Middle-of-the-night Secrets from West Baden's Early Days

The Apollo Spring in the early days of West  Baden Springs Hotel.

Clendel Williams can remember being a kid and hearing the stories. One of the juiciest tales, though, he never knew until years later.

Williams is 95 now, and he commemorated his latest birthday at French Lick Resort a few weekends ago alongside more than a dozen family members spanning four generations. Before Clendel sat down to his birthday celebration at Sinclair’s Restaurant, he shared a few memories about West Baden Springs Hotel — including some secrets from the dark of night more than 100 years ago.

First, a little background:

Clendel Williams celebrated his 95th birthday a few weeks ago at
West Baden Springs Hotel, and his father, AC, worked at the hotel
back in 1902 when the hotel reopened in its grand state.
Clendel’s father, Albert C. Williams (he went by A.C.) knew Lee Sinclair, who owned the West Baden hotel at the turn of the 20th Century. Both hailed from the town of Salem, about 30 miles east of West Baden, where Sinclair owned a mansion near the town square and the Williams family also had some influential heritage as one of the earliest families to settle the Midwest.

Sinclair was about 14 years older than A.C. Williams and had known A.C. since he was 10. A.C. was a school teacher who was on vacation for about five months in the summer back in those days. And so Sinclair entrusted A.C. to execute a covert task when Sinclair’s new West Baden Springs Hotel was rebuilt and reopened in 1902 following a destructive fire the year before.

Clendel recalls the tale:

“Sinclair told him, ‘When school is out, come and see me, I’ve got a special job for you. Dad was 32 years old, he’d been in the Spanish-American War, never married. He probably had eyes for Miss Lillian, Sinclair’s daughter. But he couldn’t pursue that, probably for her rank of society," Clendel said.

“But anyway, Mr. Sinclair said, ‘I know you’re a loner and you can keep a secret.’ Every morning between 1 and 3 o’clock, I’ll pay you 50 cents a day besides a room and three meals, for treating five springs with a bonus shot of Epsom salt. Epsom salt, dad said, came in barrels and boxcars. His job was to treat those springs between 1 and 3 in the morning, every day.”

In other words, to give the mineral springs a performance-enhancing boost with Epsom salt’s cleansing effect on the body. That’s what hotel guests of that era were promised when they flocked to West Baden to partake in the mineral waters that were thought to remedy any ailment.

Former West Baden Springs Hotel owner Lee Sinclair.
Clendel wasn’t made aware of his dad’s little secret until years later. When they’d pass by West Baden hotel on the highway, Clendel recalls the vague story his father gave about his duties at the hotel.

I used to work there. Had a room on the southwest corner. Top floor.

“When he’d drive by, that was the only comment he made,” Clendel said.

Clendel thinks his dad worked at West Baden in a couple different stints, though the spring-spiking escapades were the main thing he remembers hearing about. That, and some of the swanky guests that A.C. rubbed elbows with as he unloaded luggage from passenger trains when they rolled up to the hotel.

“A lot of them had big trunks. And he was accustomed to handling trunks, because he had worked for his uncle at the Salem Hungate House (another hotel). That was another job he had, was to meet incoming trains and help handle the luggage. And he said some of (the tips) were generous and as much as 50 cents tip.”

Hey, those were some big bucks back in the day. A dime was considered some nice compensation for other duties that A.C. carried out, such as shining shoes.

“Mr. Sinclair told him, ‘Anything anybody tips you, that’s your money. You earned it,’” Clendel said.

 “(My dad) called it The Dome here. He said The Dome had a lot of people from Europe and France and Germany come and spend a whole five months. He didn’t know who he was rubbing shoulders with. But he had to meet the train and help tourists and guests coming into the hotel, take care of their luggage. I remember he talked about shining shoes for men. They’d set the shoes outside their door in the hall and they’d have their name on it and their room number in the shoe. He’d take it to his room or shop and he collected these up on a tray and polished them all, shined ’em all up and everything, and then set them right back by the door. The next night or two, why they’d be out there again, there would be some tip money in the shoe.”

Guests in the early days days of the hotel could get the Sprudel mineral waters served right inside
the spring.

By Clendel’s recollection, his first visit to West Baden Springs Hotel was in 1940. He was one of the winners in a statewide high school essay contest as the winners representing each of the state’s 92 counties were rewarded by getting a bus tour of Indiana, with stops ranging from the Studebaker plant in South Bend to the limestone quarries of southern Indiana.

His impressions of the renovated West Baden hotel compared to the original? Looks pretty much the same. Well, almost.

“I don’t remember this carpet,” he said, glancing around an atrium busting with people on a recent Saturday afternoon. “I don’t remember any carpet. It was all mosaic tile, you know.”

Clendel’s stories help shake off the dust on those memories of years gone by — such as how his father taught in one-room country schoolhouses, or the stint Clendel spent working in the Evansville shipyards during World War II. (Some of which are rehashed in a book he wrote, “Echoes of Freedom.”)

And of course, there’s that indelible memory from his father’s undercover ventures at West Baden from that summer 116 years ago.

“He said it was the best job he ever had,” Clendel recalls.