Many don’t know that Riverbend was originally a bait shop, built over 70 years ago. Lee and Sylvia Foerstner bought the property in 1988 and opened the worlds first and only Youth Hostel with riverside hot springs baths in 1990. Riverbend Hot Springs was officially born and this is our story.
The hot springs of Truth or Consequences were here long before man and if we all continue being responsible stewards of the springs, they will be here long after. Native tribes didn’t write their history in books. They passed it down verbally, from generation to generation. We know for sure that the ancient Mimbres people inhabited this area. We have archaeological evidence. As recently as the 19th century, it is also believed that the nearby Apache tribe, the Warm Springs Apaches would frequent this area. It was a sacred neutral healing grounds. Opposed tribes at war would tend to their wounds here in peace. Weapons were not allowed during these healing “time-outs”.
Lee and Sylvia became friends with the famous chief Geronimo’s great-great-grandson, Harlyn Geronimo, while Sylvia was the Director or our local Geronimo Springs Museum. He shared the verbal history that was passed on to him, that Geronimo was once a guest of Chief Victorio in this area. He spent one of the most peaceful years of his life here and this is even where he met Harlyn’s great-great-grandmother, Kate. Lee and Sylvia, with the blessing from Harlyn, created the Geronimo Days Peace Gathering. The festival continued throughout the 90s and honored the natives’ heritage and this area’s rich history of peace and healing.
The construction of Elephant Butte Dam was started in 1912 and completed in 1916 when Hot Springs, New Mexico was incorporated. This created Elephant Butte Reservoir (lake) and since they diverted the river, created the village of Hot Springs. Before that, the area was known as Ojo Caliente de Las Palomas (hot springs of the doves) and was a muddy, hot springs, wetland area near the county seat at the time, Las Palomas. The Rio Grande used to be shallow, wide and wild; meandering through our current downtown area and hot springs used to bubble up naturally in muddy pits surrounding the river.
When the new river channel was created (deeper and narrower) it lowered the shallow aquifer level and drained and dried out the land that became downtown Hot Springs and later Truth or Consequences (name change info here). The hot springs were still there but just needed to be reached via wells and it enabled the town to be built right over the aquifer. The town grew fairly rapidly as a recreational spot near the booming mining towns of the area (now ghost towns). It was full of bars, brothels and hot springs where you could rest, relax and rejuvenate before hitting the roads or the mines once again. During it’s peak in the late 30’s and early 40’s, there were up to 40 hot springs locations where you could ” take the waters.”
Nona and Luta Pierce and their family moved to Hot Springs, New Mexico in 1945 and completed construction in 1946 of the brick building where they lived (now the Triple Suite and Courtyard Suites) and the riverside bait shack (now the Hot Minnow Baths), called Pierce’s Minnows. Pierce’s Minnows was THE place to get bait for the many fishermen who came here to fish the Rio Grande and both Elephant Butte and Caballo Lakes (both here in Sierra County). Their granddaughter, Dianne still lives in the area and is thrilled with how her family’s property has transformed over the years. They ran Pierce’s Minnows for many years until selling it in the late 1970s. The property changed hands at least twice and was Smith’s Minnows when the Foerstners stumbled upon it in the Summer of 1988.
The Foerstner family was in Truth or Consequences for a vacation/future home scouting mission from their home in Yuma AZ. Sylvia is a native New Mexican from Tucumcari and wanted to be closer to her folks and roots. Lee has always been drawn to the power of the hot springs. The family of four was soaking daily and driving around when they drove by 205 S. Riverside Drive (the one and only commercial property on the river) when they noticed Mrs. Smith was hanging a for sale sign on Smith’s Minnows. Eureka! Lee and Sylvia asked her to take down the sign and they negotiated a sale, right then and there.
In August, we moved in and took over the little bait shop on the river. Lee and his boys, Ben and myself (Jake), would camp in the nearby Gila Wilderness and trap minnows ourselves. The shop had crawdads, waterdogs and worms as well. Life was simple but good. However, Lee always had something in the back of his mind: “Could there be a new hot springs here someday?”
One fateful day, Ben was to let some water out of our truck minnow tank before transferring the minnows. The distracted 13 year old boy spaced out and let all the water out, killing all of the months worth of minnows and halting the family business. What seemed like a disaster at the moment turned out to be the happy accident/catalyst for the Foerstners to pursue their dream!
Lee drilled a 40′ well and hit 109 degree hot mineral water. He bought and transferred commercial water rights from an old school local healer, Dr. Dave Cloverleaf who believed in the Foerstners and wanted to see T or C make a comeback. They pumped the hot springs right into the the minnow tanks via fire hose! (we cleaned them first ;-)) The famous “Hot Minnow Baths” and Riverbend Hot Springs was born!
Now, the question was, how could we make a small building and a couple of mobile homes into a hot springs destination? A friend of the family suggested that we open up a Youth Hostel. It is like a lodge, but for backpackers, and young international travelers. Bathrooms, kitchens, and sometimes bedrooms are shared among guests and hostels give off this feeling of welcoming community that is lacking from most hotels. Communal meals, shopping and day excursions are a commonplace and you never leave a hostel without having more friends than you came with.
Besides some dormitories and semi private rooms, we had riverside hot springs in bait tanks, a couple of tipis, retrofitted trailer rooms, and a floating room on the river called “The Love Boat”! We were a quirky, unique hit waiting to be discovered. That happened when we were highlighted on the back cover of Lets Go USA in the early 90s. Soon we had guests coming from all over the world and guide books were raving about this little funky hostel on the river with hot springs. A decade of fun ensued that my parents could write several books and sitcoms on, but I’ll we’ll save the details for the documentary (c’mon Hollywood!).
In 2001 the world changed as we knew it. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 and Patriot Act laws that followed halted much of the international travel to the US and hostels around the country suffered. My folks knew that if they could focus on private rooms and domestic travelers, we could make it. Times were tough, but they stuck it out. Mobile homes were brought in, gutted and remodeled into hotel room sections. These funky/retro rooms were flood proof and proved to be great for stay-cationers on a budget.
I became involved with the business when I built the first website in 2000. In 2003, I helped my folks put the business up for sale online. They were tired. In 2005 it was announced that the world’s first purpose built Spaceport was going to get built just 25 miles from T or C and that Virgin Galactic would be blasting tourists into space from our backyard. “Maybe something will finally happen in that little town.”The skeptic who left T or C the morning after graduating was now interested in coming home and telling my folks to “take that for sale sign down,” just as they did 15 years before.
I did exactly that in 2006. I quit my career in education and took over the struggling youth hostel that was in disrepair, in a leap of blind faith. I knew nothing about running a hostel, inn, hot springs, or any other kind of business. I didn’t even realize yet, the most obvious thing, that the true gem of an opportunity was not the pie in the sky spaceport but the magical hot springs that most in town had taken for granted for so long.
The first thing I did was clean house. When owners get tired, anyone willing to step in and help could fill the spots and Riverbend had more volunteer “work-traders” than we did guests. I had two simple rules: guests had to pay and staff had to work. This was quite the departure from how things had been going the last 5 years so it left me with just a couple of dedicated folks who were willing to clear the slate with me and make major changes. I had to learn to do almost everything myself before being able to afford a staff that I could delegate things to. I became a stone mason and built patios, walkways and fountains. I became a plumber and repaired irrigation and hot springs pipes throughout the property. I became a landscaper and started planting gardens. I became a tiler and decorator and slowly started remodeling the rooms one at a time.
We started offering the hot springs to the public and not just those who came to stay the night and we started adding more private pools (only had one, Cielo from 2001-2008). We extended the hours to 8am-10pm instead of just three hours in the morning and three hours at night. I redesigned the website, joined social media, ran Groupon and Living Social campaigns, gave out multiple vouchers to local waitresses, gas station clerks, and anyone I met that could help promote the new Riverbend. I started partnering with local restaurants and other hotels for referral discounts. I tried things that didn’t work and then tried some more.
I’ve always loved and sought out change and have never been afraid to lose a few customers to make the majority happier. This happened in larger scale when we closed the hostel (dorm and camping) accommodations, stopped allowing children and then turned the pool areas into whisper zones. Some found venues better suited to them. Many came back and found that they actually appreciated the changes. Many more were attracted to the niches that we carved out.
My parents have been “semi-retired” for 14 years now and I still lean on them for their experienced guidance. Ben returned home in 2011 and is now helping us run our little family business once again. Our staff of now 20 employees represents us so well that I barely have to make an appearance most days. We love hearing from guests who have been coming for months, years, and decades. Please feel free to comment below and email us any photos you might have taken here over the years. I’d love to add a gallery of guest submitted photos below. We hope you have found peace, rest, relaxation and romance at Riverbend over the past 30 years and we hope to soak you again very soon!