Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cold Springs Resort, Hamilton, Indiana

Combining two things you love can be a fickle affair. If you read many of my posts, you're aware that I'm into local history. I spend hours dabbling in the subject: thumbing through old books and magazines, reading accounts of the past, and condensing them into what I hope are pithy little blog posts. You might not be aware that I'm also into dancing. I picked it up from my love of old movies. The first time I saw Rick's American Cafe in Casablanca with smartly dressed couples taking a turn on the dance floor while Sam hoarsely crooned Shine I knew I had to learn to dance. Eventually I did, though Vernon and Irene Castle won't be calling me anytime soon for pointers. It wasn't long after I'd learned to dance that I started seeking out historic venues where I could cut the proverbial rug. I've traveled as far as Salt Lake City to find an interesting dance floor where I could kick up the dust of bygone centuries, and most of the time it's come off really well...most of the time.

Like anything else, there are times when you attempt to combine two good things and they wind up creating something much less than the sum of their parts. Sometimes, the past is the past and there's probably a good reason it's nearly been lost forever. Consider our recent trip to visit a historic, Indiana dance venue that'd been in operation in one form or another since 1895.

Cold Springs Resort started out under the moniker Watkins Grove. It wasn't much more than a campsite in the northern Indiana plains, a place where sportsmen fishing the Black River could build a fire and bed down for the night. Fishermen could supplement their catch with produce purchased from the surrounding farmsteads or, if the fish weren't biting, buy a hot meal to dull the pangs of failure. Watkins eventually built a concession stand to cater to campers and even offered boat rentals to capture more revenue. In 1898, the same year "Remember the Main" became a rallying cry, Watkins opened a hotel and bowling alley on the site and Watkins Grove started to become a weekend destination.

At the turn of the century, cottages and boathouses were built along the shores of what then was called Fish Lake attracting renters came from across the Midwest. It was an escape for the ever-more-urban American population, a chance to get out of the city and away from the daily cares of your job and experience nature. At the resort you could start the day with a little fishing followed by lunch at the hotel restaurant and a little Sousa music, then you'd retire to your room to rest, write letters, and eventually change into your evening clothing and emerge for dinner and dancing. Entertainment ranged from speeches by key religious and political figures of the time (William Jennings Bryant spoke from the hotel porch, possibly during his 1908 presidential run) to baseball games between local teams such as the Hamilton Leaders, Edon Boneheads, Auburn Blues, and Ashley Grays. It was mentioned in the 1899 issue of the Indiana Dental Journal in glowing terms:

Indiana Dental Journal, 1899

This is where I always get myself in trouble, I forget that the past is the past and frequently doesn't reflect the present in any ways, shape, or form. In my mind they're still lighting Chinese lanterns in the dance pavilion while the band tunes up. Patrons file in, murmuring with the day's news and filled with happiness at having their cares drift away. If I close my eyes I can almost hear the music intermingling with the sounds of crickets and the baritone of bullfrogs down by the lake. Somewhere off in the distance the lonesome whistle of the St. Louis Flyer passing by the Hamilton station is a gentle reminder that summer isn't forever. Let's not get caught up in the dream just yet, though.

Success brought improvement and the hotel was rebuilt in 1914, becoming three stories high with twenty five rooms and electricity. In 1917 jazz supplanted the sound of clattering pins and the bowling alley was converted into a dance pavilion. Dancing in the early twentieth century, especially at a resort, was a seasonal thing. Like spring peepers, dance orchestras arrived when the weather warmed up and during the summer months you could dance at Cold Springs every night except Mondays from June 16th to Labor Day. In its heyday the Cold Springs dance pavilion played host to Woody Herman, Glenn Miller, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw and as the baby boom and rock and roll reverberated across the American landscape bands like the Beach Boys, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny and the Hurricanes came to the shores of Hamilton Lake.

With the fifth generation of the Watkins family running Cold Springs Resort, I expected to find a love and reverence for the past that preserved the hotel and dance pavilion in its prime, but you know what they say about assumptions. I guess a legacy can be a tough thing to carry on: if you cleave too closely to the past you wind up becoming a poor man's version of a theme park and too kitsch to be taken seriously, if you let things go they degenerate into a sort of half-preserved decrepitude like a patient clinging to life with the help of an iron lung. Unfortunately, the ladder applies to Cold Springs.

Looks like a place Norman Bates
would drink, doesn't it?
We arrived on Friday afternoon to find the hotel abandoned. Not a figure of speech, we couldn't find a soul in the hotel when we arrived. We tried the doors and found both the restaurant and bar locked. Some of the cabins near the hotel were falling down and the dock that ran out from the tiny beach listed uncomfortably to the port. The longer I stood in the drizzling rain taking in the scene, the more I began to wonder if I'd just wandered into the zombie apocalypse. Thoughts of arming myself and finding a defensible position started to pervade my thoughts. Worse yet I couldn't get a cell signal at all, meaning I couldn't try to look up the resort's number so I could call to make sure we were in the right place.

Before irrational fear could take over, we got back into the car and drove into Hamilton where we could make a call. It took a few minutes to find a gas station with a phone book, but that wound up doing us no good since the resort wasn't listed. Now we had two choices: we could turn around and start the two hour plus trip home or give the hotel one more try. We decided to give the hotel one last go, and when we got there we found that neon bar sign was lit. I descended the dank staircase half expecting to find Norman Bates and Michael Myers talking over their week over a beer at the bottom, instead after about five minutes of politely making "we're down here" noises  a woman appeared from upstairs, checked us in, and gave us the key to our room.

It was a room in the most rudimentary sense of the word. Yes, it had four walls and a ceiling, it contained a bed and a television, and there even was an attached bathroom. On the other hand we had no chair, coffee maker, extra pillows, toilet paper, shampoo, or wolfsbane to repel the lycanthropic attack I felt was sure to come once the sun went down. The mattress apparently had been de-boned by the last fisherman who'd stayed there and when you lay down on it you sank to the bed frame. The television had five or so television stations two of which were 24 hour weather and two others devoted to some fly-by-night televangelist and the signal constantly broke up due to bad satellite reception. In the spirit of respecting the past, though, we made the best of things. After all, back in the day there was no television to pass the hours, people socialized, wrote letters, and generally made the most of being together. How spoiled we'd become! That was the frame of mind I tried to adopt as we settled in as much as possible for a good night's sleep after a whole day of travel.

My good intentions failed about an hour later. That was when the bar directly below our room really started hopping. By hopping I mean singing Redneck Girl at top volume and by singing I mean they knew most of the words. We sat awake and listened as the locals, none of whom I saw while the sun was up, came out to make their revels. There was yelling, laughing, arguments, failed romantic trysts, loud discussions of the resort's storied history, and all manner of general noise. With each passing hour the room seemed to get smaller and the bed less comfortable. Finally I lost consciousness, not sure what time of night that happened, I'm just glad it did. The following day we resolved to spend as much time away from the room as possible and to forfeit our second night at the hotel for a late night drive back to Indy. We went to Angola, Indiana, visited a couple of wineries, and shopped at an outlet mall, returning just in time to prepare for a night of dancing at the pavilion. I'm glad to say where the hotel disappointed at just about every turn, the dance did not. 

Don't get me wrong, if you're looking for a fine example of well preserved turn of the century architecture the Cold Springs pavilion is not for you. Unless the management makes a concerted effort and does some serious maintenance, the lakeside dance hall will fall apart and be lost forever. At the moment it's balanced between shabby chic and depressive death spiral. The space itself is huge by modern dance floor standards; a broad expanse of hardwood surrounded by a gallery of tables for the wallflowers. The night's entertainment was The Junkyard Dogs, a fifties revival band that played hits by everyone from Chubby Checker to the Beatles. We danced until dripping with sweat and then bugged out before eleven to make the two-hour plus drive home to a comfortable bed.

The summary? Well, as a place to stay I don't recommend the hotel at the Cold Springs Resort. The price is cheap, that's for sure, but in my opinion, it's because the accommodations aren't really any better than sleeping out in a tent. It lacks too many things and is in too bad of shape. I hope that the owners will invest in returning it to its former glory and making it a destination, but at present it's a no go for me. On the other hand, the pavilion is definitely worth visiting. I recommend dropping in for dancing or spending a night in a nearby hotel and then driving over to swing the night away to the sounds of the fifties. One tip, get there early. Doors open around seven o'clock and seating is limited, if you show up late you could wind up standing the entire evening.

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