Southwestern Indiana Back Roads and Small Towns by Nancy S. Tardy

Last summer I wrote an article for Real Travel Adventures about southeastern Indiana, and its small towns and back roads. This year I explored southwestern Indiana, concentrating as I did previously on driving the scenic roads along the Ohio River. Again, I found many diverse, educational and fun-filled family activities to recommend.

Located about equidistant between the St. Louis, MO, and Indianapolis, IN, airports and near the I-64 corridor traveling west from Louisville, KY, my starting point was Indiana’s oldest city, Vincennes, originally a French trading post dating from the early1700s and transformed in 1777 into a British outpost, called Fort Sackville. The George Rogers Clark National Historical Park is dedicated to the Revolutionary War commander and older brother of the other famous Clark, William, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-1806. George Rogers Clark and his ragged band of men are remembered for their heroism as they, suffering greatly, waded through flooded fields and icy creeks in February, 1779, to surprise and capture the Lt. Governor of British Canada at Fort Sackville. This was a turning point in early American history, because it prevented England from using French and native Indian allies to recapture its former colony. Additionally, the territorial capital of the Indiana Territory, built in 1800 prior to its statehood; and Grouseland, the home of William Henry Harrison, the first territorial governor and the ninth U.S. President, are both located in Vincennes. The George Rogers Clark statue is the centerpiece of the Memorial built in his honor and located at the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park in Vincennes, Indiana. Numerous chain motels dot the Vincennes area, and Montana Mike’s Steakhouse is especially recommended for its casual surroundings and hearty meals.
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About an hour’s drive south of Vincennes and a few miles south of I-64 at Griffin, IN is located the community of New Harmony, home of two 19th century experiments in communal living. As a National Historic Landmark it combines the best of history and culture with a thriving small town. Begin at the Atheneum/Visitors Center, a strikingly modern structure and counterpoint to the 1800s architecture, to acquaint yourself with the town and historic properties. Don’t miss the Roofless Church and the relatively new black granite labyrinth on your stroll. Art galleries, shops and cafes vie for your attention, and a few bed and breakfast options are available in town. The New Harmony Inn and Conference Center, along with its famed Red Geranium Restaurant, come highly recommended and are conveniently located at the historic site. The Roofless Church is one of the many examples of unique architecture found in New Harmony, Indiana.

Passing quickly through the largest city of the area, Evansville, I enjoyed the peaceful views driving along the Ohio River Scenic Byway, a river road that connects many small towns in this area. I reacquainted myself with the small river town of Newburgh; strolled and shopped in antique and gift stores while filling the minutes until lunch time at the well-known Edgewater Grille on the riverfront.
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An afternoon stroll through the nearby Lincoln Boyhood National Monument provided a glimpse into American history, telling the story of his boyhood years spent in the largely unsettled woodlands of Indiana in the early 1800s. President Abraham Lincoln’s mother’s grave marker emphasizes the fragility of life on the Indiana frontier in the early 1800s.
Nearby is the highly acclaimed Holiday World and Splashin’Safari, the nation’s first theme park with over 60 holiday-themed rides and, appropriately, located in Santa Claus, Indiana. It is a favorite with kids of all ages, and many motels in the area offer special pricing for entry to the park. Spend the night in nearby Huntingburg or Jasper and enjoy the opportunity to ride two of the world’s top wooden roller coasters in friendly, clean surroundings. If Holiday World is crowded when you arrive, spend a few hours at the adjacent Splashin’ Safari, which is included in your park ticket price.
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North of I-64 and Huntingburg is the Amish area of Southern Indiana. The Gasthof Amish Village in Montgomery is only 24 miles from our original starting point in Vincennes. Don’t miss an opportunity to enjoy an old-fashioned Amish lunch or dinner in its well-known restaurant or visit its bakery for breads, homemade noodles, pies, cookies, and even apple and peanut butters. The Village Inn, a small motel, is located nearby, as well as shops featuring handcrafted furniture, quilts and gift items. If you’re lucky, a flea market may be in progress. Maps available at the Gasthof and in the antique shops in Montgomery provide directions to various nearby Amish shops. For a trip back in time, visit Knepp’s Harness Shop, Raber’s Buggy Shop, or Wagler’s Quilt Shop. These family shops are located adjacent to their homes along country roads and provide an insight into their way of life. Do go on a sunny day, as electricity is not an option, and shops rely on natural sunlight for illumination. Also, drive carefully! Buggies are the predominant vehicle on these roads. A local resident parks his buggy outside the flea market in Indiana’s Amish country.
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South and east of Amish country are located two small towns which attracted wealthy health-seekers and gamblers to their mineral springs and grand hotels in the early 1900s. French Lick and West Baden Springs are being raised from somnolence by the renovation of their respective hotels, less than 5 miles apart. The West Baden Springs Hotel, a magnificent building that features a 6 story atrium, lay in decay from the mid-1980s until benefactors, led by Cook Group of Bloomington, Indiana rescued it. The property is planning to reopen in 2007 as a luxury resort and is currently available for tours. Meanwhile, the French Lick Hotel has received a state casino gambling license (Indiana state law requires gambling casinos to be surrounded by water; a moat encircling this famous old hotel was a novel approach to meet the letter of the law.), and its extensive renovation has uncovered long-hidden miniature lights in the molding of the lobby. These illuminate over 5,000 square feet of gold leafing in this recently reopened hotel. The French Lick Winery and its Vintage Café provide a stop for lunch or wine tasting. From minimalist Amish country to glitzy, glamorous casinos and luxury hotels is a drive of about 30 miles. What a contrast! The West Baden Hotel consists of a six-story circular building whose rooms and suites have a view into the elegantly refurbished and renovated atrium.