As part of our First Annual Napa Valley Lodging Industry Hall of Fame Ceremony, we have compiled a series of biographies of the historic inductees. This short history of Len D. Owens, written by local historian Don Winter, is the third of five articles.
Legend has it that a wasting and sickly young man stumbled through the gates of Aetna Springs Resort seeking to regain his failing health through drinking the renowned Aetna Springs water and soaking in the “highly curative” hot spring baths. He was so impressed by his rapid recovery, so it’s told, that he purchased the entire resort! And that legend…was crafted by none other than the “sickly young man” himself – Len D. Owens, San Francisco’s legendary advertising and billboard man, a 19th century Mad Man, who went on to market and operate Aetna Springs for the next 53 years.
Aetna Springs Resort was originally opened in 1877 by one of Napa County’s most accomplished citizens, Chancellor Hartson, who was also an owner of Napa City’s iconic Palace Hotel. Hartson seized the opportunity to convert his flooding mercury mine to a resort and capitalize on the hot springs, which were already attracting health-seeking visitors. The original rooms at Aetna Springs were modified miners’ cabins and the first actual lodging enterprise in the immediate vicinity was Lucy Bridgman’s House.
Len D. Owens was no stranger to Aetna Springs – in fact he was already an agent for the sale of the fabled Aetna Springs bottled waters during the latter part of the 1880’s. When Chancellor Hartson died in 1889, Owens purchased the resort in 1891 from Hartson’s widow.
The “sickly young man” was also a champion cyclist, outdoorsman and world traveler, and captain of the Olympic Club rifle team.
For decades northern Californians looked forward to opening the weekend travel section of their papers to see what novel advertising message Owens had devised. One of the most memorable was a headline that blared “LEAVE YOUR WIFE” with the fine print further elaborating… “With the children and, if you can, go yourself.”
Owens became estranged from his daughter, Francis Marion, when she eloped from Aetna Springs at the age of 17 (and subsequently married three more times). They reconciled after she became one of the most powerful screenwriters in Hollywood and frequently hosted her famous friends at the resort. One of the most significant cottages there was named after her.
Owens helped organize Calistoga’s first “Vintage Festival” in 1909, but made sure it was headquartered at Aetna Springs. During Prohibition he operated a highly regarded speakeasy on the property. In 1927 he assisted in forming Napa County’s first hotel association – the Napa County Resort Owners Association.
Len D. Owens sold the Resort, after a 53 year reign, at the end of 1944, to George Heibel, who successfully ran it until 1973, when it was sold and closed. Today it is open as a golf course with a fine dining club house, and construction is underway to open the rest of the resort in the near future. Aetna Springs Resort is the longest running major resort in Napa County history, spanning a total continuous run of 97 years.