NAMING WRITES: Jennings Avenue named for the fifth family to settle in Hot Springs

LEFT: Pictured here is Jennings Avenue which runs from North Third Street, to the intersection at the post office, across the recently completed Jennings Ave. Bridge, to the fire hall, then continues on top of the hill past the high school all the way to North 25th Street. 

(Photo by Marcus Heerdt/Fall River County Herald-Star)

RIGHT TOP/BOTTOM: Dr. R.D. Jennings and his wife Mattie Jennings moved to Hot Springs in the early 1880s and operated the town’s first health spa on Minnekahta Avenue.

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Publisher’s Note: This story about the Jennings family is the next in an ongoing series of stories by the Fall River County Herald-Star to highlight the history of the people behind the names of many of our county’s buildings, landmarks and attractions.

By Marcus J. Heerdt

HOT SPRINGS --- On the 60th anniversary of the Hot Springs Star in 1946, Mattie Jennings, widow of Dr. R.D. Jennings, related her family’s history of settling in Hot Springs to the newspaper. At the time, Mattie was believed to be the only known person in Hot Springs who had been reading the Star since it was first published in 1886.

“It hardly seems possible that I have been reading the Hot Springs Star for sixty years, but I have in my possession a copy of the first one printed and I remember how pleased and proud we were to have a real newspaper of our own,” Mattie said.

Mattie first came to Hot Springs in 1882, one year after her husband purchased land along what is now Minnekahta Avenue. The property included a natural warm spring and is the location where Dr. Jennings opened the town’s first health spa (present location of Moccasin Springs Natural Mineral Spa).

The Jennings were the fifth family to settle in Hot Springs, and Jennings Avenue, which runs from North Third Street all the way to North 25th Street, is named after them. Much of the Jennings family history has been relayed by Mattie and preserved by her granddaughters, Marjorie and Mary.

Rudolphus Dickenson Jennings (R.D.; Mattie always referred to her husband as Dr. Jennings) was born on Nov. 21, 1852, in Fremont, Ohio. He studied medicine at Cornell College in Iowa and in Chicago at the Homeopathic Medical College before moving west to Bismarck in Dakota Territory.

While in Bismarck in 1874, a friend of Dr. Jennings told him about a woman he should start writing to in Iowa by the name of Mattie Curtiss. For two years, Dr. Jennings and Mattie exchanged letters and got to know each other.

Mattie was born on Jan. 11, 1857, in Parkman, Ohio. At age 11, she moved with her family to Sloan, Iowa, where she later worked as a school teacher.

In the spring of 1876, Dr. Jennings traveled by wagon train from Bismarck to Deadwood with Fred T. Evans’ Black Hills Transportation Company (For more information about Fred Evans, see Part 2 of this Naming Writes series; coincidentally, Fred Evans was also born in Parkman, Ohio, and founded the town of Sloan, Iowa).

That summer, the “kind and handsome” Dr. Jennings traveled to Iowa to meet Mattie and the two were married on Aug. 29, 1876.

In 1877, the couple set out for the Black Hills and boarded a Union Pacific passenger train in Iowa headed to Sidney, Neb.

Once in western Nebraska, Dr. Jennings and Mattie traveled on a crowded stagecoach all the way north to Deadwood.

Mattie always seemed to have a special place in her memory for her first stagecoach ride. She spoke of it at length in many of her interviews she gave to local newspapers.

The writer of a 1952 Hot Spring Star article about Mattie remarked: “Her eyes sparkle even today as she tells of the stagecoach ride.”

Dr. Jennings and Mattie rode hundreds of miles in a Concord coach along with seven other people packed inside. Mattie found herself “squeezed between Dr. Jennings and General [Andrew] Dawson, both large men.”

The stagecoach traveled through the first night but stopped for the second night at Fort Robinson in northwest Nebraska. The Jennings reached Buffalo Gap on the third day of travel, then Custer City, and finally arrived in Deadwood on a snowy day in early May.

On at least two occasions during the journey, Mattie and Mrs. Andrew Dawson caught “strange men” peering into their windows at night, presumably just to get a look at a woman among the predominantly male population. While in Buffalo Gap, one of the men outside her window turned out to be “Laughing Sam,” a notorious train and stagecoach robber who spent much of his life in and out of jail.

“He was called ‘Laughing Sam’ because his cheek had been cut down to the corner of his mouth, showing his teeth and made him look as if he were laughing,” Mattie recalled.

The Jennings lived in Deadwood for about five years where Dr. Jennings served as a federal revenue collector and Mattie as a nurse.

Overall, Mattie described Deadwood in this manner: “There were things happening all day and all night that were interesting, if quite disturbing to a country girl. The streets were so crowded with men that a lady hesitated about going out alone. I never look back upon those days as hardships for we were young and there were few dull days in Deadwood during the time I lived there.”

In the summer of 1881, Dr. Jennings read an article in the Deadwood newspaper about warm springs located in the southern Black Hills. After some inquiries, Dr. Jennings met with Bill Thornby of Custer City, who told Jennings that he “discovered a spring of hot, crystal clear water that flowed from the living sandstone to fill a large basin that had been carved into the shape of a moccasin. Scattered all around were lodge poles, stone teepee rings, and signs of fires through the years.”

Dr. Jennings traveled to the Minnekahta Valley in the autumn of 1881, immediately obtained the title to the site of the warm spring, and built the area’s first bathhouse. Mattie and their daughter, Abbie, joined him one year later in 1882.

In her autobiography written in 1950, Mattie recalled: “Dr. Jennings came in the spring of ‘82 and brought me and our little girl to Hot Springs and it has been my home ever since. There was a log cabin at the spring where the baths were given, the first hotel and hospital. Four large rooms in a line, one with four beds where the men were put when taking the baths, my room, a dining room, and kitchen. I had a cook when one could be found, if not I did the cooking. We generally had from two to six men taking baths. The spring was where the warm water came out of a hill right into a rock formation that made a good bath tub, large enough for a good sized person to lie in and let the warm water run over him. Our bath house was a log cabin 10 x 10 with a little wood stove in it and finally as we became known people began coming and gradually we became a town.”

After hearing about the warm springs to the south, Fred Evans “came down from Deadwood to investigate the site and was so charmed with its beauty and convinced of its possibilities that he at once formed plans for its development.”

In December 1882, the Custer Chronicle reported that R.D. Jennings, Fred T. Evans, E.G. Dudley, L.R. Graves, and A.S. Stewart formed the Dakota Hot Springs Company and surveyed the area where the warm springs were located. Evans platted the land, and named the town Minnekahta (“warm waters,” the town’s original name; changed to Hot Springs in 1886).

Dr. Jennings continued his water-based therapy for those in need and “frequently carried his patients to the rock tub in his arms.”

One of his patients was “horribly swollen with inflammatory rheumatism and too helpless for anything but a little feeble profanity. After three weeks of baths, the man was able to mount a horse and ride away over the pine-fringed horizon, apparently quite normal.”

By 1890, Dr. Jennings and Mattie were completely devastated by the loss of four of their children. 

Their first two sons both died in 1878 and 1880 while living in Deadwood and in the summer of 1890, the Hot Springs Star reported: “An epidemic of diphtheria took the lives of many children, including two little sons (ages 3 and 1) of the Jennings family.” The Jennings thought it was time for a change.

Their good friend in town, Fred Evans, “knew it was time for them to leave for England where Dr. Jennings had been accepted for advanced medical training at King’s College in London. Evans offered to pay a part of their expenses and for over a year Dr. Jennings studied under Lord Joseph Lister, known as the founder of modern surgery by first introducing the antiseptic principle.”

Mattie enjoyed living in London and her “fondest memory is that of hearing the immortal Adelina Patti, the operatic soprano, who was the toast of Europe’s capitals.”

The Jennings returned to Hot Springs by 1892 and Dr. Jennings resumed his medical practice at the “moccasin tub spring” at the newly built Minnekahta Bathhouse and Hot Springs Hotel.

The family welcomed their second daughter, Louise, on Jan. 4, 1895.

During his life in Hot Springs, Dr. Jennings was a member of the city council, served as the Medical Director of the Dakota Hot Springs Company, was President and Superintendent of the South Dakota State Board of Health, was the second manager of the Battle Mountain Sanitarium, taught physiology at the Black Hills College, and was an active Mason and Knights Templar.

Dr. R.D. Jennings died on July 10, 1916, at the age of 64 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery here in Hot Springs. The Deadwood Pioneer-Times reported: “Word was received in the city yesterday of the death at Hot Springs of one of the old time residents at Deadwood, Dr. R.D. Jennings, who passed away at an early hour yesterday morning. He was of generous, kindly disposition, whose services as a physician were never refused to the poor and most destitute, regardless of personal recompense.”

Mattie raised her two daughters, Abbie and Louise, in Hot Springs and worked hard on all of the housework.

“I am convinced that in pioneering country, the women’s work is as strenuous, if not more so, than the men’s,” Mattie stated.

Mattie died in Hot Springs at the age of 97 on Aug. 2, 1954, and is also buried in Evergreen Cemetery.

In one of her last interviews, Mattie said, “Hot Springs has been my home and will be as long as I live...I feel that I am a part of every stick, stone, and stream.”

Thank you to Sara Casper at the State Archives in Pierre for her contribution to this story. Information and photos for this article obtained from the books “Early Hot Springs,” “When Hot Springs was a Pup,” and “Fall River County Pioneer Histories,” newspaper archives, and the Helen Magee Heritage Room.

Fall River County Herald Star

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