Sunday, September 12, 2010


Once again, we took our annual Labor Day vacation, this time to French Lick and southern Indiana. Since we've always wondered how the town got its strange name, we decided to go there and find out. Here are the highlights of our adventures.


The early French settlers and Indians spoke of the therapeutic qualities of the many springs in the limestone hills of Southern Indiana. To attract tourists seeking remedies for their health problems, the French Lick Springs Hotel was originally built in 1845 next to a spring. In Europe at that time such spas were very popular. This particular spring was called Pluto Spring. The dark colored water reminded the discoverer of the underworld, and it took its name from Pluto, Greek god of the underworld. The trademark for the hotel and the water feature a devil like character.

The original hotel was destroyed in a fire, and this hotel was built in the early 1900's to replace it. It has 443 rooms. It was completely renovated in 2006, with elegant furnishings and inlaid floors in a Victorian style. The hotel recaptured the 19th Century and early 20th Century experience when celebrities and captains of industry stayed there.

The photographs in the lobby testify to such former guests as Harry S Truman, Elizabeth Taylor, Joe Louis, Al Capone, Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby and many others.

The hotel has another claim to fame--tomato juice was invented there--in 1917. The chef ran out of orange juice, and instead of throwing away the insides of the tomatoes, he decided to grind them up in a Mixmaster. The patrons liked it and, of course, the rest is history. It certainly made their Bloody Marys taste better.

The town of French Lick got its unusual name from the animals that came to lick the salt and minerals from the rocks. The local Indians were attracted there by the plentiful game to hunt. European settlers, especially the French, settled the area for the same reason around 1729. George Rogers Clark, the Revolutionary War hero, gave the town its name. More on him later.

The most famous native son is basketball legend Larry Bird who grew up in a nondescript house next to the railroad tracks near Larry Bird Blvd. The town is small enough that everyone knows where everyone lives. The train conductor pointed out the house for us. We went by the house and found no plaque or any indication that Mr. Bird ever lived there. However, Mr. Bird's friends opened a sports bar restaurant, the 33 Grill which houses many of Mr. Bird's trophies from high school and college, plus 2 Most Valuable Player awards from the NBA. (He won 3.) Mr. Bird is now the president of the Indiana Pacers basketball team and no longer lives in town.
We ate dinner at the restaurant and enjoyed one of the best mushroom and Swiss burgers and battered onion rings we've ever had.


Our hotel has a fine steakhouse, the 1875, which is named for the first year the Kentucky Derby was held. If you'll recall, the winner was Aristides. French Lick is only about 50 miles from Louisville, KY., so many Derby patrons stay there. We had reservations (but ate there anyway) for 7:30 Friday night. We both had filet mignon which was superb. Dianne had hers with Bearnaise sauce, and I had mine medium rare with blue cheese sauce. We started out with Caesar salads.

In a nice perk, the waiter delivered to us a large plate of jumbo shrimps and 2 glasses of fine champagne. Although I didn't order that, I didn't think it was all that unusual. In fine restaurants they often throw in a few extras. A while later, they discovered they made a mistake--that was meant for another party. Of course, we had already eaten the shrimps and drunk the champagne. While they didn't make us wash dishes, don't feel bad for the owners--they got their money back in the casino. In any event, it was an Epicurean dining experience. the tender prime steaks were among the finest we've ever eaten. As for the Dom Perignon stuff, that was pretty good too.


Meanwhile, down the road in the nearby town of West Baden lies the luxurious West Baden Springs Hotel, built in 1902, which was billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. The archway sign at the entrance of the grounds proclaims it as the "Carlsbad of America", named not after the famous caverns, but rather the popular spa in Germany. The domed lobby of the hotel was the largest in the world until the 1960's when the Houston Astrodome was built.

The original owners of the two hotels engaged in friendly competition to build the more garish hotel. This one succeeded. The colored glass dome is awe-inspiring. The photographs just don't do it proper justice. The 708 hotel rooms circle around the dome. We had a terrific lunch under the dome at Sinclair's Cafe (named after the former owner Lee Sinclair). The shrimp bisque was to die for.


On the grounds of our hotel is the railroad station of the now defunct FLWB & S Railway (French Lick, West Baden and Southern). In the early days, most tourists arrived by train rather than car or even horse carriage.

We signed up for the great train robbery excursion. The vintage train, which dates from the 1800's travels about 10 miles south down to Cuzco through a half-mile tunnel. Near the end, some Wild West characters ride up on horses alongside, shooting. Their aim was to steal the payroll the train was carrying.

Now I'm from the South Side of Chicago, and shooting is not an unusual occurrence. But in this case, we have a group of re-enactors, the McKnight Stagecoach Expeditions, who put on the show, wearing costumes of the period, impacting the romance of the Old West. Most of the tourists contributed a dollar or so to the foundation to preserve the railroad and nobody got hurt. A good time was had by all. We disembarked the train, took pictures and the kids were given rides on the horses.


Located on Mt. Airy, one of the highest points in Indiana, the famous golf course designer Pete Dye built his house with his own golf course. You wouldn't want to walk this course because of the steep inclines. so most golfers use carts. We had our clubs in the car, and the pro showed us around the mansion. Although we were tired after eating lunch, and didn't feel like playing 18, we visited the pro shop and inquired of the cost to play. It is $350.00 per person plus a caddy fee and, of course, a tip. Although I didn't ask, I assume the $350 included the golf cart. So for the two of us, we're talking $800 or so. We passed on it.


Our Sunday morning lunch was the buffet at the Amish restaurant. We didn't see any Amish people there, probably because it was Sunday. the food was hearty and filling. by and large the food was locally grown and the dishes homemade. the buffet included fried chicken, fried fish, pork loin and gravy, peas, corn, stuffing, bread with homemade butter, apple butter and peanut butter. The problem with these buffets is that you tend to eat too much and we did. But we'd certainly go back there for the fried chicken.


This baseball shrine is located in the student union at Vincennes University, Jasper Campus. Although it's not Cooperstown, the three or four rooms feature interesting exhibits illustrating Indiana natives' contributions to baseball. Many are local figures (coaches and contributors) who are not well known to outsiders like us. This is a walk down memory lane with many modern players such as Don Mattingly, Ron Kittle and Scott Rolen represented. Also Brooklyn Dodger greats like Gil Hodges and Carl Erskine are featured. Even Don Larsen who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series against the Dodgers had a plaque. I didn't know these guys were from Indiana. One that WAS missing was slugger Ted Kluszewski of the Reds and White Sox. Although Big Klu was a star halfback for Indiana University during World War II, he was a native of Chicago suburb Argo, Illinois. Apparently that disqualified him.


On this trip, if we couldn't see Graceland, at least we could do Grouseland, the home of our esteemed Ninth President, William Henry Harrison, located in Vincennes, Indiana. The mansion was built in 1805 on a small bluff overlooking the Wabash River. Harrison, who hailed from Ohio, was appointed governor of Indiana in 1800 before it was a state, and Grouseland served as the governor's mansion. Harrison named it after the plentiful grouse which he liked to hunt.

Harrison achieved fame fighting Indians which was considered a necessary evil in his day. Prior to the War of 1812, the British were still stirring up trouble by organizing the local Indian tribes to attack the American settlers. In the mansion, Gov. Harrison signed several treaties with the natives of the Indiana Territory to create more land for white settlement. The great Indian Chief Tecumseh was able to organize various warring Indian tribes into a confederation which, of course, scared the bejesus out of the Americans. Tecumseh was a brilliant man who spoke and read English and was able to understand American law. He even considered forming his own state within the Union. Greatness isn't always genetic, and Tecumseh's brother, known as "the Prophet" threw his weight around, making many enemies within the confederation and with the white settlers.

For the Americans, the situation became intolerable and in 1811, Gov. Harrison led the militia in a pre-emptive strike against the Indians at Tippecanoe in Northern Indiana, easily defeating "The Prophet's" warriors. Tecumseh's plans were scotched, and he died two years later. Harrison became a national hero, acquiring his nickname, "Tippecanoe". Years later, still basking in his fame, he was elected president in the election of 1840 at the advanced age of 69.
He served a grand total of 32 days. He caught pneumonia at the inauguration party when he stayed out all day in the cold rainy weather, refusing to wear a hat and coat.

The Harrisons were a prominent family. His father, Benjamin signed the Declaration of Independence. His grandson, also named Benjamin was elected president in 1884 and served one term.

The house, which has no public restroom, has furniture and chamber pots from the period, although not necessarily from the Harrison family. Several large cracks in the walls testify to the great New Madrid Earthquake of 1811 when the Mississippi River was said to flow backwards. Portraits of Harrison and his family adorn the walls. There is no presidential library, as Harrison wasn't in office long enough to merit one.


Vincennes is the boyhood home of comedian and clown Red Skelton for whom a major bridge on U.S. 50 is named. Nationally, you don''t see a lot of bridges named after clowns, although many are named after politicians which comes close. .At the conclusion of the ceremony dedicating the bridge, Skelton was reported to have said, "OK now everyone get off my bridge!" Vincennes is also the home of the Red Skelton Performing Arts Center at Vincennes University.


Administered by the National Park Service is a large memorial honoring the great Revolutionary War hero, George Rogers Clark. Resembling the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, it sits in a park overlooking the Wabash River. We were treated to a 30 minute film about Clark and his exploits on the American frontier during the Revolutionary War. Before this visit, we knew very little about Clark.

He was one of 10 kids of a Virginia planter. In those days, the eldest son would inherit the farm, and the rest had to fend for themselves. George and his brother William (of Lewis & Clark fame) went West to Kentucky. At the behest of his friend George Washington, Clark organized a band of 125 or so volunteers from Kentucky on a secret mission to defeat the British and open up the West to American settlement. The men endured great hardships marching around southern Illinois and Indiana raiding British forts. In the coup de grace, Clark and his men marched through a cold swamp in February, and in a daring surprise raid, captured the British garrison in Vincennes. The French and Indians didn't much like the British anyway, so they switched over to our side. At that point, it was essentially game, set and match.

The net result was that if Clark didn't prevail, we'd be speaking British today.

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