HILLFOREST

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Otterbein, Indiana 47970

Southern Indiana in the spring at the time of the redbud and the dogwood is a must in the life of everyone.

One of the spots to see is Hillforest, a mansion in Aurora, Indiana, which is open every afternoon from 1:00 to 5:00 from April to December. It sets high above the historic city and the great Ohio River and represents the lush era when the steamboat was supreme. Hill-forest is the nearest thing to the grand Victorian manner of Natchez that you find in the North.

Thomas Gaff was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1808. His paper-maker father migrated to New Jersey in 1811, and James was born there in 1816. The Gaff brothers learned distillery operation in Philadelphia. In 1843, they organized T. and J. W. & Co. at Aurora. Their total capital was $800. By 1850 their distillery was the largest in the United States.

They opened a general store and trading post, accepting the farmers' produce for homemaker supplies. They developed their own steamship line between Aurora and Cincinnati, and then sent boats up to Pittsburgh and down to New Orleans.

They had a brewery and a warehouse where they accepted general freight. They had a cattle yard and pork-packing plant. They built toll roads to help open up the hinterlands.

In 1852 Thomas Gaff decided to signify his rapid rise by starting! construction of a big mansion on the high hill at the end of Main Street. It took four years to complete the house on the steep 10-acre tract, but it was built so well, that the house is still Aurora's jewel.

The long rise of more than 40 limestone steps leading up to the circular front porch is flanked by an arcing driveway.

At the side of the mansion were a large carriage house and stables. Right beside the side porch was an unusual rock-lined melon cellar built into the hill. A path led to its top where there were rock seats. Above and behind were the gardens, a summer house, a lake. Thomas Gaff wanted everything just right and imported a gardener from Italy. He searched the world for unusual woods, including Circassian walnut for the floor of the large entrance hall, with a suspended staircase typical of the better steamboats of the period.

There is a two-story semi-circular front porch surmounted by a cupola resembling a riverboat pilot house. There are windows clear around this cupola with a large telescope inside to watch the boats. Gaff owned the Diana which was in a steamboat race with the Baltic, and Currier and Ives featured it in one of their pictures. In fact, the front of the house, without the wings, reminds people of the floating palace steamboats.

Above the front porch is a circular ladies' morning room which was a very fine view of the Ohio, and also looks down on a church with a slate roof with the date of 1864 in the slate.

The house is furnished with excellent pieces and carefully crafted carpets and curtains. Some are original Gaff possessions.

Thomas Gaff supported cholera research, gave generously to civic projects, organized a gas and coke company, in 1864 organized a bank. He was a member of the Indiana Senate, president of the county's agricultural society, and a member of Aurora's school board. The brothers supplied transports for the Union armies during the Civil War. Their ships, Diana and Forest Queen ran the Confederate batteries sensationally at Vicksburg.

Hillforest Historical Foundation a nonprofit trust has been organized to maintain and operate the mansion and its grounds.

A ferry still operates at Aurora and watching that plus watching the barges going up and down the Ohio River is very interesting.