smith County,” the Pattons treated “thousands of patients,” and the doctor saw his final patient the night before he died on June 21, 1970.
Smith County native Claudine Ashworth was raised on a farm three or four miles away from Sampson’s Mineral Well, and her father regularly sipped its waters.
“I passed that place almost every day of my life,” said Ashworth, “going to school (Union Heights Elementary) and going to Plunketts Creek Baptist Church on Sundays.
“It used to be our No. 1 stop when we were out on Saturdays, and Daddy wanted to go in and get himself some sulphur water. He probably thought it was good for his health. He liked the mineral water as well and would drink both of them.”
She remembers Mr. Sampson as “very docile and always smiling. I spent a lot of time there with our school group in grade school. We went there almost every year for field day, mostly in the late 1950s, and he was just as pleasant with all the kids running around him as he was talking about the crops with my daddy.
“We would play ball and go to the creek, and they had a tiny dance hall with a big ole jukebox, and we would play a lot of music and jump around on the floor like we were dancing. We could have all the popcorn we wanted to eat and candy. It was just a fun day.”
Late Lebanon radio broadcasting pioneer William “Bill” Barry shared a few memories about Sampson’s Well with this writer in 2011.
“There were 70,000 gallons a day running out of that thing, and the water ran down on to the creek. The well house was like a cotillion and had a roof but no sides. There were wooden benches you could sit on and watch,” Barry said.
“The first time my dad took me, I was 10 or 11 or 12 years old. He was sold on the idea that sulphur water was good for you. He brought a case of empty bottles. We would go up there and fill them up. He’d bring it back home.
“On weekends going to Sampson’s Well was a social sort of thing to do. You’d meet your friends at the well, have some ice cream and visit. After Dr. Patton came, my dad and mother would go up there and take those baths.
“I went up there and took a bath one time. I had bursitis in my shoulder. It was by appointment. You couldn’t just walk in. They put you in a tub of water for as long as you could stand it. Then they gave you a massage on a table. You generally went to sleep. It was so relaxing. It did help on that bursitis,” said Barry.
Life-long Smith Countian John Waggoner Jr. also retains pleasant memories of the well. He recalled, “There were pipes on each side of the wheel that ran a stream of water fountain-style continually so that you could walk up and get a drink of the water. When I was a small boy, I stopped many times late at night with my parents to get a drink.
“I do not know for what reason we stopped, but lots of times when I was out with my dad, he would stop and we would go inside to talk with Mr. Sampson. He had an assortment of soft drinks and snacks to sell. One of the things I remember from inside was the big Rock-Ola Jukebox with a curved, colored panel across the top.
“The dining room was one of the few places where the public could gather, so it was used frequently as a major meeting place for family reunions and other gatherings. The field to the left of the dining room was used for baseball games, and several community teams in the county would meet there to play. It was certainly the hub of the community. There was no Interstate 40, and all traffic going to Knoxville and places east or west passed by,” said Waggoner.
In the late 1940s, hillbilly music maker and “Grand Ole Opry” star Roy Acuff tried to convince Sampson to sell the well and property to him as the entertainer wished to transform the site into an amusement park and concert venue.
“He offered $50,000 for it,” recollected Smith, whose granddad spurned the bid.
(Acuff later purchased Dunbar Cave in Clarksville and turned it into a concert hall where he and his Smoky Mountain Boys performed concerts. The cave is now a Tennessee State Park.)
By the 1960s and 1970s, mineral spas had begun to fade in popularity, and after Dr. Patton died in 1970, Sampson closed everything but the well and concession stand.
The death knell rang in 1978 when the water quit flowing, so Sampson took out the water wheel. (It is not known what became of the wheel or the two metal silhouettes.)
Sampson’s granddaughter and her husband believe that the operations of the zinc mine in Gordonsville could have “hit the artesian stream,” thus blocking the flow of the water. They had the sanitarium bulldozed recently and blocked off the wooden bridge that vehicles once crossed from Highway 70 to reach the well as it had become too hazardous to use.
For years now Mother Nature has taken its course with what remains of the well house, and Smith shared, “We’re not sure what we’re gonna do (with the place).”
(Please note the site is private property and no trespassing is allowed.)
Two years after the well went dry, Sampson celebrated his centennial birthday on Nov. 16, 1980, with 250 well-wishers. Smith County proclaimed the big day as Virgil Peyton Sampson Day, and Carthage Mayor James Clay presented him with the key to the city. Simultaneously, Gordonsville named him honorary mayor.
During Sampson’s later years, Don and Sue Carr operated the mineral well, and Mr. Carr put a pump in the well after the water pressure proved too low to turn the wheel. After Sampson’s demise, the couple continued to run the well for several more years.
The grand old water peddler, who proclaimed, “It is the best water in the world,” gave up the ghost in Lebanon’s McFarland Hospital on Oct. 21, 1983, a month short of turning 103. He was laid to rest in Sampson Cemetery across the highway from the well on high ground.
Sources for this story include: “Water Spas of Middle Tennessee by” C.B. Thorne in “The Tennessee Historical Quarterly,” Winter 1970; “The Tennessean:” May 28, 1950; Aug. 28, 1973; June 5, 1979; Nov. 25, 1980; an article by Frank H. Gibbs in “The History of Smith County,” editors Sue Maggart Petty and Nina Sutton, 1987.