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  • Writer's pictureKirby Clark, MMT

A History of Massage Therapy in Arkansas Update: Hot Springs Oct. 2022

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Hot Springs, the definitive birthplace of massage in Arkansas. I wanted to share a quick update about some new things I learned and the incredible experience I had.

I started Saturday night at one of my favorite Hot Springs haunts, Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Superior is one of the 8 remaining bathhouses that is a part of the Hot Springs National Park. They have converted the space into a microbrewery and use the natural spring water in all of their beers, they also serve burgers and other pub fare. Superior serves a flight of their 18 varieties, keeping with the theme of “the city that bathes the world”, they call this flight a beer bath. I love visiting Superior (and their neighbor Hotel Hale- a former bathhouse that has been converted into a small hotel) because I think it’s a stroke of genius that the historic bathhouses have been reborn with new purposes as the bathing industry has changed since its golden age. It is inspiring to me that the cultural significance of the bathhouses can live on in a new way, teaming with activity and social interaction.

I ended the night in my hotel room reviewing preliminary research I had gathered before my trip. This included brand new documents from a correspondent in Washington state who runs the online community History of Massage. These two documents were newsletter publications from AMTA (A.A.M.M. at the time) from June 1953 and July/August 1956 which both provided insight on a legal battle I’m looking into regarding bathhouse workers non-compliance with the Massage Registration Act of 1951. I stayed up late reviewing many articles I had printed from the National Park Service website.

The next morning, I was up early determined to find and visit the gravesite of the Farmere’s. Fred and Martha are widely credited with opening the first massage school in Arkansas as well as Martha serving on the State Board of Massage. It took some circling through the cemetery, and I eventually had to revisit my notes and to narrow my search, but I eventually located their headstone. One thing that particularly stood out to me was a pile of stones on top of Martha’s side of the headstone(a practice I understand to be connected to the Jewish faith). I spent some time in quiet reflection, respect, and gratitude for the work they had done for my profession.

I had some time before I was due to meet with an oral history narrator, so after paying respects at the Farmere’s gravesite, I thought it appropriate to locate the Libbey Memorial Physical Medical Center (sometimes shortened to “PCM” or known by locals as “the Libbey”).

I have read that Martha Farmere worked and maybe even taught massage therapy at the Libbey. The Libbey once operated as public health clinic and bathhouse within the national park, opening in 1922 to provide services to those who could not afford their bathing prescriptions on their own. The Libbey as a government bathhouse closed in 1957. The next year in 1958, the PCM opened in the bathhouse leased and using waters from the National Park. A public health spa was added to the Libbey’s upper floor in 1981, but all operations ceased in December of 2005.

The Libbey is now locked with paper taped to the glass doors, but I hear rumors that the National Park Service is in the process of converting the space into an Archives building. That is encouraging to me.

The oral history interview went very well, I learned a lot of insight and enjoyed a first-hand account of the massage profession over the last several decades from an anonymous narrator. I was also humbled to be gifted by the narrator an original copy of the 1951 Massage Registration Act. The physical copy being much smaller than I expected, it is more of a pocket size law than letter size as is now common. Another thing that I was thrilled to learn was directions to the building that housed the Arkansas State Board. I knew I had to drive past after getting turn-by-turn directions from my participant. Now a realtor/property management firm, the grey building on the corner still stands.

Finally, on Monday morning, I had the opportunity to make a walk-in appointment at the historic Buckstaff Bathhouse, the longest consecutive operating bathhouse in the United States. I have visited Hot Springs several times but had never had the pleasure of patronizing the Buckstaff. They only take walk ins and at high volume times, there can be a wait. But walking in on a Monday morning (Halloween no less) was a slow and easy flow for them to fit me in. At the Buckstaff you can enjoy their Traditional Bathing package (including a 20-minute massage) near identical to the services bathers enjoyed as far back as the 1920s- what better way to learn about history than a completely immersive experience. The loofah scrub was unavailable due to back-orders not arriving yet and the swiss shower (needle shower) was unavailable with no explanation. However, I got to enjoy a bath, sitz bath, steam cabinet, pack & wrap session, and cooling room before my massage. I was excited to see how a massage could be administered in only 20 minutes but sheets and a towel being provided at all times- it was not as difficult to receive a full body massage as I had anticipated. The massage wasn’t as focused or thorough as your typical hour session, but it was a full body service, and I did leave feeling refreshed from the whole experience.

Later that afternoon, the museum curator for Hot Springs National Park was kind enough to meet with me at the Lamar Bathhouse (now the park’s emporium and welcome center) and take me behind the scenes to their library and archives. I was honored to accept such a generous invitation, they pulled files, articles, and books for me to read. Two-hours passed in what felt like minutes. I didn’t even scratch the surface of what I could research with that resource, but I still left with so much new information and left with much older info reconfirmed. The biggest take aways for me were another original copy of the Massage Registration Act.

This copy I though was just a different color, but upon further investigation, discovered actually had a three-page amendment added in the back. They also let me read over a file with a massage exam inside, it is reasonable to assume that this exam was required and proctored by the National Park Service to be employed as massage operators in their bathhouses(the notes describe the exam as 4 parts-massage, anatomy, & physiology and required a score of 70 to pass). There was no date on the file or exam document so I cannot safely say if this exam was in use after the Massage Registration Act was enacted (again there was a legal battle that even made it all the way to the Arkansas Supreme Court over those in the federally owned bathhouses not complying with the Act).

There were also a few books on massage theory and two newspaper clippings from the 1980s about massage that I enjoyed before having to depart Hot Springs. In the new year, I hope to make regular visits to Hot Springs National Park because again, two hours passed like twenty minutes... I'm sure I could spend weeks in their library and archives.

I am excited to provide this brief update on the work I am doing on my passion project, A History of Massage Therapy in Arkansas. You can learn more about my project and ways to get involved at my website. I am open to scheduling more oral history interviews, receiving donations (documents, photographs, etc), hearing stories/leads, or any other historically significant activity. Please .get involved.

Peace and Healing,

Kirby Clark, MMT

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