Origins of the Ranch, Part XXVI - Rancho La Puerta
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Origins of the Ranch, Part XXVI

We continue with our recounting of The Ranch’s early approaches to water therapy—which at the time was both ancient (the Romans!) and innovative (relatively few Americans, in particular, had experienced the European “taking the waters” tradition). The following story is from an unpublished history manuscript, circa 1987, with recent updates from Deborah herself. Using clean and bracing fresh water, Ranch co-founder Edmond Szekely invented a number of hydrotherapy exercises and devices, several of which he patented.

The Ranch had no electricity in the early 1940s other than from its own generating plant, but by means of a gravity-flow system an entire hydrotherapy “department” was built on a little slope. It was as picturesque as it was popular and was photographed for LIFE magazine in 1962. (Editor’s note: unfortunately we have yet to find this photo today, but we’re looking!)

Much of the Professor’s knowledge of hydrotherapy came from his study of the pioneering naturopath Father Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897) who was known, as Kneipp USA puts it today, for creating “a life philosophy that sees man going about his daily habits and routines in his natural habitat as an inseparable entity.”

After sending his tuberculosis into remission by bolstering his immune system via regular swims in the icy Danube River, Kneipp was motivated “to combine and extend his tried and tested water treatments. This he did by observing and carrying out numerous tests on himself and his patients…his treatments included cold rinses, water stepping, hot and cold half and full baths, contrast baths, as well as hot and cold wet packs and compresses (Kneipp USA).”

The Professor’s version of a Kneipp herbal wrap (hot linens infused with herbs and wound around the body) is still popular at The Ranch today and provides a soothing relief to weary and potentially sore-the-next-day muscles.

One can easily understand Edmond Szekely’s desire to study this revolutionary figure in spa history. “The Prof,” as Ranch guests fondly called him, was born in Romania in 1905 and probably heard of the Bavarian priest Kneipp’s work early in his own healing career.

One royal personage who trusted the good Father Kneipp over the lux spas of Europe, with their ornate hotels and casinos, was Archduke Ferdinand. He was having trouble walking when he entered Father Kneipp’s care but soon was able to keep an appointment with Destiny in Sarajevo, where his assassination ignited the First World War.

When Deborah Szekely instituted The Ranch’s first truly rigorous, varied (and daily) exercise program, she again consulted “My Water Cure,” the American version of the Kneipp manual. She wondered how she could relieve the aches caused by lactic acid buildup in exercisers’ muscles, and it required more than The Ranch’s temezcal (steam room). Water was still an issue at The Ranch; the young resort could not afford to build a projected stone-lined swimming pool. The answer: application of the Kneipp-style herbal wrap.

Of course, The Ranch today has many swimming pools (four) and whirlpool “spas,” but the herbal wrap combined with some time spent in hot, churning water added up to “fitness without pain”—as it still does today.

The Professor was fascinated by the possibilities of water “massage” and exercise in general, recalls Deborah. He developed an idea for a special lounge chair that would sit in a swimming pool while jets of water came out of the chair frame, giving the sitter a pleasant, beneficial massage.

“He was, in fact, working out the details of this invention,” recounts Deborah Szekely, “when a pump manufacturer called on us. Our caller wished to demonstrate a machine he had invented to help his son, a polio victim. We at once placed an order with Mr. Jacuzzi and have never been without hydrotherapy jets since.”