French Lick, IN (population 1,941) used to be an easy place to get to in the days of railroads and that is why its natural springs were a favorite destination for many famous families in the early 1900s. Two renowned resorts were built within months of each other in 1901 and 1902. The West Baden’s six story atrium was the world’s largest free-span dome until the Houston Astrodome was built in 1965, quite an engineering feat for the early 1900s.
During the Prohibition Era, French Lick boasted 13 casinos, all of them illegal. One was owned by Indiana’s Democratic Party Boss and another by its Republican Party Boss, protected by both sides of the political aisle in Indianapolis. In 1949 the last of these illegal casinos was shut down by a reformist governor and French Lick slowly spiraled down into obscurity.
The town’s “15 Minutes of Fame” occurred when native son Larry Bird achieved basketball fame at Indiana State and with the Boston Celtics as the “Hick from French Lick.” Bird still maintains a modest home in the countryside a couple of miles outside of town.
In 2003, Bill Cook of nearby Bloomington, who achieved billionaire status (estimated by Forbes at $3.2 billion) with his medical device manufacturing company that he started with his wife at their dining room table, bought both of the old resorts and began the painstaking task of renovating them, along with building a new casino. My wife and I visited the French Lick Springs Resort after our trip to Paducah to see the $382 million makeover. We were disappointed that the West Baden Springs resort won’t reopen until June, but were amazed by the makeover of the French Lick Springs, a property we had visited a dozen years before.
During a spa treatment, my wife learned that Mr. Cook paid the 400 employees of the resort their full salaries during the reconstruction. Since reopening, employment has increased to over 1,000.
A trip to French Lick is well worth the drive. Seeing what someone like a Bill Cook can do is amazing.