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Southern Indiana’s American classics

Courtesy Harrison County CVB

Amidst the rolling hills and small towns of southern Indiana, nature, art and history combine to create a great getaway destination.

The small communities in the southern part of the state each come with their own charm and a distinct flavor of attractions for traveling groups.

Corydon, Indiana’s first capital, is all about history. In Brown County, a forested state park sets the scene for a thriving arts colony. French Lick boasts a pair of magnificently restored Gilded Age hotels. And in Dearborn County, historic homes and arts attractions make up a menu of interactive opportunities for groups.

Corydon & Harrison County

From 1816 to 1825, Indiana’s state government resided in Corydon, a small town on the Ohio River a short distance from Louisville, Kentucky. Today, visitors can see the former Capitol and try to imagine the early days of Indiana statehood.

“You can tour the first state Capitol building and Governor Hendricks’ headquarters at the Porter law office,” said Sherry Watson, marketing manager at the Harrison County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “In 1841, Judge William Porter acquired the house, and he opened it to the public in 1879. They reconstructed his law office, here adjacent to the house.”

A couple of blocks away from the old Capitol is the Leora Brown School, a one-room schoolhouse for African-American students. The 1891 building has been restored, but all of the furniture and interior items are original to the period.

Also nearby is Corydon Battle Park, which was the site of the only Civil War battle in Indiana. The park holds re-enactment events each July and will commemorate the sesquicentennial of the battle in 2013.

Harrison County features some art attractions as well. The Harrison County Artisan Center opened in July with museum exhibits featuring the work of local artists. Groups that visit the center can participate in some “make and take” hands-on art projects.

Zimmerman Art Glass is another popular artistic stop for groups.

“They’re in their fourth generation of this business that makes glass figurines,” Watson said. “They’re most famous for their paperweights, but they make lamps, vases and dishes, too, and they give groups a demonstration of how that’s done.”

Nashville & Brown County
Travelers know Nashville as an artistic enclave in southern Indiana with a great shopping and dining scene. But the area’s tourist appeal owes its origins to the woodlands now preserved as Brown County State Park.

“We have the largest state park in Indiana,” said Jane Ellis, executive director of the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You can take tours of the park and learn about the species of trees, and what plants and flora are native to Brown County. We’re known for fall foliage, but it’s also pretty in the spring, with dogwoods and redbuds in bloom.”

It was the natural environment that attracted artist T.C. Steele to the area more than 100 years ago. Steele set up shop near Nashville and invited his artist friends to join him in the area to start an art colony. Today, visitors can see Steele’s home and studio at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

Downtown Nashville is the fruit of Steele’s work in creating the art colony. Galleries, workshops and boutiques line the scenic small town, where visitors will find glassblowers, painters, weavers and other artists creating their wares. Shops in Antique Alley focus on handmade local goods.

Another downtown establishment, the Palace Theatre of Brown County, offers evening entertainment options for groups.

“They do original shows and can do a different show every night,” Ellis said. “So if a group is here for two or three nights, they can have a totally different experience at the theater each night.”

French Lick & Orange County

In the early 1900s, travelers flocked to the tiny town of French Lick to bathe in the sulfur waters of the area’s natural salt lick, hoping to find healing for their ailments. Two classic hotels — the French Lick Resort and West Baden Springs Hotel — pampered guests throughout the Gilded era. Today, both properties have been restored to give guests a glamorous and historic pampering experience.

“West Baden Springs Hotel was known as the eighth wonder of the world at one time,” said Vickie Lincks, sales and marketing manager at the Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It was the largest freestanding dome in the world. Walking in the atrium today is just breathtaking. They have beautiful seating where people can just enjoy the surroundings.”

Both of the historic properties now operate as high-end resort hotels, with spas that combine modern massage with some classic treatments that were popular in the past.

Adjacent to the French Lick Resort is the French Lick Casino, whose Beaux Arts design compliments the resort’s historic lobby. The Las Vegas-style casino has 51,000 square feet of gaming on one floor beneath 27-foot-high ceilings.

Groups can spend a long weekend simply enjoying the properties and casino, or take some time to enjoy a wildlife cruise on Patoka Lake.

The Indiana Railway Museum offers a first-person historical experience, using original train cars to take people on a ride through the Indiana countryside.

French Lick has also introduced golf options for visitors.

“French Lick Resort just opened a new Pete Dye golf course on the second-highest point in Indiana,” Lincks said. “They also have an original Donald Ross course and the Valley Links, which is their golf learning center.”

Aurora & Dearborn County
Just 20 minutes west of Cincinnati, the communities of Dearborn County feature a number of historic mansions and other attractions that provide special programs and experiences for groups. The Dearborn County Convention and Visitors Bureau can arrange for groups to have a twilight tour and dinner at two beautiful historic homes in Aurora.

“At Hill Forest Victorian House Museum, the docents will wear costumes, and they do linen and luxury meals,” said group sales representative Sally McWilliams. “They can also do a Victorian beauty secrets program, where they make samples of old-fashioned hand creams from cucumber.”

At Veraestau, another historic mansion, groups can have coffee or dessert in the main dining room. Visitors sit in the original furniture and admire their surroundings as guests instead of moving through velvet-roped rooms as tourists. After their snacks, visitors can explore the gardens or take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the estate.

The hands-on theme continues at McCabe’s Greenhouse and Floral, a local family business where owners lead groups through projects with herb gardening or flower arrangement.

From there, an experiential tour continues to the Framery, an art studio and custom frame shop.

“You can do a variety of projects, from paintings to collage,” McWilliams said. “The most popular is fused glass. You can make a pendant or a pair of earrings. It’s one big laugh, and you don’t have to have any talent.”