French Lick Springs Hotel

The U.S. Hickory Open is to be hosted this year by one of the most famous resorts in the country. The claim began with salt. Flowing mineral springs in the area left salt deposits that attracted such animals as deer, buffalo and French fur traders. The latter never really settled in and when the British and Germans starting nosing around the place in the early 1800s, nobody else was in sight, that is, except for the Native Americans who had probably been roaming the area for centuries. So developed the usual tensions between those who had ancient claims to the land, but no lawyers, and the newbies. This resulted in the construction of several blockhouses as protection against the perceived aggressive natives. One of these was at “the French lick.”

Statehood was bestowed on Indiana in 1816 and the French Lick area was reserved for salt mines. Later, as it became clear the only salt was that left from the mineral springs, the area was auctioned off, the lucky winner being Dr. William Bowles, a physician from Paoli. The good doctor went in for 15,000 acres. He developed it and a French Lick Springs Hotel, of “peculiar architecture” was built in 1845. The “miracle waters” were the main thing and Dr. Bowles promoted it well, visitors coming from the unheard of distance of 100 miles to “take the waters” and even lug bottles of it back home for use at leisure.

As time passed, various owners built new buildings and tried and discarded various entertainments including billiards, dancing and gambling. Fire took the original building in 1897. Tom Taggart, mayor of Indianapolis, and seven other investors plunged in and bought the property in 1901. 

Under Taggart, the French Lick Springs Hotel came to prominence. The east wing, now known as the Spa Wing, was enlarged using the unique “French Lick Brick,” scagliola (faux marble), and Italian mosaic floors. A railroad spur was added so that Chicago patrons could de-train at the front entrance of the hotel. Gambling, though, was out. This did not sit well with Taggart who always disclaimed any connection with the gambling casinos throughout the valley. Golf, though, was in. Tom Bendelow was hired in 1907 to design the resort’s first golf course, the Valley Course, on flat to gently rolling terrain. About a dozen years later, Donald Ross, a Scotsman who was making a name for himself in the golf course world, was hired to build “The Hill Course.” Very hilly, very challenging, very Ross greens. (The latter is the venue for our hickory event.)

Taggart modernized and expanded the baths and built a new bottling house for the resort’s “Pluto Water.” Taggart kept his hand in politics to the point where he was named Democratic National Chairman. The elite of politics and society began to “discover” French Lick Springs and its luxurious spa. The hotel developed a reputation as the unofficial headquarters of the Democratic Party and it was from here that, in 1931, Franklin D. Roosevelt landed the party’s presidential nomination.