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February 2, 2019

French Lick, West Baden and The Wright Brothers

Vintage postcard images of the landmark resort hotels in the neighboring towns of French Lick (left) and West Baden in southern Indiana. The merger of the towns' high schools in 1954 is the focus of a new book and this week's show, with guest Tim Wright, who grew up in French Lick.

Tim WrightThe rivalry during the early 1900s between two lavish hotels in the southern Indiana towns of French Lick and West Baden is almost as well known as the mineral waters they sold - marketed, respectively, as Pluto and Sprudel water. Far less remembered: The small towns also were archrivals on the basketball court because, until a consolidation fraught with controversy during the late 1950s, French Lick and West Baden each had their own high school.

Among the residents who witnessed the merger and the creation of what became Springs Valley High School - with a basketball team known as the Black Hawks - was a first-grade student in French Lick named Tim Wright. He grew up to become a public figure, known as the banjo- and guitar-playing sibling in The Wright Brothers Band, the Indiana-based group that has performed pop, country, rock and bluegrass music at the Grand Ole Opry, on national TV shows and even on the soundtrack of a Hollywood movie.

Book Cover: Valley Boys - The Story of the 1958 Springs Valley Blackhawks. Tim Wright, who lives in Carmel now, has written a book, The Valley Boys: The Story of the 1958 Springs Valley Black Hawks, drawn from extensive interviews about the unfolding of the high school consolidation in the "twin cities" in Orange County. In addition to describing the social history of the school consolidation, Tim's book focuses on the basketball players themselves, former rivals who had to come together as one team.

He will be Nelson's studio guest to discuss the merger that once was the talk of the state. The high schools' mascots had been the Red Devils (a nod to Pluto) for French Lick, and across the railroad tracks that separated the two town, the Sprudels (depicted as a wood gnome) for West Baden.

Tim also will share insights about the evolution of the Wright Brothers Band, who cut their first album in the early 1970s. Tim and his brother Tom, a vocalist, have been the core of the band, which has performed with headliners including Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. The band also has performed the national anthem at Indianapolis Colts and Indianapolis Indians games.

During the 1950s, Tim and Tom Wright's grandfather ran a barber shop in French Lick that was a hub for chatter about the consolidation of the high schools, the blending of the basketball teams and the economic challenges of Springs Valley.

From left, John McDowell, Tom Wright and Tim Wright of The Wright Brothers Band. Over their long career, the Indiana-based group has performed pop, country, rock and bluegrass, sharing the stage with some of the music industry's top entertainers.
Courtesy"Most folks in Orange County in the '50s considered themselves poor," Tim Wright notes in The Valley Boys. "There was no real industry, and wages were low."

In addition, the West Baden Springs Hotel - with a spectacular atrium touted as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" - had closed during the Great Depression. The landmark had various other owners over the years (including Jesuit priests and a culinary school), and did not reopen as a hotel until a spectacular restoration in 2007.

According to Tim's research, the combined population of the two towns was about 3,500 in 1958. Although wealthy visitors continued to patronize the French Lick Springs Hotel, which remained open, many assumed its glory era had passed.

Some history facts:

  • In the early 1950s, the West Baden Sprudels had been coached by Marvin Wood, who later became the basketball coach of another tiny school, Milan High School. In 1954, Wood was the coach for the legendary Milan team with Bobby Plump that won the state tournament.
  • John McDowell, a long-time bass guitarist and vocalist with the Wright Brothers Band (he sometimes is called the "third brother") is the nephew of Jimmy Mack, the former TV personality in Indianapolis who was the host of "Bandstand 13," a popular teen dance show during the 1960s. In 2016, Jimmy Mack, who is now 96, was a studio guest on Hoosier History Live.
  • The Wright Brothers Band can be heard on the soundtrack of Overboard (1987), a movie starring Goldie Hawn.
  • Known as the Wright Brothers Overland Stage Company when the band formed in 1972, the group has performed across the country. In Indiana, their performance venues have included the restored landmarks from Tim and Tom's boyhood, the French Lick and West Baden hotels.

The Wright Brothers gained national attention during the 1980s with their hit song "Made in the USA," which, as the title suggests, celebrates companies that manufactured their products in this country.

The brothers' father, Billy D. Wright, was a singer in southern Indiana. During the 1940s, he was a basketball star for the French Lick Red Devils, according to The Valley Boys.

For the book, Tim Wright interviewed one of the key figures involved in the aftermath of the consolidation of the rival high schools: Rex Wells, a West Baden native who, in his 20s, became the widely admired coach of the inaugural Springs Valley High School basketball team.

Wells is quoted as saying: "It was the team and not the school board that consolidated the two schools."

Roadtrip: Wilbur Wright Birthplace and Museum in Henry County

The Wilbur Wright Birthplace boasts a a full size replica of the  Wright Flyer ("Flyer 1"), which reveals the complexity of the plane's design. Courtesy Wilbur Wright Birthplace and Museum.

Our studio guest Tim Wright of The Wright Brothers Band sometimes has to clarify that there's no known kinship between his family and that of the "other" famous Wright Brothers - you know, the ones who had something to do with airplanes.

But the Wright Brothers who were pioneers in aviation also have an Indiana connection. Guest Roadtripper Ken Marshall, an educator and backroads Indiana "bon vivant," suggests a Roadtrip to the birthplace of Wilbur Wright, located a few miles north of I-70 in Henry County, twenty five miles northeast of Richmond.

The Wilbur Wright Birthplace and Museum preserves the house in which Wilbur Wright was born and seeks to educate the public by preserving and interpreting his life, family, and achievements. For fans of early aviation, perhaps the museum's most exciting display: a full-size replica of the 1904 Wright Flyer!

And to witness flyers of another type, Ken suggests a side trip to Summit Lake State Park, just a fifteen minute drive northeast from the Wright Birthplace toward Muncie. The park offers excellent birding: with its many low-lying wet meadows and prairies, you can spot such migratory species as the black tern, bald eagle, sandhill crane and American bittern, among others.

Be sure to listen in to join Ken for this gravity-defying Roadtrip adventure!


History Mystery

One of the original buildings on the campus of our mystery university, a private Christian school located in a small Indiana city in Grant County.  What is the name of the university?

For more than 35 years, the Wright Brothers Band has performed at universities and colleges across the country. Campuses that have been the settings for performances by "Indiana's Band" have included Texas Tech, North Carolina State, Indiana University, Wabash College and Butler University.

The Wright Brothers also have performed at a private university located in a small Indiana city in Grant County. The university is an interdenominational, evangelical Christian school attended by about 2,000 students. The mascot of its sports teams is the Trojans.

Question: What is name of the university?

Please do not call in to the show until you hear Nelson pose the question on the air, and please do not try to win if you have won any other prize on WICR during the last two months. You must be willing to give your first name to our engineer, you must answer the question correctly on the air and you must be willing to give your mailing address to our engineer so we can mail the prize pack to you. The prize is a gift certificate to Story Inn in Brown County, courtesy of Story Inn, as well as four tickets to the Indiana History Center, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.


An affair to remember...

Join us February 28 for our anniversary soiree!

Hoosier History Live - You're invited to our 11th Anniversary Party!

Legendary Hoosier Bobby Plump, who made the final, winning shot for the small Milan High School basketball team in 1954, will speak.

You are welcome to come in historic garb, or to dress representing your proud ethnic heritage.

Live History Mystery from the podium by host Nelson Price. Delicious catered cuisine and cash bar provided by Black Plate Catering. This is a complimentary event. However, as we are a small independent production group, we appreciate your visiting the yellow "donate" button on our website or newsletter. Or, if you wish, bring a check made out to Hoosier History Live to the event.

We look forward to seeing you!

Thanks to our sponsors!

Exploring Indiana's Civil War governor

Great minds illuminate Hoosier history! Jim Fuller (left), professor at UIndy, and Ron Morris, professor at Ball State, joined Nelson in studio on Jan. 26  to discuss "Indiana's Civil War governor and his historic house."
You can listen to the show podcast by clicking the link at the top of this newsletter and on our website, or via  iTunes or your favorite podcast purveyor. 
Courtesy Molly Head

Nelson Price, host and historian
Molly Head, producer/project manager, (317) 927-9101
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Cheryl Lamb, administrative manager
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Please tell our sponsors that you appreciate their support!

Facebook logo links to the Hoosier History Live! page.Twitter logo for Hoosier History Live.Acknowledgments to MonomediaVisit IndyWICR-FMFraizer DesignsHeritage Photo & Research Services, Henri Pensis, Aaron Duvall, Chloe Tyson, and many other individuals and organizations. We are independently produced and are self-supporting through organizational sponsorship and through individual contribution at the yellow button on our newsletter or website. For organizational sponsorship, which includes logos, links, and voiced credits in the show, contact Molly Head at (317) 927-9101 or email her at  Our media reach continues to grow via podcasting and iTunes.

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We'd like to thank the following recent, new and renewal contributors whose donations help make this show possible!

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February 9, 2019 - coming up

Roots tracing for African Americans

Attendees of the 2017 Annual Genealogy Conference sponsored by the Indiana African American Genealogy Group display their work. To share strategies for researching African American ancestry, host Nelson Price welcomes specialist Nichelle Hayes to the show. Courtesy

Even with renewed, widespread interest in family history research - and the explosion of genealogical tools in recent years - challenges remain for those researching African American ancestry. Many of the challenges involve ancestors who were enslaved during the 19th century and earlier.

As Hoosier History Live salutes Black History Month, Nelson's studio guest will be one of Indiana's top experts on African American roots-tracing. Indianapolis-based genealogist and librarian Nichelle M. Hayes is a past president of the Indiana African American Genealogy Group. Currently, she is the leader of the Center for Black Literature and Culture of the Indianapolis Public Library.

Nelson will be asking Nichelle to share advice and tips for tracing African American family histories. As a genealogist for more than 25 years, Nichelle conducts workshops about African American family history research and blogs about it and related topics.

In a recent blog post, Nichelle described her research into the death in 1933 of a great-aunt who lived in the Brightwood neighborhood of Indianapolis and died of tuberculosis. Information on the death certificate opened doors for Nichelle to learn about her ancestor's civic life.

"Genealogy is more than just birth and death dates," Nichelle writes. "It's fleshing the person out, so to speak."

With Nichelle on hand to respond to questions from listeners embarking on roots-tracing adventures, we will open our phone lines earlier than usual during this show. The call-in number to the WICR-FM studio is 317-788-3314.

© 2019 Hoosier History Live. All rights reserved.

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