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Southern Indiana: The Spirit of America

America’s tallest flume ride, Pilgrim’s Plunge, Holiday World, Santa Claus, Indiana
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America’s tallest flume ride, Pilgrim’s Plunge, Holiday World, Santa Claus, Indiana

Our road trip took us through the rolling farmland of Southern Indiana, an area between Louisville and St. Louis rich in the history that built our nation, traditional American values, wholesome entertainment, historic Main Streets, tiny villages, an immigrant heritage, and a pioneering spirit.

We found an array of unique accommodations–a Midwestern farmhouse B&B, a grand historical resort, historic cabins, and a Christmas-themed campground and RV park in a town named Santa Claus.

The Lincoln Pioneer Homestead at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in southwestern Indiana
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The Lincoln Pioneer Homestead at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in southwestern Indiana

We attended the kickoff of the Indiana 500 Tour, a 500 mile itinerary that for 2011 focused on Southern Indiana’s best and most unique places to visit. It was held at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial— site of the pioneer homestead where Abraham Lincoln lived from age 7 to 21. There’s a newly-renovated museum, the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, and the burial site of Abe’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

Local artist Jack Kroger donated four of his Lincoln portraits in memory of his Spencer County ancestors who were friends, neighbors and fellow church members of the Thomas Lincoln family. He spoke of how he and his family, like Lincoln’s, built their values and drew so much from their Spencer County experience.

You can grab a buffalo burger at Lincoln City’s Buffalo Run Farm, named for the Buffalo Trace created by millions of migrating buffalo and used by early settlers. See a buffalo herd, an authentic teepee and a cabin where Lincoln is said to have spent the night.

The WPA built replicas of Lincoln-era cabins for Lincoln Pioneer Village and Museum nearby in Rockport. Artifacts there include a hutch made by Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln.

You can picnic at Lincoln’s Ferry Park in Troy where Lincoln ferried passengers to passing steamboats. Stop at Rockport’s Lincoln Landing, where the future President launched a flatboat in 1828 and transported produce to New Orleans. Lincoln saw a slave auction there and it’s said the Emancipation Proclamation had its origins in this trip.

Beyond Lincoln

view of a coal-filled barge on the Ohio River from Blue Heron Winery, Cannelton, Indiana
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view of a coal-filled barge on the Ohio River from Blue Heron Winery, Cannelton, Indiana

To best enjoy the natural beauty of the area, take the Ohio River Scenic Byway. The Ohio, Algonquin for “beautiful river”, is the largest tributary of the Mississippi River and winds through six states. Navigable throughout its length, it provided early frontier settlers with transportation, was the Civil War boundary between the North and South, and was a conduit for the Underground Railroad. Coal-filled barges are a common sight, and it’s a favorite for outdoor recreation and sports fishing.

Yes, Virginia there IS a Santa Claus—in Indiana

In the 1840s a group of German immigrants formed the town of Santa Fe. Since another Indiana post office already had that name, they needed a new one. It’s said that during deliberations on Christmas Eve 1852 the winter wind blew the church doors open and sleigh bells were heard. Children shouted “Santa Claus!”, which became the new name of the town.

Now it’s Christmas every day, with seventeen Santa Claus statues, themed businesses like Santa’s Candy Castle, and streets like Christmas Boulevard, Candy Cane Lane, and Mistletoe Drive.

Holiday World Theme Park & Splashin’ Safari Waterpark, is said to be the world’s oldest theme park. The four holiday-themed areas are Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

the ride named #1 Wooden Coaster on the Planet, Holiday World Theme Park & Splashin’ Safari Waterpark, Santa Claus, Indiana
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the ride named #1 Wooden Coaster on the Planet, Holiday World Theme Park & Splashin’ Safari Waterpark, Santa Claus, Indiana

It’s the smallest theme park to win the prestigious Liseberg Amusement Park Applause Award (2004) and teems with superlatives like #1 Wooden Coaster on the Planet, World’s Longest Water Coaster, #1 Water Ride on the Planet, World’s Tallest Water Ride, and World’s Largest Enclosed Waterslide. Live shows feature gospel, pop, and country music, high-dive thrills, and Santa’s Storytime Theater.

Pepsi beverages are free throughout the park–even in restaurants. Sunscreen and parking are free. 2011 General admission is $42.95, with discounts for children, seniors, groups, multiple days, and online.

Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort, Santa Claus, Indiana
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Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort, Santa Claus, Indiana

Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort, adjacent to Holiday World, was named 2008-2009 RV Park of the Year. There are over 240 family rental 38’ and 44’ RVs, a variety of full hookup RV sites, cabins, and camp sites with water and electricity. The new Rudolph’s Christmas Cabins, with king bedroom, extra large loft, flatscreen TVs, electric fireplace, and free high-speed Internet, are all decked out for the holiday and sleep four adults and four children. Rates begin at $25 for tent sites, $30 for RV sites, $70 for RV rentals, and $140 for Christmas cabins.

Amenities include pools, miniature golf, a fishing lake, paddleboats and kayaks, playgrounds, gem mining sloughs, horseshoe pits, basketball courts, a camp store, laundromat, rental golf carts, free WiFi, and a snack bar. Holiday World discount tickets and a free Holiday World shuttle are available.

Want some traditional Midwestern home cooking? Head for Windell’s Café in nearby Dale for the buffet and home baked pies.

The Swiss Colonization Society founded Tell City–a place with fertile soils, timber, and a navigable river and railroad connection– in 1858 and named it for the legendary Swiss archer and hero. Murals on the flood wall illustrate the city’s colorful past. Folks flock to the area in August for the food and fun at Schweizer Fest.

Tell City Pretzels, Tell City, Indiana
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Tell City Pretzels, Tell City, Indiana

Brad and Sandy Smith’s Tell City Pretzels have been made here since 1858 from founder and Swiss master baker Casper Gloor’s secret recipe. About 3000 pretzels a day are twisted, dipped in hot water, salted, baked, bagged, and sometimes flavored. Call ahead and you may, like us, be allowed to twist a few of your own.

The owners of the Carriage inn live in the 1885 brick Victorian house out front. The lantern over the cash register used to be hung on a pole in the Crow’s nest atop the house to guide boats on the Ohio River.

Carriages were stored in what is now the restaurant, and former stalls are now booths. Top choices are the thin crust pizza, frosty mugs of beer (just $1 the night we were there), and their specialty– fried cheesecake. Three songs on a jukebox playing 45s costs 25¢.

100 Benedictine monks live at the nearby St. Meinrad Archabbey, founded by a Swiss Abbey of Einsiedeln in 1854. This pilgrimage site is one of only two Archabbeys in the United States and eleven in the world. Join prayers or mass, tour the grounds, or stay in a guest house. Their Abbey Press products and handcrafted wooden caskets ($1650-$2395) are sold here.

Cannelton

Cannelton Cotton Mill, built with soaring twin towers of local sandstone, was the largest building west of the Alleghenies. Southern cotton was shipped up the river and woven into fabric for Civil War and World War I & II uniforms. It rivaled the Massachusetts mills.

Eagles Bluff Park Overlook has the best view of the river and Cannelton Locks and Dam. It’s a great picnic spot. Tour the dam to learn about the river and barge system.

Blue Heron Vineyards & Winery owners Lynn and Gary Dauby describe it as “along the river and into the woods” in what Lynn calls “possibly in the prettiest part of Indiana.” A gentle breeze passes through the treetops to the tasting room deck overlooking the river and Cannelton Locks and Dam.

There are stories to the wines—like the 23˚ wine–their driest, a reference to the their onsite Celtic Cross, and Four Stars blueberry dessert wine, a tribute to the couple’s four children in the military.

Lynn and Gary had “a rock, a vine, and a vision” that has makes this no ordinary vineyard. Art is ever-present and continuously evolving. Lynn’s Victorian-style Santa paintings are available in the gift shop along with Gary’s walking sticks and the work of other local artists. Multimedia renditions of the Blue Heron so prevalent on the river are throughout the site, like the one made by an Owensboro, KY artist from old farm parts and the carvings and intarsia garage doors by Greg Harris.

Celtic Cross and sculptor sculptor Greg Harris, Blue Heron Winery, Cannelton, IndianaCeltic Cross, Blue Heron Winery, Cannelton, Indiana
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Celtic Cross and sculptor sculptor Greg Harris, Blue Heron Winery, Cannelton, Indiana

The pièce de résistance is the Celtic Cross created by sculptor Greg Harris from a rock in the woods where Gary used to play as a child. Made of 300 million year old native Pennsylvanian age rock, part of the area’s sandstone cap, it is believed to be the largest in situ–of its own stone– Celtic Cross in the world. Quartzite gives it a sparkly glow.

The prime number 23 is repeated throughout. It leans 23°, has 23 circles or arcs and 23 enigma, and took 23 months build. Gary Dauby describes Harris, who has no formal training, as ”a Renaissance genius– all mathematical”.

Blue Heron Farm B&B, Cannelton, Indiana
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Blue Heron Farm B&B, Cannelton, Indiana

At their Blue Heron Bed and Breakfast, a newly renovated farmhouse, you can sit on a porch swing and listen to songbirds, stroll their adjacent vineyards, and go down by the four acre lake after dark to hear bullfrogs and enjoy the brightness of the stars. Rental of the two bedrooms home with one bath, living room, dining room and kitchen, is just $125 a night for 2, including taxes and a bountiful breakfast prepared by the owners. There’s a 2 night minimum, $25 fee per additional guest, and discounts for the military and longer stays.

May through September you might be there for a Wine over Water “WOW”concert in and around the barn. ($15 a couple, discounts available)

Outdoor recreation–hiking nature trails, bass and catfish tournaments, biannual turkey hunting and boating– is what Perry County is known for. At local favorite, the Derby Tavern local women gather for lunch and card playing in the family dining room and men congregate by the hunting and fishing trophies around the bar. Specialties include a deep fried liver appetizer, fried catfish or breaded pork tenderloin. Try the Creek fries — potatoes with onions and bacon.

Many of the vacation cabin rentals in Derby and Magnet have hot tubs on the deck and fireplaces–great for relaxing before heading out to the caves or the attractions of Santa Claus.

Forgotten Times Log Cabins, Derby, Indiana
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Forgotten Times Log Cabins, Derby, Indiana

Forgotten Times Log Cabins are fully-equipped, beautifully restored, authentic 1860s log homes are in the woods with connecting bath houses. There’s a pond, canoes, a private dock, and direct access to the Ohio River, bayous, and streams and hiking trails of Hoosier National Forest.

French Lick

In an area dotted with natural salt licks and mineral springs, French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel began as internationally acclaimed health resorts with gold-leafed glamor. Rich, influential, and famous guests arrived from around the world for weeks or months to “take the cure” from mineral-rich springs. The waters, labeled Pluto for the Roman god of the underworld for their subterranean origins, were bottled as a cure-all and sold nationally.

Hollywood icons like Bing Crosby, Greta Garbo, and James Dean were here. There were PGA golf championships and Glenn Miller and Woody Herman entertained. Later, the hotels fell into disrepair.

They have regained their grandeur with a complete restoration financed by Indiana billionaire and medical device manufacturer Bill Cook.

French Lick Springs Hotel, with 443 guest rooms and suites, has a full-service conference and event center, bowling alley, and 24 hour 42,000 ft.² grand casino. Dining ranges from Pluto’s Pizzeria to gourmet extravaganzas at 1875: The Steakhouse.

West Baden Springs Hotel, French Lick, Indiana
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West Baden Springs Hotel, French Lick, Indiana

West Baden Springs Hotel, with 246 luxury guest rooms and suites, was named for the renowned German springs. The six-story circular structure topped with the world’s largest free span dome has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. The spa features Pluto mineral baths.

Outdoor recreation includes top-rated championship level golf courses, horseback riding, hiking and biking trails, indoor and outdoor pools, tennis and children’s activities. Historic tours are offered.

Since John and Kim Doty’s French Lick Winery was established in 1995 it has
won over 250 state, national, and international competitions. Visitors can see the on-site production facilities through the windows and enjoy free tastings. Their Vintage Cafe offers Italian cuisine and popular sourdough culture specialty pizzas. The Pan Bigio with olive oil dipping sauce is a local favorite.

Sweet wines are more popular here, and blackberry is the top seller. Cherry–like cherry pie in a glass– tops the list for awards. French Lick Winery is part of the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail.

Vincennes

Did you know that William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expeditions had an older brother George who led a group of hardy Kentucky frontiersmen and French-Canadians in 1779, enduring freezing floodwaters, food scarcity, and other hardships to capture Fort Sackville and change the face of the North America? This one battle forced the British to cede control of land that included present-day Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota and launched expansion of the western frontier to the Pacific.

Pamela Nolan, George Rogers Clark National Historical Park Rangers, Vincennes, Indiana
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Pamela Nolan, George Rogers Clark National Historical Park Rangers, Vincennes, Indiana

George Rogers Clark National Historical Park personnel like Pamela Nolan reenact these struggles, and Clark’s accomplishments are commemorated with an impressive 80’ classic granite monument. Inside, a bronze statue of Clark is surrounded by murals and an inscription that reads “Great things have been effected by a few men well conducted”.

dining room of Grouseland, home of William Henry Harrison, first Governor of the Indiana Territory and later our ninth President
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dining room of Grouseland, home of William Henry Harrison, first Governor of the Indiana Territory and later our ninth President

Vincennes became the capital of the Indiana Territories and William Henry Harrison was appointed its first Governor by President John Adams. Harrison built a Georgian Virginia-style plantation house in 1803 and named it Grouseland for the abundant bird he loved to hunt. It became known as the White House of the West.

Grouseland, home of William Henry Harrison, first Governor of the Indiana Territory and later our ninth President
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Grouseland, home of William Henry Harrison, first Governor of the Indiana Territory and later our ninth President

Harrison met with Indian chiefs and signed major treaties in his Council Room or in the walnut grove. Tecumseh, who felt other chiefs had signed bad treaties, would never meet inside. The DAR opened the house to the public in 1911.

The old cathedral library adjacent to St. Francis Xavier, oldest Catholic Church in Indiana, is the state’s oldest library. Its collection includes ten to twelve thousand rare books and a 1319 Papal Bull issued by Pope John XXII.

The Old French House, circa 1806, is the last remaining French Creole cottage in Indiana. It was built with large timber beams in “posts on sill” style for Vincennes native Michael Brouillet and his family. This Revolutionary War officer under George Rogers Clark traded with the Miami Nation and the Kickapoo Indians and was an interpreter and spy for Governor William Henry Harrison. A son by his Indian wife became a Miami chief.

Vincennes State Historic Site, Vincennes, Indiana
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Vincennes State Historic Site, Vincennes, Indiana

Across the road, a log cabin houses the Visitor Center for the buildings known as the Vincennes State Historic Site. The military outpost Fort Knox 2 site is outlined with short posts. It became a hospital for soldiers injured in the Battle of Tippecanoe.

The Red House, where the Indiana Territory legislature met twice a year. Vincennes also served as the capital of the Louisiana Purchase 1804 to 1805, thus governing more land than any other capital except Washington, DC.

The Maurice Thompson birthplace, a one-room house from Fairfield, Indiana is where Thompson wrote Alice of Old Vincennes, a romantic tale of a French orphan girl and one of George Rogers Clark’s men.

There’s also a replica of the first print shop, run by Elihu Stout, brought here at age 22 by William Henry Harrison and paid $500 annually to print the laws enacted here twice a year. Stout also printed the weekly Indiana Gazette newspaper.

So much history builds an appetite and there’s no better place than Pea-Fections on Main Street for gourmet foods and specialty desserts. Don’t miss Uncle Roy’s Bread Pudding!

Experience the Hoosier hospitality and the heart of America. Southern Indiana is an engaging and affordable vacation destination that shouldn’t be overlooked.

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