Walk across the covered bridge at Wilstem Guest Ranch and you will step into a place of rolling hills, quiet pastures and loads of history, all waiting to be explored. Wilstem Guest Ranch can trace its beginnings back to 1915 when the property was purchased by Ed Ballard, a noted local entrepreneur who developed the area as a hideaway for wealthy and famous people. Always a horse lover, Ballard owned a string of blooded show horses he annually entered in horse shows around the country, winning many prizes along the way. Ballard owned a large interest in the West Baden Springs Hotel, and he bought out circuses throughout the country, eventually forming the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, larger even than the Barnum or Ringling Brothers circuses. Ballard established a winter quarters for his circus in nearby West Baden Springs.
Ballard sold his circus and hotel interests just before the Great Depression but he kept the Wilstem Ranch property as a hunting ground and private playground. President Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoyed hunting pheasant and quail through the large stands of walnut trees on the property; actors Henry Fonda and Tom Mix were regular visitors as was the famous Chicago gangster Al Capone, who married one of his wives in front of the fireplace in the historic lodge. While visiting the area F.D.R. announced his candidacy for president at the nearby French Lick Hotel. Legendary heavyweight world boxing champ Joe Lewis trained on the Wilstem grounds, in the forest, and in the ranch’s historic Red Barn.
Ed Ballard died in 1936 and the property stayed in his family until 1950 when it was purchased by John Cabot, the owner of the nearby French Lick Resort. Cabot died in the late 1950s and the property was sold, named Wilstem Farm, and used as a hunting grounds.
In the late 1980s, the property got a new lease on life when it was purchased by Jerry Fuhs, a Southern Indiana entrepreneur, who for many years managed concerts for mega stars including George Jones, Merle Haggard, George Strait, Hank Williams Jr.and Ray Charles; and groups like Alabama, The Grass Roots, Dr. Hook and many others. Fuhs was looking for a getaway spot for his personal use. “This place is 1,100 acres of unparalleled natural beauty; it’s just full of history and it deserves the utmost attention to preservation,” said Fuhs, who began an extensive restoration of the property in 1988. All of the farm’s original buildings were restored, including the 10 bedroom lodge, built of solid walnut logs cut on the property. Riding and hiking trails were cleared and restored, ponds were stocked with fish, and modern guest quarters were added.
For nearly 100 years, the fate of Wilstem Guest Ranch and the historic towns of French Lick and West Baden have been closely intertwined. While the Wilstem restoration has been ongoing since the late 1980s, the phenomenal renaissance of French Lick and West Baden over the past 10 years has strengthened the bond between these three historic places. Visionary entrepreneurship and a love for historic preservation have again made all three some of the most popular vacation destinations in the Midwest.
Today, Wilstem Guest Ranch welcomes guests from every corner of the United States and from many countries overseas. It is the Fuhs’ family’s vision for Wilstem Guest Ranch that keeps it moving forward into the 21st century. “The property is preserved, mostly intact,” said Jerry. “It’s a respite from the hectic pace of everyday life, a real treasure to be enjoyed now and for future generations.”