The Life of Charles Edward Ballard

By Joy Neighbors

Charles Edward Ballard
 Dateline: June 28, 1874

 He was born poor, one of six sons, but his background didn’t influence his lot in life. Far from it! Charles Edward Ballard was born on June 28, 1874. His father James was a farmer who encountered serious financial debt when a friend reneged on a loan Ballard had co-signed. James Ballard was left to settle the debt and that meant everyone in the family had to work. By fourth grade, Ed had left school to help earn money. His first job was as a pinsetter at the West Baden Springs Hotel bowling alley for owner Lee Sinclair.

French Lick Springs Hotel
A few years later, Ed took a job as a rural mail carrier and delivered mail on horseback for three years. By 1893, Ed was tending bar in a Paoli tavern and setting up games of chance in the back room. In 1894 with money he had saved up over the years, Ed purchased his first business, located directly across the railroad tracks from Sinclair’s hotel. Ed called it the West Baden Saloon and Restaurant. Customers could get a hot meal, day or night. Gentlemen searching for the “finer things in life” could find imported cigars, fresh beer, wine, and liquor along with roulette and gaming tables.

Lee Sinclair
Sinclair countered with a new casino on the hotel grounds in 1895, but he offered Ed the position of running the games. Ed had a flair for the gaming profession, and the clubs and casinos he oversaw began to thrive. By 1915, Ballard owned Brown’s, located across from the French Lick Springs Hotel; it was the largest gambling establishment in the area. Ed Ballard now controlled all of the gambling in the Springs Valley region.

Beechwood Mansion
That same year, his Georgian mansion, Beechwood (named for 67 beech trees located on the property) was built on a prominent hill in the town of French Lick. The 2.5 story brick home boasted 21 rooms filled with marble fireplaces and black walnut paneling. His new home was the talk of the region, and so was his young bride, 23-year- old Ada Fern “Dolly” Finfrock. Things were going well for Ed Ballard, everything he became involved with made money – he had the Midas touch, locals said.

In 1915, Ed purchased the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, one of six circus companies he owned. (Ballard owned all of the big names with the sole exception of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey.) During the winter months, the circus troupe lived in West Baden. That’s when Ed would turn the hotel atrium, then known as the Pompeian Court, into a circus “big top.” A performance ring was set up in the center and a menagerie of animals was brought in to perform and entertain hotel guests and local residents for special events.

Lillian and Lee Sinclair
In 1916, his long-time friend and mentor, Lee Sinclair died. When Sinclair’s son-in- law Charles Rexford approached Ed for a loan to renovate the hotel, he agreed and loaned Rexford half-a- million dollars. When Lillian Sinclair, Lee Sinclair’s daughter and Rexford’s wife, discovered how much money he had borrowed, she decided to end the marriage. Lillian sold the hotel to Ed in 1923 for $500,000 cash and the $500,000 they already owed him.

West Baden Springs Hotel
Ed Ballard owned “The 8th Wonder of the World,” something he had always dreamed of. Now, along with the Homestead Hotel, Brown’s, gambling clubs, six circuses and his real estate holdings scattered around the Springs Valley area, he was one of the richest men in the state.

Hotel Guests
The West Baden Springs Hotel flourished under Ed’s management. Conventions became popular and Ed offered standard convention rates on the "American Plan". Wealthy guests came from all over the country, and around the world. Although gambling was not allowed at the hotel, Ed’s clubs and casinos were popular with hotel guests. Gambling and Prohibition were “over-looked” by officials in the state, and a good time could be had by all. Chicago gangsters were rumored to have spent plenty of time and money at Ed’s “joints,” grabbing a little “rest and relaxation” before heading back to the Windy City. The Roaring Twenties were a time of profits and pleasure for Ed Ballard, and the West Baden Springs Hotel.

Tom Taggart
But 1929 was a year like no other. Ed’s friendly rival, Tom Taggart, owner of the French Lick Springs Hotel, died in March. The summer was uneventful, but the date October 24, 1929 would be remembered for years to come. On that day, the Wall Street Stock Market crashed. Word spread quickly throughout the hotel. Within hours, panicked guest were checking out. The mass exodus continued for four days until everyone was gone; the life had literally been drained from the hotel.

West Baden Springs Hotel Veranda
Ed realized that this was not a passing problem. He offered any employee a job at the hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. In 1931, he closed the hotel’s doors, the first time they had been shuttered since 1887. The hotel reopened during the spring of 1932 but only for a few months. On June 30, employees were given their final checks and the executive offices closed for good the following day.

Jesuits at West Baden
Ed decided to sell the hotel but buyers did not come forward in the turbulent economic times. He then offered the U.S. Army the building to use as a hospital but his offer was refused. Approaching the Catholics, he suggested the structure as a retreat. Two years later the Jesuits accepted. For a $1 token payment, the hotel would become West Baden College, a seminary to educate priests in the Society of Jesus.

Ed Ballard
Ed Ballard lived another two years before his life took yet another surprising turn. On the evening of November 6, 1936, Ed met with former business partner Robert Alexander in Alexander’s hotel suite in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Ed had thought they were meeting to come to an agreement concerning a misunderstanding several years ago that had involved a lawsuit Alexander had filed against Ballard and lost. Instead, Alexander pulled a gun and shot Ed Ballard three times – once in the chest and twice in the right shoulder. Alexander then turned the gun on himself.

The man with the Midas touch was gone!

Ed Ballard’s funeral was held in the atrium of his beloved former West Baden Springs Hotel. Hundreds paid their respects, from well-known former hotel guests, to state officials, local businessmen, politicians, friends and acquaintances. The local paper reported that it was “one of the most impressive (funerals) that has ever been witnessed in the valley.” Charles Edward Ballard, the man who had put West Baden, Indiana on the national map, was buried in nearby Ames Chapel Cemetery. His simple gravestone bears only his name, birth and death dates.