By Richard G. Biever
Franklin D. Roosevelt probably didn’t dub his successful 1932 presidential campaign — “New Deal” — after unsuccessfully playing cards in a French Lick gambling house. But he first laid what became his bold “new deal for the American people” on the table at the 1931 National Governors’ Conference at the renowned French Lick Springs Hotel.
Along with the location itself, one of the cards in the hand FDR played in his June 2, 1931, address to the conference has heavily shaded the colorful history of Orange County to this day.
In the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt called for a new role for government to assure relief and fairness. When the Democratic New York governor addressed the conference, he also laid out an innovative agricultural program to reforest nonproductive farmland. The speech had all the makings of a presidential platform. Of course, it became his platform, and Roosevelt won an unprecedented four terms.
Within three years of his French Lick speech, President Roosevelt’s administration created an enduring legacy that includes almost the southern half of Orange County. That would be the Hoosier National Forest.
Much of the forest land across the hilly terrain of south central Indiana had been cut by the early 1900s, and its abuse and erosion made for poor farmland. By the 1930s, the state asked the federal government to help it do something with the lands residents were abandoning in large numbers. The Hoosier National Forest was created in 1934, and through New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, reforestation began.
Other parts of the Forest surround Patoka Lake in Orange County’s southwest corner. Most of the lake, the state’s second largest, lies within Orange County. Created in the 1970s primarily for flood control and water supply, Patoka Lake is a major destination for outdoor recreation.
A century before Patoka Lake, mineral water was the draw to Orange County. Mineral springs at French Lick and West Baden lured guests from across the country for relaxation and the alleged curative powers of the bottled mineral water and spas as the two neighboring resorts became fierce competitors. Almost simultaneously at the turn of the century, the building of the grand French Lick Springs Hotel, with its distinct buff-colored brick, and the circular West Baden Springs Hotel — with its amazing
200-foot dome above an atrium — began.
The heady days were not to last. The Great Depression brought the closure of the West Baden hotel in 1932; the French Lick hotel survived but passed through a number of owners and decline. Both historic resort hotels experienced a renaissance at the turn of the 21st century under the sole ownership of Bloomington-based Cook Group which restored them to their original grandeur.
With the world-class resorts and casino, natural resources providing recreation and relaxation, and small town and rural charm in its midst, Orange County still provides what FDR said he and the other attendees at that 1931 Governors’ Conference received: “true Indiana hospitality of the finest kind.”
RICHARD G. BIEVER is senior editor of Indiana Connection.
About Orange County
Founded: Feb. 1, 1816
Named for: Orange County, North Carolina, from where many of its earliest settlers — families of Quakers and free blacks fleeing slavery — came in 1811.
Population: 19,500 (2018 estimate)
County seat: Paoli
Orange County Event
French Lick Scenic Railway’s “The Polar Express Train Ride”Through Dec. 23
This magical experience includes entertainment, hot chocolate, a cookie, and a keepsake sleigh bell to take home. Families are encouraged to wear their pajamas for the ride! Dates and times are available by visiting https://frenchlickthepolarexpressride.com. (Please note: tickets for Polar Express do sell out. As of press time, some Saturday and Sunday excursions were sold out, but many were still available.)
Be sure to enter our December giveaway courtesy of Visit West Baden French Lick and French Lick Resort. Prize includes: Two Night Stay at French Lick Springs Hotel, Two KidsPlus passes, Carriage Ride for four at French Lick Resort, Foot Golf for four at French Lick Resort, French Lick West Baden Museum for four, Giraffe Encounter at Wilstem Wildlife Park for four, French Lick Scenic Railway for four (excluding special excursions)
Contest runs Dec. 1 through Dec. 31. Enter at https://www.indianaconnection.org/talk-to-us/contests/