The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus has ties throughout the story of French Lick, Ind. While many who come to town only learn about the beautiful French Lick and West Baden Springs Hotel, the circus and the machinery and barns used with it are part of the threads that weave the past of this resort town together.
The circus started out as the Carl Hagenback Circus, who was famous for the use of rewards-based animal training. In 1906 Benjamin Wallace, a livery stable owner from Peru, Ind., bought the circus and in 1913 or 1915, Wallace sold his interest to Ed Ballard – and this is where the French Lick connection begins.
French Lick was important because of the salt licks and springs. The government controlled these salt deposits until it was determined there was not enough to support a mining effort. Dr. William Bowles in 1845 bought the property and built French Lick Springs Hotel, which was successful due to the “miracle waters” from the sulfur springs in the area.
These waters were supposed to cure ills of all sorts. The water had laxative powers from the sodium and magnesium phosphate, and contained lithium.
The West Baden story begins just five years after completion of the French Lick Springs Hotel. A doctor named John Lane opened his own health resort one mile from French Lick. He named it Mile Lick Inn, and later changed the name of the hotel and the town to West Baden Springs after the famous mineral springs in Wiesbaden, Germany.
The resort was later purchased by Lee W. Sinclair, in 1888. Sinclair, a successful businessman, made major changes. He added an opera house, golf courses, a church, ball field and double-decker pony and bicycle track.
Fire ravaged the hotel in 1901. Rather than throw in the towel, Sinclair used the opportunity to further transform West Baden Springs Hotel into a world-class facility. With a $414,000 budget and a one-year timeline, he erected a hotel modeled after the grandest spas of Europe, complete with the world’s largest free-span dome.
Sinclair knew Ballard. The son of a farmer, Ballard went to work in the fourth grade to help with family debt. His first job was as a pinsetter at the West Baden Springs Hotel bowling alley. After working as a mail carrier, in 1893 he was tending bar and by 1894 he opened the West Baden Saloon and Restaurant where he ran gaming tables.
Although illegal, soon Ballard controlled the gambling establishment in the area. In 1915 he purchased a portion of the Hagenback-Wallace Circus. This was just one of six circus companies he owned. During the winter months, the circus troupe lived in West Baden.
In 1916, Sinclair died and management of the hotel was taken over by his daughter, Lillian, and her husband, Charles Rexford. The two wanted to renovate the hotel, and Charles borrowed $500,000 from Ballard. When Lillian discovered how much money he had borrowed, she ended the marriage and sold the hotel to Ed in 1923 – for $500,000 cash and the $500,000 they owed him.
Owning a first-class hotel and a circus worked out just fine for Ballard. He turned the hotel atrium into a circus “big top” for the guests. It flourished under his operation and so did the circus, which in 1919 became part of the American Circus Corp. He held onto the circus until 1929 when it was sold to John Nicholas Ringling.
There is a remaining circus barn in town behind the Lane hotel that is now used for a local business. Memories of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus live on at the French Lick New Baden Museum, in a huge diorama display built by Bill Gresham of Fort Wayne.
Using scraps, he designed the diorama on a 1/12 scale. The diorama wraps around the back part of the museum and includes a train scene, parade scene and tent scene. To learn more online, visit www.flwbmuseum.com
Readers with questions or comments for Cindy Ladage may write to her in care of this publication. Learn more of Cindy’s finds and travel in her blog, “Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl,” at http://travelingadventuresofafarmgirl.com