Tubal Cain Owen and the Healing Waters of Ypsilanti

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Fall 2006,
Fall 2006
Original Images:

Author: Heidi Nielsen and Marcia Phillip

Tubal Cain Owen (1843–1913) was named for the Biblical character in Genesis 4:22 who was a pioneer in metallurgy. Perhaps these high expectations were the motivation that led him to try his hand at several business enterprises (including attempting to build a flying machine) before pursuing the marketing of mineral water. Often described as “flamboyant,” “cocky,” and even a “bit peculiar,” he married Anna Foote, the daughter of Normal College music professor E.M. Foote. He bought property on West Forest Avenue where he built a pagoda-shaped house, and later would drop a well.

Between 1880 and 1900, Ypsilanti became known far and wide for its mineral water enterprises. In 1882 the Ypsilanti Paper Company bored a well, seeking pure water but found what was then perceived and marketed as medicinal mineral water. Various sanitariums sprang up in a vigorous rivalry. Tubal Cain Owen jumped into the fray when he sank an 808 feet deep well in 1884 at 360 feet north of Forest Avenue, behind his house (presently near the northwest corner of the east wing of the Roosevelt Building on the Eastern Michigan University campus). He named the well “Atlantis” and by 1885, acquired patent number 13127 for his trade mark for Ypsilanti Mineral Water. He found darker, even murkier water then his competitors, which at that time was believed to be more beneficial. It was reddish brown and described as having an “odor that sent strong men reeling toward the saloon,” yet was sold as far as Boston and with great popularity particularly in Chicago. The water's chief ingredient was bromine and was sold for $8 a barrel under the labels of “Atlantis” and “Paragon,” the labels becoming works of art in themselves.

The Owen home and connected out-buildings began to draw visitors to the many promised healing activities that included bathing as well as drinking. Owen's promotional material stated that the water was marketed “to fulfill its errand of mercy,” even if the effect was not always merciful. For instance, the instructions for the treatment of cancer included that “the water must be taken freely, three or four glasses a day, no matter how nauseating it may be.” (Ironically, all three of Owen's children would die of cancer.) Eventually, the water was also packaged as soap, bathing salts and ointments and later used to make ginger ale.

The following introduction was published in a promotional book used to publicize the Ypsilanti Mineral Water:

On the beautiful banks of the Huron River, some thirty miles west of Detroit, and a very short distance below the city of Ypsilanti, in Michigan, are located the old Paper Mills of the Ypsilanti Paper Company, and also the Ypsilanti Mineral Spring. That company owning, in that region, paper and pulp mills some six in number, has for over twenty-five years supplied white paper to various newspapers of the land, among others the Chicago Times.

By a mere chance, the Company bored for pure water at a point a few rods across the road from the old Mill. The drilling was for a deep, or artesian well, which it was hoped would reach an unfailing supply of pure water, needed in the processes of paper making. The Company desired a water different from that found in the pretty river which turns the wheels of the Paper Mill. Such an artesian well had been long contemplated, and it was at last commenced by experienced borers, brought from the oil regions of Pennsylvania. The spot chosen is a beautiful one in its general surroundings; the Mill, the river, and the City, with trees and hills in the foreground or beyond, make a pretty picture.

The pure water which was sought for, was never reached, but in its stead a far more precious water was found. A healing water, rich in mineral ingredients was struck by the drills, below the rock of various kinds and thicknesses, at a total depth of 740 feet from the earth's surface. That discovery was made on the 14th day of December, 1882 and may be well regarded by those acquainted with the subject of healing waters, a remarkable event. Compared with the medicinal properties of its waters, those of the celebrated Springs of Europe and America are indeed mild. From the earliest antiquity till now nothing so valuable in the way of curative waters, has been known to man. Many valuable Mineral Spirits existed, but none equal to this.

The Ypsilanti Mineral Water has consequently reached a success without parallel in the history of Mineral Wells. The discovery of the water was quickly followed by its general use in Ypsilanti and by cures so remarkable as to attract attention elsewhere, and to create a demand for shipment to various parts of the country. That demand has been increasing ever since, until now it is used in every State in the Union. The well is still owned by the Ypsilanti Paper Company, one of the largest and most responsible paper companies in the United States.

The discovery of the peculiar water and the development of the healing power it possesses, was entirely unexpected; and, indeed, the proprietors were the very last to give any serious credit to the stories about relief and cures brought to their office by those who came to procure the water. Hence, at first no charge was made for the water, but it was given out freely to all who wished it. Strange to say, people came after it regularly and soon began to cart off, not only in bottles and jugs, but in barrels and kegs.

The reports of relief and even cures, were numerous within a few weeks; but before six months had passed there was no doubt about it whatever. The cases of Mr. Kimbel and Mr. Guild, currently believed to be genuine cancer cases,-and scores of cases of rheumatism, dyspepsia and kidney troubles cured, set the town of Ypsilanti in an uproar of interest, not to say excitement. Meantime friends had informed friends, and the water was shipped away and used in distant parts, without even the knowledge of the owners of the mill, until long afterwards reports of the cures in cases never dreamed of by them came back to their notice. A remarkable case in New York City — a very wealthy lady (as it is said) with cancer of the womb, a case in Toledo, Ohio, one at Bay City; several cases of dyspepsia, kidney complaint, eczema, etc. in Chicago, followed in rapid succession. Demand for the water increased. Arrangements were made, circulars printed and stationery prepared, jugs and casks were brought by the hundreds, for shipping; and the Mineral Water Department of the Ypsilanti Paper Company became an established fact. All this was literally without design or previous plan. It was forced on the proprietors by the simple merits of the water.

The following interviews, chosen at random, will, when read, give a fair idea, not at all overdrawn, of what the waters are doing and what its patrons claim for it. The proprietors make no pretensions whatever in the matter; but the water is offered to the public on what is said of it by those who have used it. Wherever it is introduced it makes its own way.

The promotional book includes a series of testimonials regarding the healing qualities of the Ypsilanti Mineral Water. Here is the first testimonial from John J. Kimbel:

The following interview was had with the first person cured by the Ypsilanti waters. The statement here given was made at Ypsilanti on August 12th, 1885, and is worth perusal:

“What is your fill name, your Residence and your present occupation?” “My name is John Jonas Kimbel, my residence is Ypsilanti, and I am in the express business; I drive a dime express.” How long have you lived in Ypsilanti?” “Most 39 years. I was born and brought up here.” “How long have you been in the express business?” “About a year and four months.” “Before that, what did you do?” “Working in the paper mill.” “What paper mill?” “Cornwell's — the Ypsilanti Paper Co.” “How long did you work for the Paper Co?” “Just three years.” “Were you working for that Company when the Ypsilanti Mineral Spring was struck?” “Yes.” “When was it struck? What year?” “I cannot say. They have it down stairs though.” [December 14, 1882.]

“It is said you had a cancer when the Ypsilanti well was struck; it that so?” “Yes sir. Four years. Well, it was six years a coming. It was from the time I first noticed it until they struck the water, six years.” “Did you use the Ypsilanti Water for your cancer?” “I did.” “How did you use it, and what was the effect?” “Well, I bathed my face, my nose, ten or fifteen times a day. Then I drank the water as free as I would pure spring water.” “How much would you drink in a day?” “Well, I will tell you,-that would sound a little big to anybody — but the room that I worked in was very warm and close, and I drank on an average about two quarts of the Ypsilanti water every day. I drank it before they knew the benefits of it.” “How long did you continue to drink that water in that way?” “Four months.”

“Please describe your trouble,-the condition of your cancer at the time you commenced to use the water?” “Well, it began from an itching, the same as if needles would be darting through my nose,-pricking like that, and through the sides of my face.” “How did the sore look at that time?” “Well, it was a dark spot,-considerable of a raise on the end of my nose, as large as a silver five-cent piece.” “Had it broken the surface of the skin on your nose?” “Yes. Well, I will tell you. Every full moon, that would drop off, then it would fester and come on larger.” “Was it always painful?” “Always, Mostly in the night and when my blood would be a little warm.” “Did you consult any physician as to your case?” “Yes sir, I did; I consulted ***** doctors in Detroit, Michigan. Also two other doctors in Detroit — I do not remember their names. Then there was one Indian Doctor from Toledo, Ohio, he heard about it and came out to my house.” “What did those doctors tell you about your case, or their opinions of it?” “Well, they pronounced it cancer, and all advised me to let them make an operation on it, it would save me trouble in time. But my conscience always told me not to meddle with it.” “Did you consult any physician here in Ypsilanti?” “Yes sir. Let me see, Dr. *****.” “What did Dr. ***** say about it?” “He thought it would be all right in a little while,-that is all he said to me.” “Did he say whether it was cancer or not?” “He did not say. He was doctoring my mother then,-she was dying with a cancer then.”

“Do you mean to say your mother died of cancer?” “Yes sir. In the stomach her cancer was.” “How do you know it was actually a cancer in her stomach?” “Well, all the way I know it was by the way the doctors all claimed.” “Now, coming back to your own case, please state what effects the Ypsilanti Mineral Water had upon your nose, or in any other way.” “In two weeks after bathing my face it showed signs of coming off — the scab,-and it came on again the same as it had before, but not quite so large, and then in four weeks it came off and left a raw place, and it began healing up from the edges to the center. And my body was covered with little boils from drinking the water. Then the prickling sensation and soreness ceased, and I have not been troubled with it any since.”

“Have any other members of your family had cancer?” “My sister,-they claim,-taken the same as my mother.” “Did she use the Ypsilanti Water?” “She did.” “How long did she use it?” “She has used it over a year.” “Is she now free of her trouble?” “She claims she is.” “Please state fully the present condition and appearance of your nose, where the cancer was located?” “In changes of weather it shows plainer where the cancer was located. My nose is perfectly smooth now.” “Do you ever have any pains now?” “No, only when I press there I can feel a little pain. In the winter time when it is cold I have to keep my hand on the end of my nose,-it stings and burns.”

There's forty new baths going, And all the healing waters flowing, Better days and health bestowing, On many a weary one.

In the above case the Ypsilanti Mineral Spring Water was used by simply bathing the nose (and cancer) many times a day, and drinking the water freely. A perfect cure resulted.

In the same book promoting Ypsilanti Mineral Spring Water the Ypsilanti Sanitarium contains and ad claiming:

“… This water is the MARVEL of the age in which we live for its CURATIVE and MEDICAL PROPERTIES. Also, NATURAL SPRING water of EXTRAORDINARY PURITY; both are NATURAL RESTORERS to health and have performed MANY MIRACULOUS CURES. To these are added ELECTRICITY, AIR, STEAM, FURM, MINERAL and SOFT WATER baths in the varied forms and at ALL TEMPERATURES required; also the VIBRATORY EXERCISER, WALKING and KNEADING machine and BED-COUCH, with a JUDICIOUS use of MEDICINE, which constitute in part our MATERIA MEDICA.”

The promotion continues with”… This SANITARIUM is located on the west banks of the Huron River in a BEAUTIFUL PART of the City of YPSILANTI, Michigan; with a surrounding country free from the low grounds and malaria breeding marshes. — Also it is THOROUGHLY VENTILATED, with SEWERAGE GOOD; consequently it has had FOR YEARS an INCREASING PATRONAGE from all parts of the UNITED STATES and CANADA, ITS PATRONS having ENJOYED the benefits of its UNRIVALED facilities for the TREATMENT of all forms of ACUTE and CHRONIC diseases.”

The healing waters business took a major hit after the passing of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act which required an accurate listing of ingredients. Truth in advertising would have dictated that Owen's water be undoubtedly described as “foul-smelling muddy water.” Also, local residents complained of the yelling of the patients at Owen's house of healing so the state condemned the property, claiming that the sanitarium posed “a serious menace to the social life of the Normal College,” allowing it to then “acquire” the land for the college's use. The Roosevelt Building was constructed on the site of the former Owen home as a high school for teacher training. The March 10, 1904 issue of the Ypsilanti Daily Press expressed the sentiment, “One wonders whether the Michigan State Normal College will ever put the water to work. Since educators have tried everything for juvenile delinquency-why not line up all youthful offenders and see what Tubal Cain Owen can do for them?”


John Knott and Keith Taylor, ed., The Huron River, Voices From the Watershed, (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2000).
Harvey C. Colburn, The Story of Ypsilanti, (Ypsilanti, MI: Ypsilanti Bicentennial Commission, 1976). Knott and Taylor.
Healing Waters Found at Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti Paper Company.
Ad for Owen's Mineral Water Toilet Soap