Traveling Union County’s back roads

Hot springs and bronze sculpture just outside of La Grande

Published Apr 6, 2014 at 12:11AM

Next week: Craters of the Moon National Monument

LA GRANDE —

Every corner of Oregon, it seems, has at least one unforgettable, quirky sight. In Union County, if I were to pick just one, it would be Hot Lake Springs.

Located 8 miles southeast of La Grande on state Highway 203, the springs are a unique phenomenon. Once revered as Ea-Kesh-Pa by the Nez Perce tribe, they release more than 2.5 million gallons of 208-degree water each day, filling an incessantly steaming eight-acre lake. White American pioneers discovered the springs in 1812, and the first building was constructed nearby in 1864.

For two decades, beginning about 100 years ago, Hot Lake Springs was a thriving spa community with a 105-room brick hotel, a sanitorium and the second elevator on the West Coast. It came to be known as “the Mayo Clinic of the West,” a place where Dr. W.T. Phy used the mineral-rich waters — rich in sulfur as well as sodium, potassium, chloride, silicon oxide, calcium, fluoride and magnesium — to treat such diseases as arthritis, tuberculosis, alcoholism and syphilis. Destroyed by a fire in 1934, it later became a nursing home and an asylum before it was abandoned in 1991 and left to the elements.

But Hot Lake Springs got a new life in 2003 when it was purchased by bronze sculptor David Manuel and his family, who were living in the nearby Wallowa Valley. Their friends thought they were crazy. The roof had collapsed, and all 368 windows were either broken or missing. And that was just for starters.

But over the course of a decade, and with the infusion of more than $10 million, the Manuels showed themselves to be wonder workers. By 2010, Hot Lake Springs had reopened as a 22-room bed-and-breakfast inn; today, guests may soak at the mineral springs and enjoy a charming restaurant, gardens, gift shop and salon. Daily tours also include a replica 19th-century chapel, a display of antique vehicles and a bronze foundry where the work of David Manuel and other artists is cast.

The highlights are the art gallery and studio, where visitors may have the opportunity to visit with Manuel as he works; and two remarkable museum floors, where the artist exhibits lifelong collections of Native American artifacts and American military regalia.

A lot of stories

Manuel, 74, continues to work on an almost-daily basis in his Hot Lake Springs studio. Raised on a Walla Walla, Wash., onion farm, he was heavily influenced by the work of Norman Rockwell and Charles Russell — and the realism carried over when he switched his medium from canvas to sculpture in 1976.

Nearly four decades later, David Manuel bronzes are prized by collectors around the world, fetching prices that approach $50,000 for a single work. His themes range from the American West to military, wildlife to Native American.

“I try to tell a story in every piece I do,” Manuel said. “That’s very, very important, and I’ve got a lot of stories in my mind.”

Manuel is a perfectionist in every detail of his work. In his upper-story studio, he surrounds himself with books, sticky notes marking pages with photographs and descriptions of every aspect of his creations. Even more so, he can study the artifacts in his adjoining museum.

The two spacious display floors, referred to as The History Center and managed by an on-site archivist, are nothing short of world-class. The collection is not the sort of thing you’d expect to find in remote northeastern Oregon — but it’s worth the trip all by itself.

The visit begins with what the Manuel family insists is the largest private collection of Indian arrowheads in North America, sparked by an innocent childhood discovery by Manuel near his Washington state home. That one stone arrowhead inspired the collection of a trove of historic artifacts of all kinds, ranging from beadwork and basketry to headdresses and other ceremonial clothing. Most of the pieces are from the Nez Perce tribe, native to this region, but other tribes are represented as well.

The military collection, on the floor above, may be even more memorable. Gathered only in the past 20 years, it focuses on uniforms and other regalia from the Civil War to the Vietnam War, a stretch of more than a century. The antiques range from tommy guns to samurai swords, from ambulance medic packs to signed banners. Some may inspire feelings of pride, while others evoke thoughts of sorrow and pain.

The Manuels moved the collection (and the foundry) to Hot Lake Springs from Joseph, where their Nez Perce Crossing Museum had been a fixture on Main Street for many years. By the end of 2014, they may be moving again.

On my recent visit, Lee Manuel, David’s wife and the Hot Lake Springs marketing director, revealed that the family is negotiating a sale. Although she was unable to reveal details, she intimated that the buyers are associated with the Oregon University System, and that the lodge will be further improved to include a contemporary health center and a museum of medical history.

If and when that happens, the Manuels will pick up their gallery, their foundry and their museum and relocate once more. Lee Manuel promised they will remain in the area.

Historic homes

Hot Lake Springs is just one of several intriguing places within an easy day’s drive from La Grande, a city of 13,000 that straddles Interstate 84.

The hub of Union County and the home of Eastern Oregon University, La Grande is perhaps most notable for its historic districts, with many Victorian and Craftsman-style homes, some dating from the 1890s, bordering the blocks west and south of downtown. An “urban walking tour” brochure is published by the Union County Chamber of Commerce.

Established in 1865 in the heart of the Grand Ronde Valley, and an important rest stop to earlier Oregon Trail travelers, La Grande today is best regarded as a jumping-off place for day trips into the surrounding Wallowas and Blue Mountains.

North of La Grande, state Highway 82 extends through the farm country around Imbler, dubbed “The Grass Seed Capital of the World,” to Elgin, a logging and ranching community best known for its Elgin Opera House. Built in 1912 and recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, the opera house was thoroughly renovated for its centennial anniversary — and today its community theater draws audiences from La Grande and farther.

Elgin is also the home of the Eagle Cap Excursion Train, which operates on selected dates between Mother’s Day and mid-October. Traveling 63 miles east along the Wallowa Union Railroad track, all the way to Joseph at the foot of deep blue Wallowa Lake, the Excursion Train offers a variety of themed trips, from train robberies to fall foliage runs.

East of Highway 82, surrounded by cherry orchards on the forested southwest flank of the Wallowas, the charming village of Cove (first known as “Forest Cove”) is home to a pair of church retreats and to the historic Henderschott House. Built in 1877 in neo-gothic style, it was home to James Henderschott, a state legislator in the early days of Oregon statehood.

Union heritage

Union County’s most historic community, however, is its namesake — Union. Now with about 2,100 people, the town was settled on a trade route in 1862 as the Civil War raged in the eastern states; it was named in patriotic sympathy with the North.

Main Street, several blocks long, is a designated National Historic District. One of its stern brick landmarks is the Historic Union Hotel, whose grand lobby reflects the era of its 1921 founding. Owners Charlie Morden and Ruth Rush and their sheepdog, Rosie, were delighted to show me the elegant restaurant — Charlie himself does the cooking — and most of the 15 individually appointed guest rooms, with rates starting as low as $69 per night.

Down the block is the Union Library, built in 1912 with a Carnegie Foundation grant. At the Union Drug Co., friendly pharmacist Walt Brookshire proudly shows off an old-time soda fountain, which he installed during the winter months to offer sodas and sandwiches to what he hopes will be a steady summer clientele.

Summer is prime time to visit the Union County Museum. It’s just down the block from Union Drug, but I was unable to drop in, as its season starts on Mother’s Day. (It continues through mid-October.) Exhibits, I was told, include one called “Cowboys Then and Now,” from their rural origins to later Hollywood glory. It’s an especially popular attraction in early June during the town’s 105-year-old Eastern Oregon Livestock Show, which features the longest continuously held rodeo in the Pacific Northwest.

Other museum exhibits focus on the region’s natural and cultural history. Behind the building are a pioneer cabin, a livery station and a building devoted to economic displays: agriculture, transportation and timber.

If you’re a fan of graveyards, the Union Victorian Cemetery dates from 1862. Its monuments honor town founder Conrad Miller, a leading benefactor of Willamette University (A.E. Eaton), a member of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame (Ollie Osborn), various veterans of Indian wars and scores of children who died in an 1879 diphtheria epidemic.

Another bit of Union County history may be found 20 miles southeast of Union, at a community called Medical Springs on state Highway 203. There’s not a whole lot to see here today — three buildings, one of them a former hotel, and an outdoor swimming pool that clearly has seen better days.

But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Medical Springs was a popular hotel and hot-springs resort. It was established in 1868 by Dunham Wright, a cousin to President Abraham Lincoln and an early Oregon politician. It’s now in the fourth generation of the same family: Caretaker Janice Baxter is the great-granddaughter of the founder.

Jerry Baxter, her husband, told me the pool is still used by private groups such as Boy Scout troops — as well as by his own grandchildren. No doubt, he said, there is therapeutic benefit to the minerals in the water that gave the adjacent hot springs their name.

But there are no plans to rebuild the resort facilities. No major investment of time and money is being plotted at Medical Springs. This outpost will remain a quiet one — unlike its more grandiose counterpart across the Grand Ronde Valley.

— Reporter: janderson@bendbulletin.com