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An Indiana river town romance

Courtesy Madison Area CVB

In the humid summer of 1816, when 43 delegates met in Corydon to draft a constitution for the new state of Indiana, they often met beneath the shady branches of a large elm tree.

Although the tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease in 1925, the remaining trunk has been lovingly preserved and protected by a sandstone memorial. The Constitution Elm is part of the large Corydon Historic District, which also includes the preserved 295-year-old Old Capitol, a two-story building constructed of Indiana blue limestone with walls two and a half feet thick.

Although no longer the state capital, Corydon is still the county seat of Harrison County, one of several counties along the Ohio River that form the southern boundary of Indiana. Like the Constitution Elm and the Old Capitol, institutions, businesses and structures along the border tend to endure, among them one of the country’s oldest dinner theaters, a 120-year-old candy company, a seventh-generation winery, preserved 19th-century downtowns and stately antebellum mansions overlooking the river.

Then there’s the Falls of the Ohio, between Clarksville, Ind., and Louisville, Ky.

“This is a 400 million-year-old sea floor we are walking on,” said Paul Olliges, a volunteer guide at Falls of the Ohio State Park on the Indiana side of the river.

The falls, actually cascading rapids that drop the river 26 feet in two and a half miles, is one of the richest windows into the shallow ocean that covered much of the United States during the Devonian period.

“The significant thing is there are more than 600 species of fossils,” said Olliges. “There is more diversity here than most places. That’s a big deal.”

Two-thirds of the fossils were discovered and recorded at the falls for the first time anywhere in the world.

Stairs lead to the upper and lower fossil beds, where you can see fascinating images in the rocks of crinoids, also called sea lilies, that look like washers or threaded bolts; lacy, fanlike bryozoan; horn coral; snails; small clamlike brachiopods; tusk coral; and branching coral that resemble tree branches.

“These are all animals, not plants,” said Olliges.

However, the fossil beds are underwater much of the year, with July to October the best times to visit. Meanwhile, an interpretative center on a bank high above the fossil beds provides year-round information about the falls and the secrets it has revealed.

The center has a 14-minute film and more than 100 exhibits with artifacts and interactive videos that give details about the falls’ geological and human history.

Another popular group stop in Clarksville is the Derby Dinner Playhouse, which has been presenting professional dinner theater for more than 35 years.

Over the years, the theater, which has eight main-stage shows and 12 concerts each year, has presented all of the top 50 Broadway musicals of all time. It is currently presenting “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which runs through April 3, and will follow that with “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

In neighboring New Albany, Schimpff’s is a popular candy company with a long tradition.

“We are 120 years old this year,” said Jill Schimpff. “It was founded by my husband’s great-grandfather. We have been on the Food Network and the History Channel. We are old and traditional. People tend to pay attention to that.”

The company is in its original building, which has survived several floods. Schimpff greets groups when they arrive, showing them flood marks on the exterior halfway up the second floor.
“Inside, we have long observation windows where you get to see us make candy on turn-of-the-century equipment,” she said.

“We have a running commentary. Then we go into our museum, which has thousands of pieces of candy memorabilia. We try to keep it light hearted. There is a 1920 vending machine someone gets to work.

“In the retail section, there are old candy jars on shelves and block after block of candy and chocolates in glass cases. There is a soda fountain from 1921.”

Schimpff’s is famous for its cinnamon Red Hots; hard candy fish; and Modjeskas, caramel-covered marshmallows named for 19th-century Polish actress Madame Helena Modjeska.

Seven generations
The seventh generation of Hubers are now involved in operating Huber’s Orchard, Winery and Vineyard in nearby Starlight, which dates from 1843.

The expansive 550-acre operation grows 18 varieties of grapes for its varietals and blended wines, along with vegetables, apples, pumpkins and Christmas trees. There is a farm market, a cheese shop, an ice cream factory, a gift shop and Indiana’s first distillery in addition to the winery, located in a cellar next to a restored 1938 barn.

There are several tour options for the winery, including Wine 101, which gives an overview of winemaking, and the Wine Enthusiast, which provides details of how brandy is made. Various tasting options are also available.

The Starlight Cafe in the winery offers light lunches.

Historic downtown
About an hour upriver, Madison has preserved much of its historic downtown.

“We have the largest historic district in Indiana,” said Marci Jones, tour coordinator for the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The whole downtown, 133 blocks, is on the National Register of Historic Places. We have three national historic sites.

“Most of the buildings are 19th-century. Most of our growth took place on a hilltop; we have the best of both worlds. Downtown is really beautiful, with homes, tree-lined streets, shops, stores and restaurants. A lot of the shops have apartments above them.”

One of the restored historic houses open to the public is the Lanier Mansion, a large 1844 Greek Revival riverfront mansion that is the center point of the Madison Chautauqua, a free annual art festival.

“There generally are around 250 artists that display,” said Jones. “They close off the street around the visitors center and the Lanier Mansion along the riverfront. They set up little booths with everything from jewelry, pottery, stained glass, weaving, paintings — you name it.

“There is food on the riverfront and all kinds of music at little music venues throughout. It is a great event for groups.”

Another long-running festival just upriver from Madison in Vevay is the Swiss Wine Festival each August.

“This will be the 40th year,” said Angie Satterfield, destination and business manager for the Switzerland County Recreation, Tourism, and Convention Commission. “It is group friendly, especially on Friday and Sunday. They have riverboat cruises — you can lock through the dam.”

Swiss settlers founded Vevay in the early 1800s and began a wine industry, which is beginning to re-emerge in the county and region. “J.J. Dufour was what is called a vine dresser,” said Satterfield. “What he started here was the very first successful commercial winery in America. Without his discoveries about grape growing, we would not have the modern wine industry today.”

Switzerland County’s Ridge Winery, with a tasting room overlooking the Ohio River, is on the Indiana Wine Trail.

Nostalgic looks
Satterfield offers groups a number of options for nostalgic looks at the past in Switzerland County. There are behind-the-scenes tours of the Historic Hoosier Theater, which was originally built in 1837 as a warehouse and later served as Vevay’s first post office, before being converted to a theater in the 1920s; lunch at the Old School Cafe in a 1940s former school, where the daily specials are written on a classroom chalkboard; and breakfast at the century-old Moorefield Market.

Groups can also arrange for workshops taught by fifth-generation beekeepers on how to create beeswax candles and workshops on how to make cream chocolates.

Although Rising Sun is easy to miss, it is well worth the stop.

“If you are driving through Rising Sun and blink, you will miss the town; but if you turn left, you will find a little Main Street USA,” said Eric Scudder, executive director of the Rising Sun/Ohio County Tourism Bureau.

“The main street touches the Ohio River, and all downtown entities are within a three-block walk of the water. The river is a constant; it is the metronome that makes Rising Sun tick along.

“The views are great, the water is clean, and we have a developed waterfront site with a gazebo, outdoor seating, a stage and a fountain.

“There is not a lot of modernization downtown. All of the facades are preserved and rehabbed, down to historically sensitive doors,” said Scudder. “All of the architecture on Main Street is in excess of 150 years old. The tallest is two stories, and all are Federalist or the Civil War era, with huge windows and bricks that have been there forever.”

Vibrant arts
Scudder said a vibrant artist community fills many of the buildings.

“We have a very solid and devoted core group of practicing artists in and around town with open studios where you can come in and see them at work,” he said. “We are this little town in the smallest county in Indiana, and we have this burgeoning arts community.”

One of the interesting shops is Harps on Main, which makes world-class concert-level harps that are sold around the world. “They also make miniature harps they call harpsicles, which are one-third size but fully functional,” said Scudder.

Artists play a major role in telling the story of Aurora, a small riverfront town in neighboring Dearborn County that was a 19th-century center of river commerce.

Windows of Aurora is an award-winning series of 21 murals on downtown buildings that depict key moments in the town’s history.

“The Windows tour is a great way to experience the history and architecture of the river town while enjoying the shops and sights along the way,” said Sally McWilliams, director of group sales for the Dearborn County Convention, Visitors and Tourism Bureau.

“Visitors are encouraged to dart into shops that pique their interest and catch up later.”
For hands-on art, groups can arrange for an Arty Party at the Framery in Lawrenceburg, where participants can create fused-glass pendants or earrings.

“You can kick it up a notch with our Pink Paradise Arty Party: appetizers, pink drinks, massage session, fused-glass pendant project, Latin rhythm dance class and framing tips,” said McWilliams. “It’s a fun evening for those girlfriend getaways.”

Groups can also sample the county’s history and get great views of the Ohio River at two historic mansions: the Hillforest Victorian House Museum and the Veraestau Historic Site.
Hillforest, an 1855 Italian Renaissance mansion that overlooks Aurora and the river, is a national historic landmark, where groups can arrange teas, luncheons or special events.

“The mansion’s setting is a showstopper,” said McWilliams. “Costumed guides and excellent room-by-room interpretation bring the property to life.”

Veraestau is a 19th-century country estate with sweeping views of the river; its name is a combination of the Latin words for spring, summer and fall.

“This is completely a beyond-the-velvet-ropes tour,” said McWilliams. “The pace is relaxed, and visitors are encouraged to sit and enjoy the parlors after touring the home or exploring the carriage house and grounds.”

Groups can arrange for the combination Twilight Tour Mansion Dinner, which features an evening tour of Hillforest and a catered dinner in the parlors, followed by a tour of Veraestau and a dessert buffet.