A season of rejuvenation and low expectations

West Baden Springs Hotel
West Baden Springs Hotel (PHOTO: Serge Melki, Flickr CC-BY)

Amazingly, I’ve managed to make it through most of March still believing it’s winter. This is a first for me. Usually I dupe myself into believing that spring will arrive early. Then, northern Minnesota’s most sadistic season again crushes my hopes. As the Buddhists say, desire is the root of all suffering. I’m learning.

People here use all kinds of coping mechanisms for the weather. Skiing. Soup. Seasonal depression. Locals find elaborate tasks to keep so busy they don’t even notice the misery. This has been true a long time. For instance, the Ojibwe people tapped maple trees for sap that runs when the nights get cold and the days warmer. To make maple syrup or sugar, you stir boiling sap for days on end to keep it from burning. It’s a tedious but warm activity, and by the time you’re done the weather is bound to be better.

But nowadays people like to buy airplane tickets on websites with names like “Gazoink” or “Sprog.” For some, the modern strategy involves leaving this place entirely for as long as possible.

Working people with families take week-long trips to Florida or Vegas. Retired people go live in trailers in the desert for months on end. What do they talk about? I hope I never know.

Extended early spring holidays are nothing new to northern Minnesotans.

I’ve been researching the life of late Hibbing mayor Victor L. Power these past several years. Power carefully managed the doldrums of late winter and early spring. Every March he left Hibbing for the West Baden Springs Hotel in French Lick Springs, Indiana.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of the West Baden Springs Hotel? In the early 20th Century, it was considered one of the recreational marvels of the Midwest. The hotel was built inside an enormous lighted dome, one of the largest freestanding domes in the world at the time. Dazzling colors illuminated the glass and mirrors of the atrium creating a marvelous environment to dance, converse or just stare slack jawed at the ceiling.

This was the sort of place where the affluent would gather back when it was too impractical to take a train all the way to even warmer places. Southern Indiana was about as far as you could go without spending most of a week in a passenger car that was either too hot or caked with coal soot. West Baden didn’t attract the Rockefeller or Carnegie types, but small town wheeler dealers thought it was the bee’s knees. So did bootleggers and gamblers, who partook in the nearby race tracks and card games in French Lick Springs.

Another feature of the facility were natural spring water pools that claimed a restorative quality for all those who swam in them. Power himself talked extensively about how much better the cleansing waters of West Baden made him feel.

You can still stay at the West Baden Springs Hotel today. They restored the dome and many of the ornate features from the glory days. But they capped off the natural springs years ago because of alarmingly high levels of lithium. Lithium in smaller amounts can be used as an anti-depressant, so it’s possible that Vic Power was just microdosing, as the kids say.

How you survive springtime in northern Minnesota is up to you. Maybe you take a cruise, go to Disney World or fly to a Mexican resort where American tourists barf red, white and blue into the poolside towel bins.

Me, I stay. Minnesota is a state where all of the climates travel to you for free, if you are patient. Just lower your expectations (and your snow shoveling posture) to avoid pain.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, March 25, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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