Hot Springs Eternal
Stefanie and Damon Shirk and their family reopen Faywood Hot Springs, a Grant County landmark.
by Harry Williamson
Few Grant County businesses have experienced such extreme highs and lows as Faywood Hot Springs.
Now, with its new owners, Stefanie and Damon Shirk and their family in house, the good times appear to be back.
The Shirk family, new owners at Faywood Hot Springs, from left: Keegan, Hunter, Damon and Stefanie.
The couple reopened the hot springs, campground, cabins and guesthouse on Feb. 18 after a nearly six-year hiatus. Located just off Highway 180, midway between Silver City and Deming, Faywood is now open every day.
"When you walk in this place how could you not fall in love with it?" Stefanie says. "Faywood is a geothermal phenomenon, all on its own, out here in the middle of the desert."
Damon adds it had long been a dream to own a campground, but he always envisioned it being on a lake. He majored in biology in college, was experienced in water treatment and management, and had worked at lake campgrounds.
"But when we did our research on this place, it was so much more than just a standing body of surface water," he says. "It's an ever-lasting source of sweet-tasting, hot spring water that has been here forever."
And when it came to the Faywood campground itself, the couple had the experience to know exactly what they were looking at.
Stefanie says her early life was like being an Army brat, "but I was a campground brat." Her father, Ernie Wright, had owned campgrounds all over the US while she was growing up. This included campgrounds in New York, Florida, Alabama, North Carolina and Oregon, before he sold his last one in Colorado a few years back and bought a ranch in Wyoming to raise buffalo.
"My dad knew I didn't want to leave the campground business," Stefanie recalls. "I just lived it. That was my life."
Therefore, it was with some justice that her father was the one who got the Faywood dream percolating. He had returned to his native New Mexico, buying a business in Roswell, when one of his employees noticed an advertisement saying Faywood was for sale.
"Knowing my dad's background with campgrounds, he happened to show him the ad. Dad made the trip to see Faywood, and then he called us," Stefanie says.
This began what the couple recalls as a nine-month roller-coaster ride of negotiations that seemed positive one week, and no hope at all the next.
"So many people had tried to buy Faywood over the years. Every other person we talked to would say, 'Yeah, we tried to get some people together to work something out because we just loved the place,'" Damon recalls. "I don't know how many dozens of groups had come and gone before we finally made the purchase. It was like winning the lottery."
Damon adds that it was Stefanie's father who always kept the process moving, saying, "He was the squeaking wheel that always got the grease."
At the same time, Damon's parents, Dave and Mary Shirk, provided added support and backing. "My dad always had a dream for something like this. When he was a kid he worked for his aunt and uncle at their Desert Palm Springs Hot Springs in California," Damon says. "So that gave our family some experience in the hot springs industry."
Beyond the water, what especially attracted the Shirks to Faywood were the immense possibilities due to the vision of the previous owners, Elon Yurwit and his wife Wanda Fuselier. Shortly before his death in 2006, Yurwit planned and had constructed all of the roads, pools, cabins, campgrounds, dressing rooms, and a clubhouse complete with fireplace, along with a 6,000-square-foot, circular visitor's center, which is near completion. Extensive kitchen, bathroom fixtures and other equipment are currently stored inside the center, ready to be installed.
Damon says, "His vision was for a restaurant, gift shop and museum in the visitor's center. He built the building, which is not quite finished, but even if it wasn't here it's something we'd want to have. The building gives us so much potential."
Damon and Stefanie, who are both in their mid-30s, and their two boys — Hunter, 13, and Keegan, 3 — along with numerous cats and a dog moved to Faywood last October. Their first tasks were to clear brush and get everything back in good working order, including — it turned out — the camp's four septic systems, and replacing most of the plastic pipe that drains the pools.
This pool, one of the 13 at Faywood Hot Springs, is designed to be used for Watsu massage therapy, in which the water is heated to the same temperature as the client’s body.
"Getting around all of the utility lines that spiderweb across this place to get to those drain lines was a nightmare," Damon says. "Every day something new would pop up when we thought we had it all handled, but we wanted our pools to drain properly."
He estimates that from 25% to 50% of the repair work has been completed. "We're rebuilding old decks and other wood structures that got dry rotted. We want to repair everything, but not make it fancy so we can keep Faywood affordable."
Stefanie adds that pricing has been kept the same as it previously was as an appreciation to customers for coming back.
All of the 13 stone pools are now working well, with only the two fiberglass hot tubs still needing to be replaced. The pools vary in size, with the largest holding 20 people. Some pools are clothing optional, for the naturists, as opposed to those for the clothes-wearing customers, the so-called "textiles." The Shirks want to continue to cater to both types of customers, even to the point of developing a new campground area near the clothing-optional pools just for the naturists.
Faywood currently has 34 camping sites, including 15 with water, power and septic, and five with just water and power, served by a dump station, plus 11 tent sites. There are six cabins with a full bath, kitchenette and sleeping loft, along with a two-bedroom guesthouse.
"I think we'll finish the finish the visitor's center first, and then we'll expand into a clothing-optional campground," Stefanie says.
The tufa dome, where the geothermal natural water spring is located, is surrounded by 10 holding towers, which store approximately 35,000 gallons of water for ongoing distribution to the pools.
(Photos by Harry Williamson)
"We will probably start with the gift shop, perhaps including a small convenience store for supplies and basic goods for campers and local residents so they don't have to drive miles and miles," she adds. The couple has sufficient artifacts, photos and other documents to start a museum, and a restaurant, when opened, would initially have just sandwiches and other pre-made items.
Damon adds that any new camping facilities or cabins would also require added septic systems. Other parts of the Shirks' five-year plan include additional pools and cabins, a cold-water pool (also part of Yurwit's vision), a playground, and later a putt-putt course, and perhaps even a full-blown desert golf course.
"I mentioned the possibility of a golf course in a newspaper article and I had people calling me all the way from Washington, DC," Damon says. "Obviously something like that is going to take a lot of planning."
He also mentioned one day having a supercross motorcycle track somewhere on their 714 acres of land.
One new building has already been added — a gatehouse, currently staffed by their one employee, Sean McGraw, although they've been advertising for additional staff.
"We need one more person for the gatehouse to help check people in. I desperately need maids, and then probably another person for maintenance," Stephanie says.
Besides McGraw, Damon's uncle, John Hogan from Colorado, has been helping out for the past several months. Among other tasks, Hogan currently empties and cleans each of the pools at least weekly.
Stefanie says that nothing is added to the water, which is completely natural and safe to drink.
"It's got a wonderful sweet scent to it," she says. "I don't know how to explain it except to say when you are in the water it's penetrating. It warms you to your core. You get in there and you get happy."
The water — obviously a shock to find in the midst of a high-mountain desert — has always been the one constant at Faywood.
In his book Desert Solitaire, nature writer Edward Abbey writes of another such natural anomaly, the Delicate Arch in Utah. His words are equally descriptive of the Faywood spring, or of the nearby City of Rocks, both formed by violent episodes of volcanic activity some 20 to 45 million years ago.
Such incongruities, Abbey writes, have "the curious ability to remind us that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours… the power of the odd and unexpected is to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful — that which is full of wonder."
The existing tufa limestone dome — now capped and surrounded by 10 holding towers — was formed by eons of mineral waters flowing over the desert floor. In the early 1800s the geothermal spring was known as "Ojo Caliente" (Warm Springs) and also as Ojo Toro, or Bull Spring, because wild bulls were said to graze at the site. Over the years the springs became a well-known stop for western-moving Americans.
Although dates differ a bit depending on the history you read, in about 1859 A. Kuhne and Billy Watts filed a homestead claim on 160 acres around the hot springs, later building a ramshackle hotel and bathhouse. The property went through several owners, until Colonel Richard Hudson bought it in approximately 1870, forming the Hudson Hot Springs Sanitarium Company. He built an adobe hotel and new bathhouses. Served by two stage lines and a nearby railroad stop, it prospered until the hotel burned down in about 1891.
The name Faywood Hot Springs came from a blending of the last names of two of the next owners, J.C. Fay and William Lockwood. Along with other partners, including A.G. Spaulding, owner of the Chicago White Stockings (later the White Sox), a number of buildings were built, delivering what was touted at the time as "New Mexico's greatest leisure retreat."
John Reeder wrote in the March 1982 issue of New Mexico Magazine that the new hotel "was finished in gay nineties style at a cost of more than $100,000 (at 1890s prices). It had 48 bedrooms, each with a private bath (these private baths being the first of any hotel in the territory), and featured such elegant appointments as plate-glass doors and windows, and oak wainscoting all around. Fancy new bathhouses were built as well as a pagoda-like pavilion for the natural pool of the springs."
In addition, a baseball diamond and grandstands were built for Spaulding's team for spring training, which lasted only one year due to Grant County's strong spring winds.
The use of the hotel dwindled over the years, due perhaps to an overkill of opulence, until only one owner remained, Tom C. McDermott, who believed drinking the Faywood waters was curing his stomach ulcers.
McDermott liked the water so much he began to bottle it, placing the following words on the bottle's label: "Overworked Nervous People Find Immediate Relief, Stomach Troubles, Rheumatism, Kidney and Liver Troubles are Readily Cured. These Waters Cure When Others Fail to Benefit."
Interestingly, he lived to be nearly 96, dying in 1946, 50 years beyond what his doctors had predicted.
With McDermott gone, customer visits continued to fall. The buildings deteriorated until they were razed in 1955. Herman Lindauer of Deming owned the land for a few years before selling to Kennecott Copper Corp. in 1966.
Don Martin, a retired journalism professor at New Mexico State University, recalls visiting Faywood in the early 1970s and finding little more than the rubble of a few old buildings, along with "mesquite, a lot of birds, and a wooden seat over a muddy pool." Martin was acquainted with a Kennecott official and, as scoutmaster, he and his Las Cruces Troop 77 did some pool construction at Faywood, with one of their pools later developed into what is now in use as the Big Dipper.
According to Bob Richey, another Las Cruces resident and frequent visitor to Faywood over the years, Kennecott had two pools constructed, leasing one to a children's hospital for a nominal fee and renting the other to paying customers. Richey says one employee was hired by Kennecott to collect fees and and do basic maintenance tasks, but over the years it was "somewhat abandoned," with ranchers and local residents occasionally cleaning the pools and helping haul off trash. When the Phelps Dodge Corp. acquired Kennecott, Richey says the new firm, concerned about liability issues, fenced off the land and plowed up the entry road.
Yurwit and his wife purchased the property in 1993, and by 2003 Faywood was well into its next upward trend.
In a telephone interview, Wanda Fuselier says she and Elon in their travels had visited hot springs all over the US and elsewhere, and it was his dream to one day own one. "When we bought Faywood, our family was the key," she says. "We wanted to create a business and be on the property with our two girls. To have a nice life with our family."
Martin says that Yurwit had the vision and the wherewithal to restore Faywood, recalling that he "had such fantastic plans for the place. He was always a ball of fire who did a lot of the work himself." Those words are echoed by Richey: "I never saw Elon angry at anything, always upbeat and positive. After he found out he had cancer he told me he wanted to use his time to get this place up to snuff, to leave it in good shape for his family."
In August 2005, Desert Exposure reported that Yurwit said "some 15,000 paying customers come through Faywood each year." And that "the place sees better than 20% growth per year, nearly all of which has been reinvested in the property."
Stefanie Shirk says that when you walk onto the property you can visualize the plans Yurwit and his family had for Faywood. "You can see what they did, and how things fit and would work for years to come. You can tell, 'Oh, he had something planned for here, and here, and here.' It's pretty amazing," she says. "We don't want to change Faywood. We like it just this way."
Yurwit died of pancreatic cancer in March 2006, less than four months after learning he had the disease.
Shortly after his death, Fuselier wrote the following on the Faywood website: "Elon and I planned to be here forever. Unfortunately, forever ended when Elon suddenly passed away from pancreatic cancer. Elon's dream was Faywood Hot Springs. Mine was Elon. Now it's time to pass the resort on to another's vision."
Fuselier says that it is appropriate that another family has purchased Faywood, one that she understands has the same goals for their family that she and Elon had for theirs.
"I wish them well," she says. "I wish them luck and happiness, and a nice life together."
Stefanie says that she and Damon just want people to come to Faywood, relax, have fun, respect one another, and respect the property for what it is.
"To us, this property is a gift," she says, "and we're the caretakers, so we just want people to have that same feeling as well."
The website for Faywood Hot Springs is www.faywood.com. The telephone number is (575) 536-9663, and the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The check-in hours are from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily.
Harry Williamson moved to Grant County more than three years ago after reporting and editing for newspapers in New York, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com or at (575) 534-9321.