Small town spirit warms southern Indiana spot French Lick, Ind. By Cindy RichardsPhoto courtesy of Orange County, Ind., tourism department This gazebo houses the last natural spring still burbling on the grounds of the French Lick Springs resort.
First, you've got to get past the name. French Lick. It made my husband chuckle every time I said it. (When we drove past French Liquors, he guffawed.) But once you grow up, you realize this is an awfully charming spot. Nestled in the rolling hills of southern Indiana, French Lick was built on the natural spring waters that, tradition held, had healing powers. People would come to "take the waters." After ingesting the sulfurish water, they would begin to walk around the grounds of the beautiful French Lick Springs Resort, past the strategically placed outhouses that offered immediate relief once the "healing" began. While the town was born from the natural springs-one still burbles on the grounds of the hotel-it grew strong on the power of gambling. Its casinos and showplaces drew the famous and infamous in the early 1900s. Al Capone gambled here, as did mayors, stars and starlets. But when the government finally stepped in to stop the illegal gambling in 1949, French Lick lost its lifeblood. What is left is the faded glory of a glorious time. Town fathers hope that bringing back gambling also will bring back the glory. A referendum passed last November approving a plan to open a casino between French Lick and neighboring West Baden Springs as early as July 2005. Certainly, gambling will provide much-needed cash for the restoration of the stunning dome in the former hotel at the West Baden Springs National Historic Landmark. It will bring tourists to fill the once-glorious and still quite nice French Lick Springs Resort and Spa. But, I fear, it may also kill the small town spirit of this lovely area. It was that spirit that most impressed us city slickers. When we arrived after six hours on the road, we were hungry. But French Lick isn't exactly an after-hours hot spot. We found a restaurant, ate an uninspiring meal and were heading back to the Wilstem Guest Ranch when we saw a helicopter hovering to a landing. Even wizened city slickers have to stop to watch something like that. We ambled up to see what all the fuss was about. It was then we learned what small-town life is really like, even in a town that is struggling under the weight of 10 percent unemployment and a stagnant economy. Turns out it was a drill for the volunteer fire department. Thrilled to find some interested out-of-towners, the firefighters invited us to come in to admire their new $1 million firehouse. They let the kids-Evan, 10, and Tess, 7-climb all over the shiny engines, even gave my husband a detailed tour of the engine's engine. Then they invited us back for a morning visit during which they pulled out the trucks and let us get some photos of the kids pretending to drive. You just don't get that kind of welcome in the big city. We found that same small-town hospitality everywhere we went. At the Wilstem Ranch, our host for the weekend, the owners apologized because a week of rain had left the trails too muddy for our hoped-for horseback ride. At Potoka Lake Marina, Harvey Edwards apologized because threatening weather cut short our pontoon boat ride, but not before he gave each of the kids a turn driving the boat. At the French Lick Resort, our tour guide apologized because the hotel couldn't accommodate my family, since it was sold out for the annual gathering of Indiana Elks. Still, we loved our visit. It was fun for my kids to see that some people live in places where children can run free-freer than in Chicago, anyway. And we loved the sense of welcome we found. The highlight of the trip, however, was our day at Holiday World and Splashin' Safari. Think Kiddieland with a lot of TLC and a real water park. The 59-year-old amusement park, about an hour's drive south of French Lick in Santa Claus, Ind., has just completed a $3.8 million expansion. It added rides, but it hasn't outgrown its market: families. Holiday World doesn't want to be a Great America, says President Will Koch, the third generation to run the amusement park. If it did, the park might attract unruly, unaccompanied teens and drive away families. Holiday World, open from May through October each year, is clean, well-tended and welcoming. The water park (included in the entrance fee-$31.95, adults, and $23.95, children and seniors) has some of the most amazing water rides our waterlogged family has seen. Several offer four-person rafts, which meant less arguing over who would ride with whom. The park offers free soft drinks, sun lotion and inner tubes. Says Koch: "We've made a commitment not to nickel-and-dime our guests." I would not have expected anything less.
Just the facts French Lick Springs Resort and Spa www.frenchlick.com (800) 457-4042
Holiday World and Splashin' Safari www.holidayworld.com (877) Go-Family
Orange County tourism office www.historicsouthernindiana.com (866) 353-5889
West Baden Springs National Historic Landmark (800) 450-4534
Wilstem Guest Ranch www.wilstemguestranch.com (812) 936-4484
Cindy Richards is the associate editor of Chicago Parent.