Legend says that in 1603, a heifer discovered a mineral water source in Soultzbach les Bains, in the vallée de Munster!
Visitors had been bathing at Soultzbach les Bains for four hundred years before Alsace became part of the new German Empire. In fact, they were doing so before the fortuitous wanderings of the local heifer. Jacques de Hattstatt, seigneur, established a Badehus in the fifteenth century and after the Hattstatt line died out in 1585, the village came into the ownership of the barons Schauenburg Herrlisheim, who set about installing the means of exploiting the mineral water source. There are records of a possibly seventeenth century hall with a basin for the collection of water, at least one room for people seeking a cure, and a dwelling; there are records showing that after the Schauenbergs sold the premises to a M Bobenrieth in 1815, there is another wing.
M Bobenrieth saw the commercial potential for selling health-giving waters and he collected the spring water in pitchers for sale. At the same time, the popularity of the source was attracting large numbers of tourists into the village, where they lodged, until disaster struck: a large fire, which reduced the accommodation available.
By this time, a Swiss industrialist called M de Gonzenbach had bought the premises. He halted the activity at the source and reconsidered. He decided that the source was to become a thermal hotel, with an extra floor added to the building, a new wing built for entertainment of the guests and the garden transformed into an agreeable pleasure park. By 1854, there were up to 200 ‘patients’ taking the waters and enjoying the delights of a smart hotel in beautiful mountainous surroundings with invigorating fresh air and plenty of opportunities for gentle exercise should they be so minded.
Postcard sent 1902
Alongside the hotel business, M de Gonzenbach’s commercial acumen prompted him to develop the external sales of water. It was sold under the name Source Gonzenbach and by 1863, sales reached 49171 bottles and jugs.
Postcard view of the rear – casino wing on left
The business was sold on by M de Gonzenbach’s son-in-law but the new owner suffered financial ruin after the Great War and he ceded the source to the water company Carola of Ribeauvillé. (Carola still exists and is a prominent supplier of bottled water in the region.) Over the next few years, Carola mechanised the water collection and built bottling units, but the cramped location restricted development. Perrier-Nestlé bought the source and ceased operations there in 1993. From the meanderings of a village cow to a multinational company in four centuries!
The premises are now in private ownership and the industrial units have been removed. My photo shows two wings and the main building forming a courtyard. According to Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel* the ground floor and first floor correspond with the original building. The right wing was the casino.
We particularly noticed the columns with Doric capitals and the entablature with frieze with gryphons.
The south wing used to contain the casino and looking at the elegant arched windows, it doesn’t take much imagination to people the room with elegant fashions and animated conversations.
I am very grateful to the current owner who allowed us to wander around and take photos after we chanced upon this wonderful building in a quiet part of Soultzbach. I’m sure the disused hotel Au Relais de la Source across the road from the thermal hotel has its own stories, too.
Des usines au fil de la Fecht: Le patrimoine industriel de la vallée de Munster, editions LieuxDits, 2008
My photos and postcards