Get Your Kicks at the Museum in French Lick

Amy Bartner

There are a lot of easy reasons to visit French Lick, Ind.: The French Lick Resort and Casino for a Vegas-like getaway in the center of the country. Or learn about how Indiana became the Crossroad of America at the Indiana Railway Museum. Perhaps the French Lick Winery is more your style—or maybe you're traveling for all of the above.

But one lesser-known reason to visit the towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs in Southern Indiana is the French Lick West Baden Museum.

The museum is about 150 miles west of Cincinnati, Ohio, 100 miles south of Indianapolis, Ind., and about 60 from Louisville, Ky., and boasts about 3,000 square feet of exhibit space about the shared history about the towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs.

Before you wonder whether there's enough history, Steve Rondinaro, president of the French Lick West Baden Museum board would assure you that there's no shortage.

“One of my favorite things to do in my free time is to talk to people as they exit the exhibits,” Rondinaro said. “Our marketing statement should be ‘I had no idea,’ or ‘I was blown away,’ or ‘I didn’t expect that.’ Our history is so darn fascinating in these two little towns.”

French Lick had electricity before much of Southern Indiana, Rondinaro said, and both towns grew up around “these two fiercely competitive resort hotels.”

“We were Vegas before there was even a thought of Nevada,” he said. “Can you imagine this place? Imagine being in this area in the 1920s with all that going on.”

With more than nine exhibits ranging from the history of casinos and gambling, hometown legend Larry Bird, and even one depicting how tomato juice as a breakfast drink was invented at the resort, the variety of information could take a guest up to two hours to move through the museum on a tour.

But the main attraction is the world’s largest circus diorama, a 150,000-piece, 1,100 square-foot display paying homage to the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus, which stayed in West Baden during the winter.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind,” Rondinaro said. “It really is like jumping into a time machine. That’s just not something you see in a small town.”

Although it’s a self-guided tour, Rondinaro said the museum plans to develop an app with an audio function so guests can have a voice-narrated tour guide through each of the exhibits.

You might not have traveled all the way to French Lick, Ind., for the French Lick West Baden Museum, but you should definitely stay for it.

“I would say the museum is a must-do.”

But the circus exhibit isn’t the only one. Here are a few other attractions to check out at the French Lick West Baden Museum:

Casino exhibit

There were 12 illegal gambling houses in the area between the 1800s and 1940s. By 1949, the state stopped allowing it (or, rather, it stopped turning the other way), and gaming had to go legit.

Larry Bird exhibit

Although “The Hick From French Lick” is considered the hometown sports hero of the entire state of Indiana, the basketball star was originally from French Lick. Follow his 13-year career from Indiana State University to the Boston Celtics and his multiple NBA awards. 

Resorts exhibit

Learn about the history of the two competing hotels located just a mile apart—French Lick and West Baden Springs—from when they got their start in the 1840s.

Pluto Water exhibit

The resorts, casino gaming and towns all owe some of their popularity to the hyped mineral water Pluto Water, sold by French Lick Springs Hotel owner Tom Taggart for many years in the early 1900s. The water was named for the mythical god, and his image was used in branding for a number of items, like soap, menus and clocks.

Know Before You Go

French Lick West Baden Museum, 469 S. Maple St., French Lick, Ind., (812) 936-3592, www.flwbmuseum.com. Tickets are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students, $2 for kids 6-12, and free for children younger than 5.

Amy Bartner is a writer living in Indianapolis, Indiana.