Birthday Celebration French Lick Way!

After a trip to beautiful French Lick, Indiana a couple months ago with friends, I decided it was the perfect place for my sister Debbie and me to celebrate my mom’s late October Birthday. Booking the birthday package at French Lick Resort, before we checked in to this beautiful historic hotel we hit the French Lick Winery’s Vintage Café for lunch. Debbie and I split a pizza and Debbie commented, “That was the best thing about it!”

Our server informed us that the crust is made from 200 year old yeast that was brought over from Italy. While we didn’t try any wine, we sure enjoyed our Italian dinner. When in town before I tried to Lobster Ravioli and loved it as well. The Moscoto wasn’t bad either.

After lunch, we headed over to the French Lick to check in and look around this resort that once was, and still is a famous spa resort. The big draw of the resort for me is the history. Animals and the Indians already knew the importance of the salt licks and springs in the area. The presence of these salt deposits enticed the state government to consider mining salt for early pioneers to use in preserving meat. There was not enough salt to support a mining effort, so the government decided to sell the property around 1832. Dr. William Bowles in 1845 bought the property and built French Lick Springs Hotel.

The success was due to the “miracle waters” from the sulfur springs in the area. These waters were supposed to cure ills of all sorts, and with its laxative powers of sodium and magnesium phosphate, and the fact that it contained lithium; it is my guess that they did feel better, at least for a while!

In 1887 when the Monon Railroad arrived, the resorts in the area thrived. In 1901, according to the History of French Lick website, “French Lick Springs Hotel also rose to international prominence after Indianapolis Mayor Tom Taggart purchased the property. He expanded the hotel and added luxurious furnishings and marble floors, designed two championship golf courses and started bottling Pluto Water for national sale.”

Pluto Water was quite successful; in fact you can see the former bottling plant, which now makes other products across the street from the French Lick Resort. In 1919, it was so successful that it took 450 railroad cars to transport the bottler’s output. With the laxative powers advertisement stated that” the laxative was effective from a half-hour to two hours after ingestion.”
It was the lithium that stopped the production. Sales were halted in 1971 after lithium became a controlled substance.

However, in 1901 and beyond the spa and water was a booming business and the owner of the French Lick, Tom Taggart came to national prominence when he became the Democratic National Chairman. The history website states, “… and French Lick Springs Hotel became the unofficial headquarters for the Democratic National Party. During the Democratic Governor’s Conference at French Lick, Franklin Delano Roosevelt rounded up support for the party’s presidential nomination.”

I would have liked to take the noon tour at the French Lick resort to hear all of the history of this amazing hotel, but I was able to get a bit of as Paul Harvey always said, “The Rest of the Story” when we took a tour of the lovely West Baden Springs Hotel. The West Baden story begins just a mere five years after completion of the French Lick Springs Hotel was built. A doctor named John Lane opened his own health resort just one mile away from French Lick. He named it Mile Lick Inn, and later changed the name of the hotel and the town, to West Baden Springs after the famous mineral springs in Wiesbaden, Germany. We jumped on a trolley and headed to the West Baden Springs hotel to take their tour. They offer three a day. That is one of the best things about French Lick. There are trolleys and shuttles that will take you all over town. Once you arrive, you can park your car and not get out until you leave!

I had taken the tour on my previous visit, and it was neat that I learned a bit of new information on this second tour as well. Our tour guide started outside so we had a chance to see the garden and outbuildings. The resort was purchased by Lee W. Sinclair, in 1888. Sinclair, a successful businessman made major changes. He added an opera house, golf courses, a church, ball field and double-decker pony and bicycle track. Sinclair advertised the area as the “Carlsbad of America”. In his ball field, many professional baseball teams came for their summer training. The area thrived.

Fire changed things, the history website explains, “Unfortunately, a fire ravaged the hotel in 1901 but Sinclair used the opportunity to further transform West Baden Springs Hotel into a world-class facility. With a $414,000 budget and a one-year timeline, Sinclair erected a hotel modeled after the grandest spas of Europe, complete with the world’s largest free-span dome.”
The dome was called the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and was designed by a virtually unknown architect, Harrison Albright. He was the only one that would take up the challenge and our guide said he really wasn’t certain how he would do it, but he used the same technology to build suspension bridges and it worked. Built in 1902, the West Baden Springs Hotel in Indiana held the record for the largest free-span dome in the world for sixty-one years. Hotel amenities included a gambling casino and live theater performances along with the spas and the wonder of the huge atrium, where Sinclair brought the outside inside.

When Lee Sinclair died in 1916, his daughter Lilian who was married to Charles Wexford took over. Our tour guide gives credit to Lilian for the major improvements in the West Baden. She added Italian tiles to the atrium, and glazed the ceramic pottery fireplace and a sunken garden. She was going for a Greco-Roman style. Outside she created a garden and shelters over the spring and the sunken garden you see today. The guide though said that both Lilian and Charles were spending more money than the hotel was taking in. Lilian turned to Edward Ballard, who financed the hotel’s improvements.

Ballard made his money operating illegal gaming in the area. Research I found called French Lick and West Baden the original Vegas, famous for the illegal gambling which took place without any law enforcement intrusion. Ballard was also famous for being an owner in the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. At its peak, it was the second-largest circus in America next to Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. It was based in Peru, Indiana.

During World War I, from 1918 and 1919, the West Baden hotel served as a U.S. Army hospital for wounded soldiers. One of the soldiers at the hotel was Lieutenant Charles Cooper. Lilian and Charles fell in love during his stay at the hotel-hospital. The Rexfords divorced in 1922, and Lillian sold the property to Ballard for $1 million in 1923. Half the money repaid the debt owed to Ballard; Lillian she kept the remainder. She and Cooper moved to California.

The hotel flourished under Ballard until the stock market crash of 1929 when guest began fleeing the hotel in droves. Unable to keep it running, Ballard closed the hotel and sold it to the Jesuits for one dollar in 1934. They stayed for thirty years until Northwood College bought it. They were there from 1967 to 1983. After that, the hotel was unoccupied for 13 years. The history website states, “When a 180 foot, six-story section of the soaring West Baden Springs Hotel collapsed in 1991, it was the collective sigh heard around the “world.” The once lavish hotel — dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world” by journalists when it opened – was reduced to a pile of rubble. It now had a not so prestigious place on the National Trust’s list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Properties in the United States. Luckily for the sagging beauty, help was nearby. Indiana Landmarks, the largest nonprofit preservation group in the nation, partnered with philanthropists Bill and Gayle Cook to make a permanent, positive impact on the depressed region. In addition to pioneering medical advances, the couple, along with son Carl, had become revered leaders of the American historical restoration movement by acquiring and rehabbing dozens of buildings throughout the state. They wanted their work to result in living, breathing historic places that would be around for centuries to come.”

The Cooks also took on the French Lick Resort and bought and restored French Lick Springs Hotel to its former glory. The two competitors are now sister hotels and thanks to the Indiana Landmarks and the Cooks intervention they are beautiful and open.

After our tour of the West Baden Springs Hotel we had dinner at 33 Brick Street which is connected with basketball star Larry Bird who grew up in the area. On my last visit I took a fun train ride and saw Larry Bird’s childhood home from the window. At 33 we split a Bird Chicken dish and a pork chop entrée and we were very pleased with the food and service. On my last visit my friend Shirley and I tried Hagen’s Club House an upscale restaurant at the local golf course. It was amazing, both the food and the view!

When we finished up with 33 Brick Street, we headed to the casino where we used our free $10.00 for first time casino visitors and I made $20.00! While we are not big gamblers, we had a good time. In the front of the hotel early on Friday the next day, we saw the bus for the Oakridge Boys who were performing there that night. From the pictures we observed, the casino brings in top entertainment.

There is a lot to see and hear in French Lick. A man was playing a piano when we were at the West Baden and in the evening, they have a light show where the beautiful fixture on the dome changes colors. I watched this on my last visit and was entranced. On the weekends at the French Lick Resort, a Dixieland jazz band also plays. Last visit I sat and rocked and listened to the music on their huge porch.

Friday breakfast was part of our package and we ate in The Grand Colonnade Restaurant. All three of us tried the omelet bar and we were pleased with our breakfast that stuck with us until mid-afternoon. The rest of the morning we checked out shops in the resort and downtown. I stopped in the cool French Lick New Baden Historical Museum to see the exhibit about the circus then made the others stop to check out the remaining circus barn in town that is now another business.

We had a great time and headed out stopping in Ferdinand, Indiana on the way home to tour the beautiful monastery in town. But that’s another story for another time. If you are looking for a great place to spend a birthday, anniversary or just a getaway, keep beautiful French Lick in mind. We loved it and mom had the happiest, making memories with family was what it was all about and we did just that!

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  1. Francesca

    French Lick Resort truly is a special place and a Midwest gem! I’d love to make a return trip one day.

    1. Cindy

      Me too, I have been there twice, and want to go again!