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5 Mar 2012

Experience Indiana (Part two)

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March 5, 2012 Category: Travel Posted by:

By Renée S. Gordon


ABOVE PHOTO: Medora Covered Bridge.


Seymour, Indiana is the quintessential small town and it is the most famous one in America that people can’t identify by name. Seymour is the town where John Mellencamp grew up and he immortalized in such songs as “Small Town” and “Jack and Diane”. It is an exemplary place to continue our Indiana experience as we explore the area’s unique history through its sites and attractions.


Seymour’s first non-indigenous settler was James Shields who began homesteading at Mule Crossing in Jackson County in 1816. His son Meedy inherited the farm and in 1852 a town was founded on his land and named after Henry Seymour, the chief engineer of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad. In the 1840s a north-south rail line, was built that ran through the Shields’ farm and in 1852 an east-west route was established. A few years later “Senator” Shields got a bill passed that required trains to stop at all intersections thereby guaranteeing that trains stopped in Seymour.


The Jackson County Visitor Center is located inside the 1890 Southern Indiana Railroad Freight House. Erected in utilitarian industrial transportation-style with a limestone foundation and board and batten siding. It displays a collection of John Mellencamp memorabilia. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 2003.


On October 6, 1866 Seymour became the site of the world’s first moving train robbery. Brothers Frank, Simeon, William and John, known as the Reno Gang, committed the crime. Though they lived in the vicinity they had no reservations about robbing local trains and committing heinous crimes including a beheading. The community took matters into their own hands and lynched gang members at what is still called Hangman’s Crossing. Vigilantes hung three of the brothers in their jail cell. They are buried in the Old Seymour Cemetery and their ill-gotten gains have never been located.


The city boasts a documented history of participation in the Underground Railroad and a marker at the Visitor Center refers to one of its most compelling stories. In 1860 a Nashville slave named Alexander McClure arranged to be shipped by box to Hannah Johnson c/o Levi Coffin in Ohio. The box broke open during a transfer in Seymour and McClure was arrested and returned to Tennessee. He confessed to having been helped by three men, Nathan James, Alfred Savage and an unidentified man. James, a fugitive slave, was captured and returned to slavery and Savage, a white man, was given 15 lashes.


So many visitors come to Seymour to pay homage to John Mellencamp that an audio driving tour, “The Roots of an American Rocker,” has been developed. The drive features 14 sites including movie and video locations. The narrators are family members and childhood friends and the CD provides information, driving directions and music as well as text and a map.


The Mellencamp family has been a presence in the area since the 1850s and one of its earliest homes is the site of the Southern Indiana Center for the Arts. The building was purchased by John and is leased to the town for $1. annually. It also houses a permanent collection of artworks by both John and his mother.


Three historic covered bridges are located within a short driving distance of Seymour but if you only have time for one it must be the one in Medora. It is the only extant triple span covered bridge and the longest in the nation. It was constructed in 1875 for $18,142 and was recently restored for $700,000. The bridge was once referred to as the ‘dark bridge” because of the lack of windows for its entire 460-ft. length. Don’t miss this gem listed on the NRHP.


Jackson County is renowned for its rare round barns. Round Barns enjoyed a brief popularity before being deemed ill lit and lacking in ventilation. One of the few remaining examples is the 1911 Stuckwash Barn. This 60-ft. diameter beech wood structure has a 2-pitch gambrel roof. The wood was soaked in water in order to achieve the curves.


Burton’s Maplewood Farm is spectacular and I highly recommend a visit. Burton’s produces gourmet maple syrup that is used by famous chefs across the country including Stephanie Izard, the only woman to win Top Chef, and Chef Art Smith who served Burton’s rum-infused syrup at Oprah’s farewell brunch. It should be noted there is no rum in the syrup it is aged in barrels that once held rum.


Eighty-percent of maple syrup comes from Canada but the “sugar season” begins in Indiana before it begins there. In fact, the sap flows in Indiana first, the most southwest state of the “maple belt.” Cool nights and warm days are needed to make the sap run and once collection starts it takes 40-gallons of sap to make 1-gallon of syrup. One tree tap is placed for the first 10-inches in diameter and one for each additional four-inches, yielding 10-gallons per tap.


Public admission is limited to the annual National Maple Syrup Festival, the first and second weekends in March at the peak of the season. This is a singular family event and the profits benefit Camp Face, a camp for children with craniofacial conditions. The Burtons are welcoming and make the festival a truly special experience that allows guests to have a wonderful time and help a child.


Family-owned Marion-Kay Spices has been spicing up our lives for 90 years. The founder, Marion Kay Summers, began by selling vanilla door-to-door in Missouri. When he moved the business to Indiana in 1949 he added more spices and a special Seasoned Salt and Black Pepper. Today Marion-Kay supplies more than 1,400 restaurants across the country, many with custom blended products. All of the spices originate in the country that grows the best product. At this time plant tours are not available but you can visit the on-site factory store.


Ewing Uniques is one of those unexpected jewels that make s a vacation even more memorable. It is located in Brownstown, Indiana and you should plan to spend at least 90 minutes there. Half of the building is a restaurant serving affordable, delicious, family fare. All of the food is fresh and the desserts are made daily. Step through a doorway and you enter a world of antiques with new items sprinkled throughout. The prices are right and the selection is awesome.


Early settlers named Bloomington in 1818 after they saw an impressive array of blossoming plants and trees. Two years later the legislature passed an act creating the state seminary that would become Indiana University in 1838. The university is today one of the oldest and largest of its type in the country.


The history and prosperity of Bloomington is intrinsically tied to the story of the Showers family and their furniture company. They were the city’s largest benefactors and deepest influence beginning in 1856 when Charles Showers established the company. Charles, a Methodist minister and cabinetmaker, made coffins during the Civil War in his downtown shop. In 1868 his sons purchased the business for $300.00 and by the 1910 they operated a 7-acre plant. In the 1920s their 1200 workers were producing 700,000 pieces of furniture annually and 16 furniture filled train cars left Bloomington daily. They made all the furniture for the Sears and Roebuck catalog as well as pieces for Montgomery Ward, crafted 60 percent of all furniture made in the US and are believed to have been the largest furniture manufacturers in the world.


The Showers Brothers Company is credited with inventing the wood lamination process as well as pioneering the use of oak veneers making furniture more affordable for the masses. The company was also in the forefront of hiring practices, being renowned for employee benefits and fair hiring practices for African Americans and women. During the Depression business suffered but had a brief resurgence with government contracts during WWII. Poor business decisions and low cost labor in other areas of the country led to the company’s closure in 1959.


Plant 1 was rehabilitated in the 1990s because of its architectural significance. The 1910 building must be seen for its red brick and timber frame construction and double-leaf doors. The sawtooth roofline and skylights were some of the first used on a building in the world. It is listed on the NRHP.


The former art nouveau residence of the Showers Brothers and the adjacent arts and crafts Composer House are now the elegant and charming Showers Inn B & B. Each house has its own ambience and guests may select accommodations in either. Both boast modern amenities, fireplaces, deluxe linens, complimentary internet and concierge service. Breakfast is offered daily as well as afternoon tea.


One of the most exciting reasons to visit Bloomington is for its arts scene and one of the trendiest venues is the Blue Studio Gallery. It dares to present a mixture of the arts in creative ways. On a recent visit I attended a show featuring artworks by Lisa Bick, who uses an ancient beeswax technique to create very personal visionary pieces, a chocolatier introducing gourmet creations and Holon Publishing Company’s CEO, Jeremy Gotwals, hosting a reading by Margaret Clark of her semi-autobiographical novel, I Left My Heart in Harlem. Blue Studio Gallery manages to be a one-stop cultural oasis.


Indiana is extremely affordable, family friendly and worth a visit. There is much to do and it has earned the right to be more than a fly-over or drive-thru state. It is a great destination. Experience Indiana.


I wish you smooth travels!

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