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Back Home Again in Southern Indiana
By Lesley Sauls
It was supposed to be an uneventful trip. My mom had invited me to accompany her to a school reunion in a small southern Indiana town where we would see her old friends and visit with distant relatives. I'd imagined quiet teas and memory-filled conversations, but the reality was so much more.
Our destination was Spencer, Ind., but we stayed 30 miles away in Bloomington, where a giant football stadium on the Big 10 campus of Indiana University is adorned with stories-tall cream-and-crimson letters that proudly spell out "Hoosiers." A walk across campus revealed a university that is steeped in history and culture. In front of the student union runs a gentle creek where Mom recalled protesters camping in the 1960s. Nearby the Indiana University Art Museum has been growing since 1941 and counts Picasso and Monet as two artists represented in the 40,000-piece collection.
We walked on to Kirkwood Avenue and the Cafe Pizzaria, where pizza was introduced to Bloomington in 1953. The same recipe is still used for their popular pizzas and strombolis, and not much else has changed in the last 60 years. Students pile into booths, families corral happy children and old-timers come back for a taste of history.
"This was the first pizza I ever tasted," my mom said, "and it is the standard to which I hold all other pizza."
From there we wandered over to Fourth Street, where turn-of-the-century homes have been re-created as multi-ethnic restaurants, and on up to the city square, where shops and restaurants surround the Monroe County Courthouse. The 1908 building proudly overlooks window-shoppers and evening revelers in a Capraesque scene.
Only 20 miles away from campus is Nashville, an artists' colony that was founded in the early 1900s. Since that time hundreds of artists have practiced their craft in the area's rolling hills, and they have been joined by candy shops, ice cream vendors and restaurants that take advantage of local produce. I was tickled to step back in time and enjoy an old-fashioned ice cream soda from Fearrin's Ice Cream and Yogurt Depot that was made with rich vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup — just like my grandma used to make. Outside this depot, an open-air trolley departs regularly to take visitors on a guided tour around town for a small fee.
Warm, nutty roasting smells lured us into the family-run Jack and Jill Nut Shop, where we couldn't resist their signature cinnamon-roasted almonds. Large barrels of nuts stood on dusty plank floors, and aging postcards were tacked to the wall. We grabbed a bag of mixed nuts to enjoy during intermission at the 426-seat Brown County Playhouse next door, where shows have been going on for more than 60 years. After a short hiatus, the playhouse is now locally owned and stages plays, musicals and concerts to sold-out crowds.
Another afternoon Mom and I decided to enjoy the local flavor of two wineries. My skepticism about wine made in rural Indiana was quickly dispelled by award-winning wines that were made from local and imported grapes. The Oliver Winery was our first stop. Tucked into their 50 acres of vineyards is an oasis of waterfalls, carefully tended flowers and strategically placed giant slabs of local limestone. From their koi pond we could hear the tinkling laughter of visitors who were enjoying bottles of wine at scattered picnic tables.
Inside the tasting room we learned about the wines available and that the winery began in the early 1970s with Camelot Mead, a honey wine that is made by fermenting honey and water with additional flavors. Our guide went on to explain that centuries ago a month's supply - a "moon's" worth — of honey mead would be given to a newly married couple.
We reached a second small vineyard by following directions past tumbling barns and wide-open fields on a pitted gravel road. Bonnie Leaderbrand welcomed us into the cozy tasting room of Owen Valley Winery and told us that she and her family had decided together to begin winemaking. Theirs is a young winery with three acres of grapes that they use to produce and bottle wine on-site along with other wines made with imported grapes and fruit. While we were there, Leaderbrand bought a bucket of ripe persimmons from a neighbor to make into persimmon wine — a fun drink and great souvenir of the area. We grabbed a bottle along with a plate of cheese and crackers to enjoy on their patio with a game of cards.
Then it was time to work off some of the Indiana hospitality. Fortunately we were very near McCormick's Creek State Park, where trails wind through canyons and ravines in varying degrees of difficulty. Initially it was the site of an 1880s sanitarium that has since been remodeled and is now the Canyon Inn. During the Great Depression the park was updated with shelter houses, bridges and a fire tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Now the park has a pool, campgrounds, horseback-riding facilities, tennis courts and playgrounds. We saw a couple having a picnic and a family wading below the creek's waterfall under limestone outcroppings.
Yes, we made it to the class reunion and had a wonderful time visiting with Mom's old friends, and I was able to learn a lot about my parents' histories. But the silver lining was a deeper appreciation for the rich culture, hospitality and opportunity on offer in southern Indiana. I look forward to donning cream and crimson when the football and basketball seasons roll around and shouting "Go, Hoosiers!" I will imagine the throngs of similarly clad fans doing the same all around the Bloomington square.
WHEN YOU GO
Most airlines have flights into Indianapolis. Bloomington is an hour's drive south from there.
The Scholars Inn, a cozy bed and breakfast near the Indiana University campus, has a gourmet restaurant and top-notch bakery. Rooms run about $120 per night: www.scholarsinn.com.
Hilton Garden Inn is also close to the IU campus. Rooms there run close to $150 per night: www.hilton.com.
Brown County Playhouse, 80 S. Van Buren St., Nashville, IN 47448; 812-988-6555; www.browncountyplayhouse.org
Jack & Jill Nut Shop, 78 S. Van Buren St., Nashville, IN 47448; 812-988-7480
Fearrin's Ice Cream and Yogurt Depot, 95 Van Buren St., Nashville, IN 47448; 812-988-7677
Hobnob Corner Restaurant, 17 Main St., Nashville, IN 47448, is located in a building that was built in 1868 and has evolved from a feed store to a drugstore and soda fountain to a restaurant that takes advantage of local produce as much as possible: 812-988-4114
Cafe Pizzaria and Nick's English Hut on Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington share the same original pizza and stromboli recipes, but there is no alcohol served at the Pizzaria: www.cafepizzaria.com and www.nicksenglishhut.com.
Siam House is only one of the myriad ethnic restaurants on Fourth Avenue that include Thai, Indian, Turkish and Italian cuisines: www.siamhousebloomington.com.
The Oliver Winery is open for tasting daily and offers snacks and souvenirs along with wine in their tasting room: www.oliverwinery.com.
The Owen Valley Winery in Spencer, Ind., is open Thursday through Sunday and offers wine, snacks and locally roasted coffees. In the summer and autumn months, they host Saturday musical events: www.owenvalleywinery.com.
McCormick's Creek State Park, 250 McCormick's Creek Park Road, Spencer, IN 47460, is open year-round and has a restaurant that is open to the public: www.mccormickscreekstatepark.com.
Lesley Sauls is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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