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Stepping Back 150 Years on Indiana's Scenic Trail

August 06, 1989|MYRNA OLIVER | Times Staff Writer

AURORA, Ind. — Thomas Gaff made Crescent Beer, which was considered good enough to export to Germany. He also made Thistledew Whiskey, about which little is recorded, and Ceraline, the first packaged cold cereal. And he owned steamships.

With the profits from those sundry enterprises the 19th-Century industrialist could well afford to have any kind of home he wanted, almost anywhere he wanted.

And the house that Gaff built--in 1852 at a crook in the Ohio River called Aurora, Ind.--is the back road tourist's introductory treat to a lazy, loopy 75-mile stretch of the Ohio River Scenic Route.

Easily reachable from either Cincinnati or Louisville, the clearly marked route winds along the northern, or Indiana bank, of the broad river on Indiana highways 56 and 156 from tiny Aurora to Madison, which has often been described as the nation's "19th-Century Williamsburg."

In any season the route offers wide, soothing vistas of the winding river and surrounding hills in Indiana and Kentucky, and a peaceful glimpse back into Midwestern life a century and a half ago.

Overlooking Town, River

Gaff's lemon-yellow house, Hillforest, is easily found in Aurora, majestically overlooking town and river from the "top" or hill end of Main Street.

Owned by the Gaff family until 1927, the mansion was the meeting and entertainment site for three decades of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars before it was bought and restored in 1956 by the Hillforest Historical Foundation.

Guided tours are available Tuesday-Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. from May 1 to Dec. 23, for a $3 fee. Information about meeting facilities or special events, including Christmas teas and solve-the-murder-mystery buffet dinners, can be obtained by writing to the foundation at P.O. Box 221, Aurora, Ind. 47001, or calling (812) 926-0087.

History-minded townswomen proudly show visitors through the three-story home, designed personally by Gaff, who amusingly incorporated his favorite steamship features into the architecture of an Italian Renaissance villa.

Signed and dated molds for the ornate plaster lace that edges each formal chandelier and ceiling have been found in the foundations of the house, but Gaff's design plans have never been found.

Chief among Gaff's steamship-as-house touches is the round third-floor belvedere modeled on a pilot house and complete with mounted spyglass and river charts.

Gaff entertained his male friends here in the room with unquestionably the best view of Aurora and the river.

To underscore the male-only nature of the special aerie, the sole access stairway was built too narrow to accommodate 19th-Century women's voluminous hoop skirts.

Unsupported Staircase

The house also boasts a vast, unsupported "flying" wooden staircase from the first-floor entry to the second floor, akin to those of river boat grand salons. Despite the creak of the stairs under the tourist's step, guides point out that the design is so strong that it even supported a pony the Gaff offspring once rode upstairs.

Among the several trompe l'oeil touches that challenge restoration artists and intrigue visitors are flat wallpaper that appears to be recessed molding, and peacock glass windows in the huge cypress doors, which are red and gold on one side and red and blue on the reverse.

The mansion contains a small shop with post cards and needlework and a small museum with Gaff family news clippings and memorabilia.

The broad front porch with rocking chairs and a stone-seated perch atop the outdoor "melon cellar," where the Gaffs cooled foods with ice cut and carried from the frozen river, afford peaceful places to rest and reflect before continuing the trip.

Just downriver from Aurora sits the dot on the map called Rising Sun, where vacationers can picnic in a delightful river-bank park, or on weekends and holidays take a sightseeing or dinner cruise on the Hoosier Belle.

Rising Sun is a good starting point for camping, fishing or boating excursions in the area.

Information can be obtained from the Rising Sun Tourism Bureau, P.O. Box 95, Rising Sun, Ind. 47040, or by calling (812) 438-2319. Information on tours or charters and reservations on the Hoosier Belle are available by calling (812) 438-3212.

Meandering farther along the scenic route the traveler arrives in Switzerland County and the tiny town of Vevay (pronounced Veevy), named and misspelled for the settlers' hometown of Vevey, Switzerland.

Wine Grapes Planted

Obtaining a land grant for the area in 1802, the Swiss planted wine grapes in the sandy soil. The grape culture eventually was replaced by tobacco and other crops, and the river town prospered.

With a population of about 2,000, the modern Vevay is a cozy town that plays host to horse-pulling contests in June, ice cream socials on the Fourth of July and a Swiss wine festival in August. The weekly Switzerland Democrat prints community news such as:

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