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French Lick and West Baden
Thursday and Friday, October 8-9, 2009

A jam-packed two days at lavishly restored historic hotels in French Lick and West Baden and tours of surrounding sites, including the second oldest county courthouse in Indiana, filled our Fall Pilgrimage. The trip was October 8-9, a Thursday and Friday that also featured a tour of a historic African-American church in West Baden that’s being restored as a museum. Even heavy rainfall on both days did not mar the trip because most tours were indoors.

Aboard the motor coach en route from Indianapolis to Orange County, the Pioneers enjoyed commentary from historian/author Jim Fadely about colorful Thomas Taggart, a mayor of the Hoosier capital in the early 1900s who subsequently bought the French Lick Springs Hotel and made it world famous. The first stop was at a historic mansion formerly known as Beechwood, which was the private home in the 1920s and ‘30s of the West Baden Springs Hotel’s owner. Pioneers enjoyed lunch at the home, now known simply as The Mansion, and then took a private tour.

That was followed by a trip to the First Baptist Church Black (its historic name), a house of worship built in 1909 by the West Baden Hotel owner for his African-American staff. Excellent guides and docents explained the history of the church, which was designed in the Gothic Revival style. After severe flooding in 1964, the church never recovered and eventually closed, but restoration work is underway to create a museum.

Next came tours of the French Lick and West Baden hotels, with the Pioneers dividing into subgroups. (Some members spent the night at French Lick, while others chose accommodations at West Baden.) Guides for the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, which helped broker the stunning restorations, led the Pioneers on the tours. Because of the spas and mineral water – which French Lick marketed as Pluto Water – the Springs Valley flourished as a tourist attraction in the early 20th century.

The grand staircase of the French Lick Hotel.
Nelson Price and Jim Fadely talk on the veranda of the French Lick Hotel.

The gold leaf in the lobby of the French Lick Hotel (the Pioneers were told there is $300,000 worth in the Pluto Pavilion alone) was astonishing. So was the legendary atrium of the West Baden Hotel, which was built in 1902. Known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, the dome is the largest free-standing, non-sports dome in the world.

The atrium of the West Baden Hotel

Following the hotel tours, the Pioneers had a surprise treat. The group enjoyed a private tour of Mount Airie, a hilltop home (it’s said to sit on the second highest point in the state) built by the Taggarts in 1929. With the restoration of the hotels and the redesign of the spectacular golf course, Mount Airie has become the clubhouse.

Our dinner speaker at the French Lick Hotel’s banquet room was Steve Ferguson, CEO of Cook Inc. Mr. Ferguson replaced Bloomington-based entrepreneurs and philanthropists Bill and Gayle Cook, who spearheaded the hotel restorations. Mr. Cook was ill, so Mr. Ferguson addressed the Pioneers with a slide presentation about the Cooks’ lives, business endeavors, and historic preservation efforts.

The next morning, the Pioneers enjoyed some free time to visit the spas, relax on the verandas of the hotels, shop, or embark on private tours. Then, the group boarded the motor coach and headed to Paoli, the county seat of Orange County. The coach was forced to take a circuitous – albeit scenic – route because of flooding caused by the extensive rainfall. In Paoli, the Pioneers were met by Indianapolis-based architect Jim Kienle, who has completed a restoration of the Orange County Courthouse. He served as our guide for a tour of the Greek Revival courthouse, which was built in 1850 and is the second oldest in the state.

The Orange County Courthouse in Paoli, Indiana

The group’s final stop en route to Indianapolis was Oliver Winery near Bloomington. The Pioneers enjoyed a tour, a wine tasting, and hors d’oeuvres. That capped a memorable two days at historic sites that make the Hoosier state special.