The Castle On The Hill

Learn some fitness and health history that occurred in a little place in Dansville New York called
The year is 1798 and the pioneer settlers of western New York were startled by a loud, booming sound, which emanated halfway up East Hill, in the Village of Dansville. What was the sound? What they discovered was that pent-up geologic forces had given way and a mineral spring had burst into the world from beneath the surface.

For over half a century, what was to be called "Breakout Creek" remained little more than a local interest. But, in 1851, a businessman Nathaniel Bingham from Rochester, New York, which is just up the road from little old Dansville, learned about the mineral-rich spring water, and decided that Dansville would be an ideal location for a water cure facility. Boom! This began what today is a billion-dollar industry, which is the current the fitness craze.

The water cure or Hydropathy as it was termed back then was very popular in the mid-19th-century as an alternative medicine. Hydropathy originated in Germany based on the belief that pure water was the key to good health and long life. Hey wasn't some Spaniard looking for the fountain of youth before that? Why didn't he just go to the jungles of South America instead of Dansville? And for those individuals who took part with the water cure would undergo a variety of bathing and showers, wet sheet wrappings, and douches (oops), and, of course, drinking a copious quantity of water. Which would definitely flush the system. In time, over 200 water cures were in operation across the United States and the Dansville Water Cure was one of those opened for business in 1854. Then in October 1858, Dr. James Caleb Jackson took over the facility. Early in his life he was hampered by extremely poor health, 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.

Under Jackson's supervision, the Dansville Hydropathy 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. Have you got the hint yet? My hometown has some serious history people. And for the most part one of those history findings is that Dansville was home for the beginning of FITNESS and working out.

In addition to the water treatments, Dr. Jackson also encouraged his patients to eat properly. Proper diets. No red meat, sugar, coffee, tea, alcohol, or tobacco where 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 too, a graham-flour-derived recipe he named Granula. For several decades the manufacture and sale of Granula was a lucrative sideline.

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 Jackson's opened their new, larger, fireproof brick facility, the Jackson Sanatorium (see picture). The water cure thrived for several more decades, as James and Kate where, 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. But did it? Only for a short time as WWI and the Army took over the facility and for a short time after World War I, the Army used the building as a psychiatric hospital for veterans.

In the spring of 1929 the facility gained a new lease on life and was purchased 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. At the time he was 61 years young when he purchased the Sanatorium, and he showed no signs of slowing down. Wasting no effort in promoting his new acquisition, MacFadden renamed the Sanitorium 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". Macfadden passed away in 1955. And then the hotel was acquired by New York City hotelier William Fromcheck, and he operated it as "Bernarr Macfadden's Castle on the Hill". But once again, a decline in popularity set in, and this time it was irreversible. The doors of the health spa closed for the last time in 1971. This place was still open when I was in the 2nd grade living in Dansville. My grandmother even worked there during its last days.

A few subsequent efforts to make use of the building all met with quick failure; and today, the brick architectural monument rests empty, broken, and boarded up still resting on East Hill, a reminder of the glory days of fitness.