SPRINGDALE — The magic of Montana's hot springs has always drawn a crowd and the legendary Hunter's Hot Springs near Springdale was no different. While the hot springs now exist mostly as a sidebar of Montana history, rumors around a resort rebuild have many residents in South Central Montana buzzing with excitement.
Photos shared in August in the Big Timber Buzz Facebook group show signs tied to a fence of the historic resort accompanied with a tease of, "Rebuilding history...one brick at a time."
Jean Chapel is one of the many Big Timber residents who remembers soaking in Hunter's Hot Springs towards the end of its day as a public swimming area.
“Harold and Mavis Johnson were the ones that owned it when I was a kid, and they bought it from his mother's estate and ran it until 1974," Chapel said. "When the pool was open, it was just a big, metal, Quonset building that had a great big, huge slide and the water was hot. It was really hot.”
More than just her memories, Chapel, the curator manager of the Crazy Mountain Museum, can walk visitors back through the history of the hot springs with a whole exhibit devoted to the springs.
“The big building itself burned down in the 1930s. There's still fire hydrants sitting out there," Chapel said. “But a lot of people went for just medicinal reasons."
Always known to the Apsalooke people as a place of healing, the hot springs were developed into a sanitarium by White settlers to the area around 1864. From there it grew into a premiere destination in the West.
“There was a golf course, there were different little springs, private springs that you could go into, and I'm sure they had picnics," Chapel said. "The Dakota Hotel, which was the big one, had a beautiful dining room and the pool was attached on the end of it.”
Hunter's Hot Springs even became the site of a legendary photo subject to many examinations of fact versus fiction. The photo, reportedly from 1883, shows Wyatt Earp, Teddy Roosevelt, Doc Holiday, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and others all gathered together on the steps of the hot springs.
"Billy the Kid was supposedly in the picture, but I think they've debunked that part of it," Chapel said.
The glory days of the resort ended with an all-consuming fire in the 1930s and it has passed through the hands of many owners over the years. That includes a period in the 1990s when the hot springs were used to heat greenhouses and grow hydroponic, organic tomatoes.
Now the land is owned by Russell Gordy, operating as the Lone Star Land and Cattle Company. Representatives from the Gordy family say they're not yet ready to discuss anything around the hot springs.
But Chapel and other Big Timber residents will hold onto the excitement that the hot water icon could return.
“I would love to see that. It gives me goosebumps to think about it," Chapel said.
The Crazy Mountain Museum is located off of the I-90 Frontage Road right outside of Big Timber and is open daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day or by appointment in its off-season.