Five summers ago, not long after we moved to Poland, Maine, my husband and I were hiking around the trails at the Poland Spring Preservation Park, and we kept seeing signs for “The Source.” Naturally curious, we followed the signs and found a small building, almost like a stone gazebo with windows. Inside we saw four mannequins sitting in wicker chairs around a well of sorts, waiting to be served water in crystal goblets. The floor was marble, the source itself encased in another set of windows. We laughed a bit at the formality of it, and then went on our tick-filled merry way. My wheels were already spinning, though, thinking about a world built around water.
A year or so later, we returned to the Poland Spring campus for Poland Heritage Days. On this day, the museum is opened up and we got to tour the original bottling house. With its marble floors and iron chandeliers, it was quite different from factories of today.
We also got to learn a bit about the history of Poland Springs. The land was owned by the Ricker family (who fictionally visit the Appledores in The Water Castle). The legend goes that in 1844 Hiram Ricker, who suffered from indigestion (“dyspepsia” in the parlance of the day), went to oversee the workers on the farm. After drinking water from the stream on the property, his indigestion was cured. So began the story that the water had curative properties.
The Rickers already had an Inn on the property. In 1845 the first bottling plant was opened, and the Rickers began shipping their water, touting its medicinal qualities. The family also grew it’s hospitality business, building a grand hotel in 1876 complete with all the latest amenities from a dance studio to a bowling alley. Later a golf course was opened. All the while, visitors were encouraged to stay at the hotel and drink the restorative water. And visitors did come, from all over! Presidents, athletes, and celebrities were all guests. The flip-side, of course, is that the Rickers worked very hard to keep the wrong kind of people — namely, Franco-Americans — out of the hotel, and even off the grounds. This type of prejudice has unfortunately existed in Maine for a long time. Much of the underlying tension between the Wylies and the Appledores comes from this deep-seated antagonism.
The Ricker business grew until the 1930s when the Depression hit. Eventually the hotel was sold, and then closed in 1969. In 1975, the grand hotel burned to the ground. The water business, of course lives on. Water is still pumped from the town of Poland, as well as other towns in Maine (sometimes controversially).
It is with all of this history swirling in my mind that I wrote The Water Castle. As I dug into the history, I was especially interested in the advertising for Poland Spring water, and the quasi-scientific tone it took. An 1893 full-page ad in the New York Daily Tribune is representative of the claims made by the Ricker’s. Testimonials are given of remarkable recoveries from a wide range of illnesses. A doctor is quoted:
I have never lived at a hotel where I found things more conducive to bodily health, personal comfort and social enjoyment, than at the Poland Spring House, Maine. It is a grand hotel, generously and ably conducted to most beneficial ends in promoting the health and recreation of its guests. The cleansing, restorative, and, I may add, exhilarating properties of Poland water are indeed marvelous.
Did people really believe water could do all of this? Indeed they did. This was the era of miracle cure-alls — including Radiothor, radioactive water. But really, aren’t we still chasing after magic elixirs? It’s easy to think people in the past were naive, but I think we’re all still chasing that elusive fountain of youth.
The advertisements were careful to tow the line between magic and science. They offered medical evidence, but also shrouded the water in mystery. This line where science becomes magical and magic grows scientific is quite interesting to me as a writer because it is so similar to the line between fact and fiction, realism and reality. Fiction, is after all, where myth and magic swirl together to create truth.