History of Charles Edward Ballard

From 1890 to 1893, Ed delivered mail on horseback as a rural route mail carrier. In 1894, Ed worked as a porter in a saloon in West Baden called ”The Dead Rat”.  At 20 years of age, he had saved his money, and later that same year he bought “The Dead Rat”.  He ran card games at the saloon which was kept very quiet because Ed‘s mother was a very religious lady, not even allowing her son to bring a deck of cards into her home.

Early in 1895, there was a big convention at the West Baden Hotel and the owner, Col. Lee Sinclair ran out of ice. In those days hotels had their own ice houses, they would cut ice from the rivers and ponds in the winter and store it. Ed had built his own icehouse for his saloon to store plenty of ice. A messenger was sent to Ed by Sinclair asking Ed if he would loan some ice to The West Baden Springs Hotel. Ed’s message back to Sinclair was “tell Col. Sinclair, he can have anything I have.”

In 1896 Sinclair asked Ed to take over the casino of The West Baden Springs Hotel. Ed then sold “The Dead Rat” and prospered well becoming the manager of the West Baden Springs Hotel.

From 1897 to 1900 Ed ran the casino in the hotel, invested in real estate, bought farmland, and picked up mortgages all at 26 years old.

On June 14, 1901, The West Baden Springs Hotel burned to the ground thus closing the casino. Ed went to work for Tom Taggart, the owner of the French Lick Hotel.

In 1905 the state forced Taggart to close the casino on the hotel grounds. At that time another gentleman by the name of Al Brown built The Brown Hotel across the street from the French Lick Hotel and the casino was opened up in that building.

In 1905 the state forced Taggart to close the casino on the hotel grounds. At that time another gentleman by the name of Al Brown built The Brown Hotel across the street from the French Lick Hotel and the casino was opened up in that building.

In 1908 Brown left French Lick, and Ed took over as operator of the Brown Club.

June 5, 1913, Ed married Dolly (Ada Fern) Finfrock. Ed and Dolly started construction of a beautiful home called Beachwood ( named for 67 beech trees located on the property). before the home was built they had an apartment located above Hancock‘s drugstore. At about the same time, Ed built a hotel called the Homestead.  The food for the dining room of the Homestead was grown on Ed’s farms, even the hams were smoked in a smokehouse next to Beachwood.

March 21, 1914, Charles Edward Ballard (known to me as “Uncle Chad”) was born to Ed and Dolly in the Brown apartment. In the spring of 1915, the Beachwood house was finished.

In September 1915,  Ed bought the Hagenbeck Wallace Circus. Following the first winter, Ed put the circus on for the townspeople free to all before starting out on the road for the summer. In later years, Ed had the circus perform in the atrium of the West Baden Springs for conventions and when the hotel was a hospital base for soldiers.

In the following years, with Bert Bowers, and Jerry Muggivan, Ed bought the John Robinson, Sells Floto, Howes Great London, Buffalo Bills Wild West Show, Gentry Brothers Dog & Pony Show, and others - formed the American Circus Corporation, which owned about every circus in the United States, except the Barnum and Bailey and Ringley shows. During the winter months in West Baden, you would see aerialists practicing and bareback riders performing in rings across from the Colonial hotel on the road between West Baden and French lick.

On April 8, 1916, Mary Elizabeth Ballard was born (Mary Ballard was my grandmother).

In 1916, Col. Sinclair, the owner of the West Baden Springs Hotel, died. Control of the hotel fell to Charles Rexford, and his wife, Lillian (Sinclair’s daughter). Ed came to their financial rescue several times and would later buy the Hotel.

On June 22, 1918, a 26-car Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train carrying over 400 performers, stopped to cool an overheated axle-bearing box. Warning lights were set signaling a train stopped on the tracks. The Hagenbeck-Wallace train was struck at full speed from behind by an empty train used to transport soldiers. The engineer had fallen asleep at the controls. Many people were killed, including the Cotrell family (bareback horse people from England).

In 1928/29 Ed met Frank Bruen, the Director of Madison Square Gardens in New York City. Frank and Ed became very close friends. Ed was widely read and knowledgeable on just about any subject and once carried on a conversation with a professor at the Colorado School of Mines at a banquet, and the professor wanted to know where Ed was teaching college. Ed was 10 years old when he left school but was an avid reader.

In 1923 Ed purchased the West Baden Springs Hotel.  The now-famous, Dome Hotel, referred to as the eighth wonder of the world, was rebuilt by Col. Sinclair after it burned down in 1901.

From 1924 through 1928 the hotel business was up and down, the main attraction for the hotel is the casino but also includes horseback riding, golf courses, and convention facilities.

In 1929 the economy was struggling and John Ringley refused to set up his circus act for its 4 weeks run in Madison Square Gardens. Frank Bruen asked Ed to bring the Sells Floto show into the Gardens. Ed boosted the appeal of the Sells Floto show by going to Hollywood, getting together with Winnie Sheehan (the then Head of Fox Studios), and making a deal for Tom Mix to join the circus. Ed also had Emmett Kelly, the most famous clown of all times, Clyde Beatty, The Poodles, and the Hanneford bareback family.  This infuriated Ringling, so that he sent word to Ed, “you buy me out or I buy you out“, Ed sent word back, “make me an offer“ which Ringling Brother did and Ed, Bowers, and Muggivan accepted just six weeks before the crash.

When the great depression hit and the guests of The West Baden Springs Hotel declined each day, Ed closed the doors of the hotel in the fall of 1931.  The economy continued to decline, and on July 1, 1932, the hotel closed its doors for good.

Ed set out immediately to find a buyer for the hotel and had several offers. He finally rested on a religious organization and on June 28, 1934, Ed sold the West Baden Springs Hotel for $1 as a gift to the Jesuits. They wanted to call it Ballard College, but Ed said no, he wanted it called The West Baden College, and so it was for the next 30 years until they sold it to the Indiana campus of Northwood College.

In 1934, Ed freed himself of financial responsibilities. He wanted to travel and spend time with Dolly and the children. He began to sell off his assets, including the Brown club, the farmlands around West Baden, his home and 12 acres surrounding it, the Palm Island Club, the Homestead, Hoosier, Kentucky Club, the wheat fields in Canada, and the farm in Peru.

On November 6, 1936, Ed was vacationing at the Arlington hotel in Hot Springs with his friend and owner of the Kentucky club, George Ryan. Bob Alexander, a former partner in the Palm Island Club, came to talk to him about the confusion over the property in Miami. An argument ensued and Bob shot Ed killing him instantly. It is said that Bob then took his own life but the story still persists that Ed’s friend, George Ryan, in the room at the time, shot Alexander. Later in January, Ryan killed himself in the back room of the Kentucky club.

The funeral services were held by the Jesuits in the atrium of the West Baden Springs Hotel. Hundreds paid their respects, from state officials, well-known former hotel guests, relatives, and business acquaintances who came from all over the country. The local paper reported that it was “one of the most impressive funerals that have 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. A simple gravestone bears only his name, birth, and death dates.

***Most of the information is gathered from “The Ed Ballard Story” compiled by Anna Marie, Chad, Newell Ballard, Jake Grigsby, Hayden, Richardson, Jack Grant, Vivian Gerkin, Dr. Clay Stuckey, and the Father O’Malley Thesis.