'St. Helena is Good for Your Health'
By 1898, the name of the Rural Health Retreat, originally founded 20 years before, had been changed to the St. Helena Sanitarium. Guests were met at the St. Helena train station and transported up the hill in these shuttle cars. In the 1940s a bus met the Greyhound in town. (Courtesy of Jack & Marcey Smith. This photo will appear in the upcoming book “Images of America: St. Helena” by the St. Helena Historical Society, published by Arcadia Publishing.) Photo courtesy of the St. Helena Historical Society.

An ad hoc committee formed in May, 2008, to look at the economic health of St. Helena, has recommended a new branding slogan that says, “St. Helena is Good for Your Health.”

With that, what’s old is set to become new again.

In addition to its three core “industries” — wine, tourism, and other retail business — St. Helena sees wisdom in including a “fourth leg of the stool” — one that surrounds “health, wellness, culinary, fitness, education and health care.”

Nancy Levenberg, St. Helena Chamber of Commerce CEO and president, cites the city’s “the existing assets in place,” including St. Helena Hospital, the Culinary Institute of America, Pacific Union College, the Napa Valley College upper campus, as well as destination spas and individual practitioners, including a couple who founded a modality called “Somatic Health,” and teach practitioners over the world from their St. Helena base.

A focus on health and wellness has a long tradition in St. Helena.

The so-called “Rural Health Retreat,” located on the grounds of where St. Helena Hospital is today, was drawing visitors from the time it opened in 1878.

As Mariam Hansen of the St. Helena Historical Society will tell you, “In those days, people were coming to St. Helena as an early health and wellness destination for lectures on nutrition, and for walks in the fresh air.”

National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner writes in his best-selling book, “The Blue Zones,” about the very few “pockets of longevity” around the world where more people live longer and more vibrantly healthy lives. One of the five pockets he cited worldwide, and the only one in America, is the Seventh-day Adventist community around Loma Linda. He and his research team credited aspects of the Adventist lifestyle with enhancing longevity.

Years ago, visitors to St. Helena Hospital, previously the sanitarium, and even before that, the Rural Health Retreat, were subscribing to the same lifestyle. Author Fred Hutchinson, who visited in 1939, before the current modernization, suffered from arthritis and enjoyed the fresh food and fresh air, the various massages and therapies, but not the emphasis on no sugar, meat, mustard, vinegar, alcohol, coffee, tea, or smoking.

“Here at the ‘San,’” Hutchinson wrote, not without some humor, “they sit up nights figuring out new ways to make you healthy and happy.”

‘University of Health’

Sixty years before, when it first opened in 1878, the “Rural Health Retreat” at Crystal Springs promised a “medical and surgical sanitarium” where “those who have tried the drug system of medication without benefit are cured by Nature’s own remedies.” Those remedies included “all the various forms of water (treatments), vapors, hot air, medicated and electric baths, Swedish movements, proper exercise and rest.”

“Pure, soft water and wholesome diet, agreeable mental influences, delightful climate, beautiful scenery and pleasant surroundings” contributed their part to the patient’s health, although “medication such as each individual case may demand” was also provided.

The Rural Health Retreat was a Seventh-day Adventist undertaking, modeled on the program of diet, massage, and hydrotherapy pioneered at Battle Creek (Mich.) Sanitarium, where a famous Dr. Kellogg practiced (better known to us from Kellogg’s ‘Special K’ cereal.)

In 1891, St. Helena had its own school of nursing, “one of the first six on the West coast.”

The St. Helena Sanitarium was referred to as “California’s University of Health,” from a 1924 copy of the St. Helena Star.

White Sulphur, Aetna

Across St. Helena to the West, one hot and six cold natural springs, collectively “White Sulphur Springs” — named after a tourist destination in West Virginia, where the famous “Greenbrier” resort is located today — had been discovered two years after California gained its statehood. It was built as a private retreat in 1851, opened to the public in 1854, then changed hands many times, even burning to the ground and being rebuilt several times, until the current era.

St. Helena historian Lin Weber, writing in “A Historical Overview of the St. Helena Appellation,” describes White Sulphur Springs as “California’s first destination resort.”

In addition to its long history as a resort, White Sulphur Springs also had the first public swimming pool in Napa County, built in 1916, which the local Red Cross used for swimming lessons for decades.

A newspaper from 1921 touts its multiple soaking tubs for men and for women (genders were separated), benefiting from the “hot sulphur waters,” showers, saunas and steam rooms, and massage rooms.

Pope Valley’s Aetna Springs resort was also notable locally. A newspaper article from July 10, 1884 calls it “the most popular resort of Napa County.” Aetna Springs, too, relied on the therapeutic properties of its waters. This resort, which grew up around mineral waters and included one of the oldest golf courses west of the Mississippi, was recently shuttered after generations of use.

From water to wine

Today’s city leaders foresee the same attractive features in the St. Helena of 2009 and beyond.

To quote the Economic Outlook Study Group’s report, “We can capitalize on the current and ever-increasing interest in healthy lifestyle, weight control, fitness, and the tremendous impact these factors have on our health care system.”

Doing so, they believe, attracts business that “builds on existing assets, such as our outstanding hospital, culinary training institutions, colleges, and circle of health care practitioners, makes sense if we want to attract the same or similar demographic already visiting our area enticed by our twin economic engines of wine and tourism.”

The EOSG report envisions “high value, low impact” tourists who visit St. Helena “for advanced treatment, specialized, treatment, classes, training, and second opinions — all requiring hotel stays, restaurant meals, winery visits, downtown shopping . . . Part of our thinking is that if people travel to Rochester, Minnesota in order to access the care offered at the Mayo Clinic, they will have even more reason to come to our valley for the same.”

Turn back the clock a few decades, and it sounds like this targeted demographic has been traveling to St. Helena — along with its sister city, Calistoga — as a health and wellness destination for years.

(Lily G. Casura is the copy editor for the St. Helena Star and The Weekly Calistogan.)

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