“Want to sample it?” asks Paul Stelter.
Just as a wary “sure” leaves my mouth, he hops out of his desk chair to fill a glass with water from the local hot springs.
The clear liquid looks just like any other water, but the sulfuric scent and distinctly mineral taste tell a different story.
It’s the reason Stelter, and Alameda’s Hot Springs Retreat, are here.
The guest house opened in the 1930s and was run by the Elhert family for nearly 50 years before Alameda Ramsey took over and ran the place for another 25 years. Stelter and a few partners purchased Alameda’s in 2005 and turned the venture into a motel/housing co-op just a couple of years ago.
Alameda’s serves a clientele looking to escape the bustle of modern life for a chance to soak in the healing waters that give the town of Hot Springs its name.
“This water is incredibly special. You could probably go all over the world and not find water that has this quality. You feel that your skin is so silky smooth and one of the reasons is the pH here is 9.6, which is unheard of for alkalinity,” Stelter said from his seat in the lobby of Alameda’s. “On a pH level it balances the blood. Our lives are real acidic. Just being in the water is extremely good for skin and there are many testimonials of people coming here and being healed of bursitis, rheumatoid arthritis.”
Stelter, a longtime Kalispell swim coach and the first man to swim across Flathead Lake, found his way to the healing waters of Hot Springs in the mid-2000s when he purchased a share in the motel. The place is more than a simple guest house — it’s a nine-share co-op that gives shareholders a stake in the business and a room when they want it. They pay a monthly fee of $400 to lease a unit, which covers their share of insurance and utilities. But the members, all of whom live out of state, can earn that back and then some by throwing their room into the motel’s rental pool.
“It’s an extremely innovative idea in that it allows a person to get invested without a lot of risk,” Stelter explained. “It allows the individual to share the costs of any profits or losses, so if anything came about, the economy drops out, you’re not stuck by yourself.”
Memberships are reserved for folks 55 and older, and those interested must pony up their share of the business and an additional $25,000 for infrastructure improvements, such as installing solar water heaters or outdoor greenhouses.
Each room is equipped with a soaking tub, and members can take in the sun along a window-lit corridor, populated with comfy chairs and indoor plants. The co-op also hosts retreats in disciplines such as yoga or farming to help carry out the mission of sustainability, agriculture and health.
Chris Devlin, of Anchorage, Alaska, was one of the co-op’s first members and also sits on the board of the Balneology Association of North America — an organization that researches links between mineral waters and wellness.
“I consider myself a serious soaker. For me, it’s all about the water. Hot Springs, Montana has world-class water,” Devlin said.
When he saw that the place was for sale, he approached Stelter about purchasing a share of Alameda’s and running it as a retirement co-op. Devlin said Alameda’s has been functioning as a co-op for about two years and is believed to be the first of its kind in the state.
“Basically, as I get older the burden of ownership feels heavier and heavier trying to maintain everything and fix everything. I think our current form of private home ownership is kind of broken,” Devlin said. “Co-ops are just a different form of ownership.”
It also allows Devlin to travel without worrying about the costs of upkeep — while he’s away, his unit can actually turn a profit.
For Stelter, Alameda’s is also a peaceful alternative to spending one’s evening years in a corporate nursing home.
“If you go to any of the really big nursing homes, they’re pretty sterile,” he said. “You don’t feel like you’re home, whereas this place has that ambiance — you can soak until your last day.”
And he means it.
The co-op is even considering plans to turn one unit into a hospice room, allowing people to spend their final days enjoying the warmth of the spring’s waters.
“The pace of life right now is so fast, even [in] Kalispell. People don’t have the opportunity to have quiet anymore,” Stelter said. “[Hot Springs] is kind of like a town that’s lost in time. Maybe not until four or five years ago, we didn’t have cell service.”
The waters are renowned for their mineral content, boasting high levels of silica, bicarbonate and calcium, which proponents say are absorbed into the skin and can help heal anything from skin conditions to joint issues. The science behind the soak is less conclusive, but some smaller studies have shown that soaking in natural hot springs can improve blood flow, reduce stress and treat skin conditions like eczema.
Stelter pointed to anecdotal evidence — including the story of a 35-year-old rancher who was so afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis he couldn’t raise his arms above his head. After a 21-day soaking regimen, which including drinking the spring water, the man reported drastic improvements, Stelter said, and returned to Alameda’s every year after. Shelter last recalled seeing the man, then in his 80s, going for 3-mile walks around the area before he passed away a few years ago.
“One of the comments I hear more and more than anything else is ‘I can’t believe how well I slept,’” he said. “They’ll soak in the tub and then they’ll go sleep — people will sleep two or three hours past what they normally do.”
He also keeps a simple, leather journal in the motel lobby for guests to leave messages. In the early days of his ownership of Alameda’s, before Stelter was making a profit, he’d read the written offerings guests had left behind and find himself re-inspired.
“Thank you so much for sharing such a peaceful place of heaven with us,” read one entry.
“My husband, son and I have had the best hotel/motel stay experience I would say we have ever had here! You can guarantee we will return soon and often!” read an entry signed by Clint, Dorothy and Christian.
“As you age in life … you go ‘well, what can I give back? What can I do to actually contribute to mankind?’” Stelter said. “My contribution before was kids, coaching. And now it’s creating an atmosphere for this to happen. Where people can come and check out and enjoy peace and quiet.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.