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
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