French Lick, Indiana

Article by Jae-Ha Kim
Photos Denton Morris
(Chicago Sun-Times)

French Lick, Ind. — Sports fans know of French Lick as the hometown of basketball legend Larry Bird. But during a period that lasted from the late 1800s to the 1950s, the small Midwestern city was as famous for its swanky visitors as its natural spring water.

Pluto Water, as it was dubbed, wasn’t like the mineral water we’re accustomed to today. The sulfur-rich drink was more of a diuretic than a refreshing thirst quencher. Hence, its slogan: “When nature won’t, Pluto will.” Guests were encouraged to carry canes during their morning walks. When nature called — and apparently it called quite often after a glassful of Pluto Water — it was considered the polite thing to place your cane on the outhouse door to indicate it was occupied. It was rude in those days to knock on a bathroom door.

Like Pluto Water, which stopped being bottled in 1973, those days are long gone. And in many ways, so too is the opulence that once greeted the rich and famous when the French Lick Springs Resort & Spa opened its doors in 1842. In its early heyday, the French Lick charged $3 per night when other hotels were charging two dollars less. Today, rooms range from $69 for a basic single room to $550 for the presidential suite.

Resting on 2,600 acres of land, French Lick was voted one of the country’s top 50 tennis resorts. It also boasts two world class 18-hole golf courses, which are immaculately maintained. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the hotel itself, which is showing its wear and tear, despite various owners attempts to maintain the historical beauty of the once-luxurious resort. What we’re left here is the shell of a gorgeous hotel that needs a good dose of powerwashing on the outside and some meticulous renovations inside.

Still, the historical aspects of French Lick are charming, especially for those tired of staying in homogenous McHotels. The brainchild of Dr. William Bowles, French Lick was the Midwestern destination of choice for everyone who was anyone for a good half century. Nelson Rockefeller, the Kennedys, Lana Turner and Bing Crosby all were regular guests.

In the downstairs hallway of the hotel, photos of celebrity guests dot the walls. In 1931, FDR gathered enough support at a Democratic Party convention here to ensure him the presidential bid. In the downstairs hallway of the hotel, there’s a rare photo of Roosevelt wearing his leg braces.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Al Capone was never a guest at the French Lick. According to legend, the hotel’s staff was too frightened to turn the mobster away, so the owner himself came out to tell Capone he wasn’t welcome.

Another guest who wasn’t allowed to stay overnight was the beloved boxing champion Joe Louis. During the 1940s, Louis would thrill the hotel guests by training on its premises. But at night, he’d retired to the now-defunct Waddy Hotel — a blacks-only establishment — in neighboring West Baden.

Evan Sharon Kobee remembers those days. Her father was the chief engineer at the resort and she grew up on the premises. Kobee continues her family’s tradition by working as a historical tour guide and concierge for the hotel.

“Out of all the guests who stayed here, my father only mentioned Joe Louis,” Kobee says. “Joe couldn’t drink at the bar at French Lick because he was black, and my father couldn’t drink at the Waddy ’cause he was white. So the two of them would take their drinks into a black bar’s back office and talk and drink together in there.”

As for the spa, it’s not high-end, but you can get all your basic services here, ranging from facials ($45-$60) to massages ($60) to pedicures ($45). As for the Pluto Bath ($20), in which you bathe in the mineral springs you’re not allowed to drink from anymore, three words: Don’t do it.

The food at the French Lick is good, but if you want a real treat head over to the Beechwood Inn (812-936-9012). The gourmet meals are beautifully presented and the ambiance is classy but laid back. Afterward, head next door to the French Lick Winery and Coffee Company (888-494-6380), where you may select from more than 20 varieties of wine that are fermented and aged in the cellar.

If you’ve got the time, take the two-minute drive to West Baden Springs Resort, which is now a historical site. Dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World when it was completed in 1902, West Baden’s resort had 700 guest rooms, a bowling alley, an opera house and 12 million pieces of tile in the atrium’s floor. And until the Houston Astrodome was built, the resort also boasted the world’s widest free-standing domed structure. Afternoon teas ($39 to $48 per person) are highly recommended.

© Jae-Ha Kim and Denton Morris