Volume 3, Number 20 - August 20, 2003
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
by Judi Myers
Described as 'dirty, dingy, slimy and scary', but 'we didn't care', Sublette County's hot spot for over forty years was Steele Hot Springs swimming pool. Located east of Boulder at the base of Fremont Butte and built by Ed P. Steele in 1931, this pool and adjoining bath houses were a source of fond memories and stories. From mid-May until school started in the fall each year, this swimming facility was open to the public.
Harry Lovatt helped with the construction in 1930. As Harry told the story: "Ed, the old man, was digging a trench to bring water down to the swimming pool. He'd been digging on it for months and it was eleven feet deep. It was getting to be too big a project for himself, so he hired Charlie Wilson and me to come down.
"We came that morning, it was before noon. Charlie was on top and I was down in the ditch. I had a big cowboy hat on. I'd stopped and was leaning on my shovel and here it caved in! Eleven feet deep! My elbows were out and the big hat left a pocket of air in front of my face. As soon as it caved in Charlie started running and as he come over the top of me I gave a yell with my last breath of air. Charlie says, 'He's right here.' Johnny Steele says, 'No, he's down here' and I was hoping Charlie would win out. Charlie started to diggin' and hit me right on top of the hat. Charlie said it was 3 feet, 9 inches to the top of the dirt.
Ed Steele was 71 when he began building this commercial venture with the hot springs. He'd homesteaded the ranch in 1886 and brought his wife Emma and sons out in 1888. According to Ed's son Mike, the extreme winter of 1889-90 wiped out the cattle and his dad would have left except that "he didn't have enough horses left to pull a wagon."
The Steeles did leave for a year to go to South Pass and also spent two years in Lander, but returned to the Fremont Butte ranch to raise seven children (an eighth child died in infancy). The springs, which are actually a warm 87 to 90 degrees, are located across the East Fork River from the main ranch buildings.
Ellen Cole, one of Ed's granddaughters spent much of her youth at the ranch and remembers riding in a buggy across the bridge for her weekly bath in one of the bathhouses.
Ellen said: "Water snakes would come out of the cracks. Verna (her aunt) would get them by the tail and snap them like a whip. Then she'd hang 'em on the barbed wire fence. They'd wiggle 'til they died. Seems like they always died at sunset."
It was still a 'hot spot' when Roxanna Jensen and Pam Kirkpatrick were school age. They remembered swimming mostly at night and that Verna (Priebe) or her daughter Carlta was always there, collecting the 50-cent fee. For an additional 10 cents, one could rent a towel and bathing suit.
When asked if she had ever been to the pool, Mary Lynn Worl exclaimed, "OH YES! I still have a burn on my backside. There was an old-fashioned round stove in the changing room. I backed into it and singed my posterior. I went there with my best friend, Patsy Hittle. Her dad hauled us all around."
Nancy Espenscheid went to the pool with her whole family.
"My mom was scared," said Nancy. "She'd been in a boating accident. But my dad was determined to teach her to swim. Then at the end of the day he talked her into diving in. Wouldn't you know! She hit her head and bled all over."
A display ad announcing that Steele Hot Springs was "Open to the Public" can be seen in the June 25, 1931 Roundup. Ed Steele died in 1940. His daughter Verna and her husband, Leonard Priebe, along with their daughters Carlta (Witthar) and Melva (Post), kept it open until 1972.
The pool was 30x60 feet and there were six separate bathhouses with tubs. The pool is fed by two hot springs with piping into the pool. Cabins were available to rent for those who spent the night. Some people also enjoyed fishing or having a picnic under the big cottonwood trees.
Carlta said: "We also sold candy and pop at the pool. I was a grown woman before I realized that Mounds Bars aren't suppose to have chocolate that flakes off! I think the supplier always sold us the old bars."
Carlta also recalled: "We had an old phone from the house to the pool. If someone arrived at the pool and wanted to swim, they'd turn the crank to call the house. Then I had to drive the stock truck or ride my bike over. I was always scared in the truck because I could barely reach the pedals. I had a nightmare of rolling backwards into the creek."
Bill Mayo also remembered that phone.
"We'd be in the fields all day and get to the pool at night. We'd called on that old phone. Bless her soul, Verna would come out and let us in. We'd been planning for this all day and we sure didn't wanna give up the idea of a swim."
Jim King said: "There was a kid's pool in the corner. It was fenced off. They had a boiler to heat the water for the tubs. The water was hot right out of the pipes, but the whole pool was cool. So, they had to heat the water. The deep end was only five and a half feet and the diving board only two and a half feet off the water, so you were bound to hit the bottom sometimes.
Bill recalled a diving board story. "When I was a junior in high school, we went to the pool. My mom had been a swimmer in her day, but now she was heavy. She got on the board and did a perfect dive. She hit the bottom and that's where she stayed! I finally realized she wasn't coming up so I went in and saved her life."
When Carlta was at the pool she was the lifeguard, but never had to rescue anyone.
"We had a sign 'No Climbing on Rafters or Cables,' but kids would jump off the diving board and try to grab the cable that went across to hold the roof.
"The pool had tractor inner tubes and kids would have contests to see who could stand on them the longest. One time I noticed a snake on one of the inner tubes. It was a harmless water snake, but some big farm boys from Farson didn't know that. Farson had real rattlesnakes so that's what those boys were used to. When I walked over and picked up that snake - OH! The look on their faces."
Debi Ruland said the big thing was "if you found a snake you threw it in the pool and yelled, 'SNAKE!' It was just a fun place."
Another woman remembers the pool as "dark, dingy and the water was yukky. It was a scary place to me. My mom was baptized there. It was awful. I was only about six and my brothers were four and eight. Everybody was yelling and we didn't know what was going on. We thought mom was drowning. My little brother was so scared he jumped in to save her! I guess he was baptized too."
Thelma Steele said: "I didn't know how to swim and I was afraid of water. Pete (her son) was four and I was pregnant with Rhonda (Swain), so I just had on my regular clothes. Pete took a step down into the pool and there he stayed! I didn't think about being scared, I just went right in and got him!"
Debi said she was at the pool often and especially remembers one time: "We were all in the pool during a storm once. The wood in the ceiling started falling into the water! We got out of there REAL fast!"
Although several people had memories of the pool being dark, murky and smelly, Carlta said: "The pool wasn't dirty! We drained it and cleaned it every two weeks! We had lights. It wasn't dark!"
Carlta said her parents sold the pool for health reasons: "They were told they had to put in chlorine and all. It was just too much."
In 1972, Priebe sold the entire ranch to Mark Stockton and Rusty Gooch.
Rusty said: "We had to close the pool to the public for insurance reasons, but we had our own moonlight parties sometimes. Although we posted it 'No Trespassing,' people snuck in.
"When we bought the place, Priebes retained the right to live in the old house. About 1973 we split the ranch and NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) bought the old ranch house area. Stockton got the Triangle R in Pinedale and I got the hot springs."
Rusty continued: "The pool was damp and smelled of sulfur. There were lots of water snakes. I had a cat that would eat them. We decided to get rid of the roof and leave the pool open to the sky. We just burned the roof standing. It burned so fast! There was barely time to get our new truck away. We came very close to losing that pickup. The roof was so dry and rotten it was gone in 15 minutes."
Carlta also remembered the fire: "We had an old cash register and some antique quilts that were burned up when they fired the roof. I guess they didn't know, but we were kind of sick about it."
Rusty built an A-frame recreation area with a fireplace and gave the old cabins to the Pinedale Snow Explorers Club for its track north of Cora. Gooch sold the hot springs to Orin Soest and his partner Harry C. Barker, who was a Wyoming Game and Fish Commissioner and cousin to Alan K. Simpson (whose name also appears on the legal papers attached to the property). They cleaned out the spring and extended the roof from the A-frame to cover half the pool. They removed the diving board.
Harry remembers: "We had a bit of difficulty with uninvited people coming over to have a party. The pool was private. So there were some bad feelings. The warm water attracted bull snakes and garter snakes. They're harmless. We thoroughly enjoyed it there, except for the winters. One year it was minus 70 degrees for five days. Most extreme I'd ever seen. It even froze the deer in their beds. Froze the ponds we'd stocked with fish. We had toyed with the idea of raising prawn there, but it never panned out because our springs was the wrong temperature and had too many minerals."
Barker believes Indians must have also enjoyed the sulfur springs because "arrowheads were numerous around Fremont Butte. There was a big area up on top where they'd left chippings in big piles. They were a multicolored flint."
Rusty also remembers finding "lots of broken arrowheads when we put in cement boxes at the spring."
Barker bought out Soest and in 1981 sold to Melita and Hank Snow. Melita said that she'd never heard of any accidents at the pool, but the insurance was awful.
She also remembered the snakes. "They'd get in by coming along the pipes and then up through the cracks in the wood floor. We had a dog trained to get the snakes. Snakes have no smell so they had to be moving or he couldn't catch them. One day Leslie (their daughter) came riding in on her horse. A snake moved just then and the dog got it and flipped it up right into Leslie's lap! She got off that horse real fast!"
In 1996 the Snows sold the place to Aidan Mullett. In 2003 Mullett sold it to Buck and Donna Underwood who are in the process of major renovations. Once the hot spot of Sublette County, now a private swimming pool, the Steele Hot Springs will continue to recall fond memories.
(Copyright Judi Myers)
Photo credits: Judi Myers, Sublette County Artists Guild Courtesy Painting
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