Castle on the Hill

Castle on the Hill

Dansville’s “Castle on the Hill”

by David Gilbert, Dansville Area Historical Society

Around the year 1798, when the village of Dansville was still in its infancy, the pioneer settlers were startled to hear a loud, booming sound which emanated halfway up East Hill. They discovered that pent-up geologic forces had given way, and a new spring had burst forth from beneath the surface.

For over half a century, “Breakout Creek” remained little more than a local curiosity. Then, in 1851, a businessman from Rochester, Nathaniel Bingham, learned about the mineral-rich spring water, and decided that Dansville would be an ideal location for a water cure facility.

The water cure, or hydropathy, was a popular mid-19th-century alternative medicine. Originating in Germany, it was based on the belief that pure water was the key to good health and long life. Those who partook of the water cure would undergo a variety of bathings and showers, wet sheet wrappings, and douches, and, of course, drinking a copious quantity of water. In time, over 200 water cures were in operation across the United States.

The Dansville Water Cure opened for business in 1854, but the sickly Bingham would soon bow out of the endeavor. Several times, the facility changed hands, with no one able to make a go of it. At last, in October 1858, came someone who knew how to make the water cure successful, and did.

Dr. James Caleb Jackson was born in Onondaga County in 1811. Early in his life he worked as a lecturer and publisher of abolitionist newspapers; but he was hampered by extremely poor health. In fact, he was at death’s door when he visited a water cure; and his near-miraculous recovery made Jackson a life-long advocate of hydropathy. He obtained a medical degree, and operated a water cure in Cortland County before relocating to Dansville.

Our Home on the Hillside, ca. 1870

Under Jackson’s supervision, the Dansville institute became known as Our Home on the Hillside, and attained a national reputation. Assisting him at the water cure was his adopted daughter, Dr. Harriet Austin, a fellow hydropathist, who also advocated women’s dress reform. She was the inventor of the “American Costume”, which dispensed with unwieldy floor-length dresses in favor of a mid-length skirt worn over trousers. It was more practical, but never gained wide popularity.

In addition to the water treatments, Dr. Jackson also encouraged his patients to eat properly. No red meat, sugar, coffee, tea, alcohol, or tobacco were permitted at Our Home on the Hillside; instead, the emphasis was on fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed grain. Jackson is credited with the invention of the first cold breakfast cereal, a graham-flour-derived recipe he named Granula. For several decades the manufacture and sale of Granula was a lucrative sideline.

Our Home on the Hillside was a popular site on the lecture circuit; Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Horace Greeley all spoke in Dansville. Topping the list was Clara Barton, who returned to Dansville in 1876, physically exhausted from years of non-stop travel and work, to recuperate at Our Home. She kept a residence in Dansville for the next ten years; and, when she founded the American Red Cross in 1881, she assisted in the establishment of a local chapter in Dansville, the first local Red Cross chapter in the nation.

By the end of the 1870’s, the aging James Caleb Jackson (who died in 1895) had turned over his duties at Our Home on the Hillside to his son and daughter-in-law; Drs. James H. and Kate J. Jackson, who had also obtained medical degrees. But in June 1882, a fire completely destroyed the main building of Our Home, causing much fear that Dansville’s water cure was history. However, in October 1883 the Jacksons opened their new, larger, fireproof brick facility, the Jackson Sanatorium.

The water cure thrived for several more decades, as James and Kate were, in turn, succeeded by their son, Dr. J. Arthur Jackson. But the success would not last; advances in medical science and pharmacology spelled doom to the water cure philosophy. The Jackson Health Resort declared bankruptcy in 1914. For a short time after World War I, the Army used the building as a psychiatric hospital for veterans, after which a number of largely unsuccessful attempts were made to re-establish the health resort. Not until the spring of 1929 did the facility gain a new lease on life, with its purchase by health faddist Bernarr Macfadden.

Born in Missouri in 1868, Macfadden, a one-time professional wrestler, was an early advocate of body building, whose magazine Physical Culture was the cornerstone of a publishing empire. He was 61 when he purchased the Sanatorium, but he showed no signs of slowing down, and he wasted no effort in promoting his new acquisition. Renaming it the Physical Culture Hotel, he sponsored such publicity stunts as his annual “Cracked Wheat Derbies”, marathon group hikes to Dansville from as far away as New York City or Philadelphia, so named for the cracked wheat cereal upon which the participants subsisted. He also made himself the center of attention on several occasions, such as the parachute jump he undertook on his 81st birthday, as a means of demonstrating the advantages of physical fitness.

Under Macfadden’s ownership, the Physical Culture Hotel regained much of its former renown. No longer a water cure, instead it offered a wide range of exercise opportunities: tennis, swimming, hiking, golf, as well as various therapeutic treatments. It was also somewhat of a haven for the famous, and there would be frequent, usually unconfirmed, rumors of this or that celebrity coming to the “P.C.” to “get away from it all”.

After Macfadden’s death in 1955, the hotel was acquired by New York City hotelier William Fromcheck, and operated as “Bernarr Macfadden’s Castle on the Hill”. But once again, a decline in popularity set in, and this time it was irreversible. The end came in 1971, when the doors of the health spa closed for the last time. A few subsequent efforts to make use of the building all met with quick failure; and today, the brick edifice rests empty and broken upon East Hill, a mute reminder of glory days gradually fading from living memory.

NOTE: The property known as Castle on the Hill is currently privately owned. The building has been secured, and the property is posted and patrolled. Trespassers will be prosecuted.