Small towns usually have an interesting backstory. But not every small town had thousands of visitors every weekend like Cambridge Springs did.
Although the town had been founded much earlier, the 1880s made Cambridge Springs a true destination. Dale Docter, president of the Cambridge Springs Historical Society said the town truly took off when Dr. John H Gray discovered a mineral spring on his land around 1859 while he was trying to find oil. However, he didn’t think anything of it until 20 years later, when he and his brother-in-law found out about the healing effects of free-flowing artesian springs. The water tasted the exact same as what was on his land.
So, Dr. Gray started selling his mineral spring water and 13 other mineral spring houses were built, attracting people from all over the world and igniting a true Boom Town in rural Pennsylvania for the next 30 years. It helped that Cambridge Springs was the halfway point between New York City and Chicago on the railroad.
The rest of the town tried to keep up with the rapid growth by building 15 hotels, about 40 cottages (bed and breakfasts), eight grocery stores, and many more small businesses. However, the rise of automobiles and modern medicine from the Food and Drug Act of 1906 turned the small visitor’s haven into a more residential small town, and major attractions came and went.
Alliance College was a staple from 1912-1987, but it has now become a prison. Companies like Carnation and Blystone Manufacturing only lasted about 40 years until the 1960s, leaving Cambridge Springs falling behind the times.
“That history gives us a little bit of an advantage,” said Zack Hale, who helped take over the Riverside Golf Course in March with three friends from the area. “The tricky part is we can’t just rely the history to get through, so coming up with creative ways to rebrand that history, or that story… We’re changing the narrative a little bit but still keeping those community ties together.”
The Riverside Inn was the last community tie to the town’s storied past. Its construction dated back to the 1880s and was a major reason people visited Cambridge Springs in recent years until it tragically burned down in 2017. It is one of the many old buildings that have been destroyed by fires in town over the years.
Jason and Deanna Howles from nearby Maplewood and Meadville, respectively, have family in the area and were looking for a place to open a brewery. The previous owners of the Riverside Inn listened to an offer from the couple, even though the property was not for sale. Surprisingly, Mr. and Mrs. Howles became the new owners.
To show their gratitude, they named their establishment the Riverside Brewing Company, and took certain pieces that were left from the fire — such as Riverside Inn signs and a guitar made out of the front doorstep of the Inn — and currently display them inside.
“It was an honor to build here,” said Deanna. “All those people who had special occasions there [at the Inn]: Weddings, baby showers, all those things. And it’s special to us to be able to bring them back on this property and create new memories.”
Hale, along with locals Darin Foltz, Jamie Loehrke and Jeremy Ball started their joint venture in March. The front nine holes of Riverside Golf Course were built in 1915, but renovations to the club house had not occurred since 1987. But in only a few months, they have already added more members and had three times the amount of players as last year.
On Friday evening, they launched The Rambler restaurant, a fine dining establishment in the clubhouse of their golf course. It is named for author and “Erie’s King of the Hoboes,” Levi Ray Livingston. Classic images of the Boom Town days of Cambridge Springs show themselves along the walls.
“The history of Cambridge Springs is phenomenal,” said Foltz, the CEO of Riverside Golf Course. “The amount of people that have come through this town over the last 150 years is absolutely staggering, right?… That’s the stewardship of what we’re doing to not only honor the past, but like, where we think we’re taking the future.”
Mayor Randy Gorske, who has held the position in the town for “16 or 17 years,” plans to retire at the end of 2021.
“The fact that we have local people investing in both the Riverside Brewery and the Riverside Golf Course is a testament to how much Cambridge Springs means to local people,” Gorske said. “It’s a good time to pass the torch and really see the younger generation getting involved and getting excited about what Cambridge Springs has to offer.”