French Lick Springs Hotel History

For more than 170 years there has been a lodging establishment operating at the current site of French Lick Springs Hotel. It all began with Dr. William Bowles and was prosperous and continued to thrive under various owners. It was under Tom Taggart's imaginative direction that French Lick Springs Hotel made great strides in décor, development and transportation. He also built pavilions for the springs and added a new bath building on the current site of the Spa at French Lick Springs Hotel. After Taggart’s son eventually sold the hotel, it was owned by five companies over a span of 60 years, operating out of five different states, none of which was Indiana. In 2005 French Lick Springs Hotel was purchased by Indiana-based COOK Group, Inc. and after a complete restoration, it returned the hotel back to its historic splendor.

Dr. William Bowles

In 1845, Dr. William Bowles, a physician from Paoli, Indiana, built a three-story wooden framed hotel he named French Lick Springs Hotel. Bowles used his knowledge as a physician to explore the healing properties of the abundant mineral springs in this area of the country.

Tom Taggart

Outgoing mayor of Indianapolis, Tom Taggart, along with a small group of investors, formed the French Lick Hotel Company and bought the property in 1901. Taggart’s improvements included enlarging the east wing (now known as the Spa Wing), encouraging the Monon Railroad to lay a special spur and run daily trains between Chicago and the front entrance of the hotel, and modernizing and expanding the mineral springs for which the hotel was becoming famous. He used the yellow "French Lick Brick," scagliola (faux marble) and Italian mosaic floors. He also built a new bottling house for water from his Pluto Spring for national distribution and brought electricity, a fresh water system and a trolley line to the town.

Tom Bendelow

While French Lick Springs Hotel was expanding, the game of golf was gaining popularity the world over. In 1907, Taggart hired Tom Bendelow to design the resort’s first championship golf course, known at the time as the Springs Valley Golf Links Course. Bendelow’s design was completed by 1910.

Donald Ross

Ten years later in 1917, Donald Ross—a well-known golf architect—was hired to design and build the French Lick Springs Golf Course two miles southwest of French Lick Springs Hotel. The locals referred to it as “The Hill Course.” Completed in three years, Ross’s course consisted of unconventional bunkers and steep curves. Also in 1917 while the Ross Course was under construction, world famous Chef Louis Perrin created the first tomato juice as a drink after he ran out of oranges one morning at the resort and could not serve the traditional orange juice.

Walter Hagen

The PGA Championship was held on the Donald Ross Course in September of 1924. Walter Hagen defeated former champion Jim Barnes in the final round. This victory was the beginning of a four-year PGA winning streak for Hagen.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

While Taggart served as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee prior to his death, French Lick Springs Hotel developed a reputation as the unofficial headquarters of the national Democratic Party. At the 1931 Democratic Governor’s Conference being held at French Lick Springs Hotel, Franklin D. Roosevelt rounded up support for his party’s presidential nomination. Roosevelt received his official nomination one year later in Chicago.

Tom Taggart Jr.

Thomas D. Taggart took over ownership of the hotel upon his father’s death in 1929. Under his ownership, the French Lick Springs Hotel survived the dark days of the Great Depression and saw a growth in convention business. On November 29, 1946, Thomas sold his prized hotel to a syndicate out of New York City. For the first time in over forty-five years, the French Lick Springs Hotel belonged to someone other than a Taggart.

Derby Weekend Raid on illegal gambling

A few months after Thomas D. Taggart's death in January 1949, the infamous Derby Weekend Raid on illegal gambling was conducted in French Lick by Indiana State Police. Hotel guests returning by train from the Kentucky Derby were shocked to find chains on the doors of the gambling establishments throughout town. The new governor had pledged to end gambling in French Lick and he did so on one of the busiest hotel weekends of the year.

French Lick Sheraton Hotel

In 1955, the French Lick Springs Hotel was bought by the Sheraton Corporation, a hotel chain that got its 1937 start in Massachusetts. Sheraton began a grand remodel of the hotel in an effort to modernize it. Visible changes included lowering a number of ceilings covering the ornate plaster cornices and the covering of numerous wooden and marble floors as well as the mosaic tiles in the lobby with black and white linoleum square tiles and carpet.

Ladies Professional Golf Association

Competitive women’s golf got its start in French Lick in 1958, when the Donald Ross designed Hill Course hosted the first ever French Lick Women’s Open with Hall of Famer Louise Suggs winning that tournament. This event was such a surprise success that, for the next two years, the Ladies Professional Golf Association brought their coveted LPGA Championship to our historic resort. In 1959 Betsy Rawls won the major title, the first of her two LPGA Championships titles, and the iconic Mickey Wright took home the title in 1960. This win was the fourth of thirteen major titles for Wright.

Cox Hotel Corporation's French Lick Springs Golf and Tennis Resort

Sheraton sold the hotel to the Cox Hotel Corporation of New York in 1979. Other than the hotel being renamed as French Lick Springs Golf and Tennis Resort, little changed around the property under this new ownership. Many of the employees remained at the hotel and convention business never dwindled. The French Lick Springs Hotel continued to change ownership for the next few decades.

French Lick Springs Villas

In the 1980’s, the land behind the French Lick Springs Hotel was purchased by Maryland businessman Norman R. Rales’ company with the intent to build villas on the land. Eventually becoming timeshare packages, the French Lick Springs Villas grew to over 50 in number by the time Rales’ company purchased the hotel and its grounds in the mid-80s. Vacationers purchasing time at the villas were also able to use the hotel’s amenities.

Luther James of Louisville, KY

Five years after purchasing the resort, Rales decided to retire from the business and put the resort up for auction in 1991. Nearly five minutes after bidding began on auction day, the resort had a new owner. Luther James, of Louisville, Kentucky, bought the hotel for $2.6 million and immediately began work on restoring the hotel to its previous state of grandeur. He began by undoing many of the renovations conducted by the Sheraton including restoring the lobby’s mosaic floor tiles. James also gave the guests rooms a much needed upgrade with new wallpaper, carpeting, paint, furniture and up-to-date heating and air-conditioning units. He paid significant attention to the lobby by bringing in antique pieces of decoration, added curtains and completely repainting the area. The exterior of the hotel also received a fresh coat of paint and hundreds of flowers were planted.

Boykin Lodging Group

After six years of ownership, James decided to sell the resort in 1997 and move onto his next big project. Boykin Lodging Group, based in Cleveland, Ohio, bought the hotel for approximately $20 million. Boykin operated hotels from the Midwest to Florida and the purchase of the French Lick Springs Hotel was the largest resort hotel in their portfolio at the time. Boykin continued with the restoration upgrades that had been started by James.

COOK Group, Inc.

In the spring of 2005, a partnership led by COOK Group, Inc., a global medical device manufacturing company headquartered in Bloomington, Indiana, purchased French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel. Under the direction of Bill, Gayle and their son, Carl Cook, both hotels and their grounds received a multi-million dollar renovation returning them to the grandeur of the days of Taggart and uniting them as one resort. That summer, with renovation work underway, Blue Sky, LLC officially acquired the 11th casino license from the Indiana Gaming Commission. French Lick Springs Hotel remained open during the beginning of construction, but as concerns arose the hotel was forced to close in November.

The Donald Ross Course at French Lick

The Donald Ross Course at French Lick (formerly the Hill Course) reopened in September 2006 after a $4.6-million restoration. This restoration returned the course to Donald Ross’ early vision. One year after closing, French Lick Springs Hotel reopened after an extensive renovation. On the same day, the French Lick Casino held its grand opening becoming the first land-based casino in Indiana. With the completion of the West Baden Springs Hotel restoration in 2007 French Lick Resort was born.

French Lick Casino underwent an extensive renovation

French Lick Casino underwent an extensive renovation in 2009. The exterior of the casino was transformed from resembling a steam boat on water to the appearance seen today. Additions on the inside included an increased number of slots, a bar, table games, a lounge for VIPs and a new high limits section was opened.

French Lick Resort hosted The Legends Championship on The Pete Dye Course

In 2013, women’s professional golf returned to the area for the first time in 50 years when French Lick Resort hosted The Legends Championship featuring a field of 70 of the top players in LPGA history on The Pete Dye Course. Past champions of the tournament include Lorie Kane, Laurie Rinker and last year’s champion, Juli Inkster. The annual tournament will return to The Pete Dye Course for the fourth year on August 19, 2016.

Trolley service is back to the resort towns of French Lick and West Baden

French Lick Resort brought trolley service back to the resort towns of French Lick and West Baden at the end of 2014. The trolley’s history spans many decades, starting in 1903, when it ran from the steps of West Baden Springs Hotel into downtown French Lick. The advent of the automobile put the brakes on the trolley service in 1919. After years of hard work, our newly-restored trolley is now once again running between the two hotels.

the 76th Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid was held on The Pete Dye Course

In January 2015, a $20 million expansion of the Meeting and Event Center opened increasing the capacity to more than 105,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The overall expansion of 58,000 sq. ft., including a 22,000 sq. ft adjustable ballroom, will allow the resort to accommodate national conventions and large corporations who require larger space. On May 21-24, 2015, the 76th Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid was held on The Pete Dye Course. Defending champion Colin Montgomerie of Scotland successfully defended his title with an 8-under-par beating former boxer Estaban Toledo of Mexico. Montgomerie and Toledo were two of only five golfers who finished the event under par—the fewest since 2009.