- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

BOYCE, La. (AP) - Larry Jorgensen first saw Hot Wells when he was a “news dog” doing radio work in Central Louisiana in the 1960s.

That was when people were still drawn to the mineral waters that flowed from the ground at the resort near Boyce, which were thought to have curative properties. Before all the big dreams finally turned into disappointment in the years that followed.

Drive out to the former site of Hot Wells now and there’s little evidence there was ever a thriving resort there.

Much of the site is fenced in. The hotels, spa and swimming pool are gone. The wells have been capped. The few structures that weren’t leveled are in ruins and hidden by thick layers of vegetation.

All that remains are memories. And even those are fading, as relentlessly as the former site is reclaimed by trees and brush.

“You’re losing memories every day,” Jorgensen said. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought, someone has to gather up what’s left to be gathered and put it in print,”

That thought turned into “Hot Wells: A Louisiana Ghost.” The book, published last year, recounts the roller coaster history of Hot Wells - from the discovery of the mineral water to its heyday as a tourist attraction to its eventual closing, and unsuccessful efforts to make something out of it again.

Hot Wells has been closed as a resort for 30 years, but Jorgensen, who splits his time living in Lafayette and Avoyelles Parish, found plenty of people who remember when it was a big deal, and the ever-present dreams that it would grow even bigger.

“The people I talked to, they have all these great stories and recollections,” he said. “It’s definitely a memories thing.”

The earliest reference Jorgensen found to the “magical waters” at Hot Wells came in 1913, when an oil worker washed his hands in them and found it cured a rash that had plagued him for years. As word spread, more and more people visited the site looking for relief from various ailments.

Soon after, the first of many efforts to commercialize the site was undertaken by a group of Boyce businessmen, who formed the Hot Wells Sanitarium Company. They built a bath house, hotel, dance hall and restaurant, hoping the healing waters would become the centerpiece of an entertainment complex. Over the years, a town built up around the site.

In 1936, the state took over the resort. Over the next 50 years, it was shuttled between operators and state departments. The state invested heavily to upgrade facilities.

“Gov. (Jimmie) Davis said this will be to Louisiana what Hot Springs is to Arkansas,” Jorgensen said. “That’s what everybody thought.”

It never happened. No matter how many times management changed or how much money was spent, the vision of Hot Wells as a famous resort that would draw droves of visitors always seemed just out of reach. People did visit, but never enough to make the resort profitable.

By the 1980s, the resort was on its last legs. It closed for good in 1986. By then, most of the hotels, restaurants and other businesses surrounding the site had long since shut their doors.

Between 2006 and 2008, what was left of the resort buildings were razed and the wells that once spewed water from deep within the earth were capped.

“The state never developed it and marketed it the way private enterprise would have, in my opinion,” Jorgensen said. “I don’t know if it ever would have worked, but the way it was done, it just never really had a chance.”

The state turned the Hot Wells property over to Rapides Parish in 1995, following seven years of the Louisiana National Guard using it for training,

Optimistic government officials resurrected dreams of rebuilding the former resort, creating jobs and tourism. Over the next decade and more, several interested groups spun visions of new development.

There was the Florida firm that had plans to build a retirement community at the site. A company headed by country music singer Jay Chevalier touted a $34 million rebuild in the mold of the original vision of a tourist attraction. An Alexandria man expressed interest in opening a wellness center.

None of the proposals came close to reviving Hot Wells as a commercial venture. As former Parish Treasurer Tim Ware said, “there were a lot of lookers, but no takers.”

The last serious interest came from Boyce businessman Monroe Thompson, who explored the possibility of a recreation area that would include a campground and a boat launch. That, too, failed to start.

There have been more recent inquiries - including from a well-known and respected local businessperson - but Jorgensen is skeptical about the feasibility of redevelopment at Hot Wells.

One of the complicating factors, even if the state could find a buyer for the property, is the rights to the water underneath, which the state holds, as well. Having to pay royalties to access the water would add just one more expense to an already costly project.

“I still think Monroe Thompson had the right concept, if someone would have put money into it,” Jorgensen said. “That’s the only feasible way anything could happen, is if someone with a lot of money is willing to take a chance on it. It will never be what it was, but I think you could do something here.”

Copies of Jorgensen’s book are available in the Alexandria area at Kent Plantation House, Atwood’s, Tunk’s Cypress Inn, Silver Dollar Pawn and Hastings; in the Boyce area at Lil’ Boos Country Store and Boone’s Drug Store; at Grant Hardware in Colfax; and in Avoyelles Parish at Avoyelles Office Supply and Treasures & in Marksville, JoJo’s Flowers in Bunkie, the Avoyelles Commission of Tourism office in Mansura and the Cottonport Museum.

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Information from: Alexandria Daily Town Talk, http://www.thetowntalk.com

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