Vincennes and surrounding county offer experiences in past and present
By Glenda Winders
With a population of just over 17,000 people, Vincennes isn’t one of Indiana’s largest cities, but its rich history and the enthusiastic residents who treasure the town’s legacy more than make up for its size. Today, 21 of its locations are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is the repository of one national landmark. And while history is its long suit, modern-day attractions also add to the mix.
“Vincennes is Indiana’s first city, making it an ideal getaway for history enthusiasts to appreciate with our considerable number of notable museums and attractions,” says Shyla Beam, executive director, Vincennes/Knox County Visitors and Tourism Bureau. “Historic Main Street offers shopping, dining and art galleries, many of which are in storefronts of splendid architectural styles.”
The home of Native Americans for thousands of years, Vincennes was founded on the Wabash River between Evansville and Terre Haute in 1732. A French officer, Francois-Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes, was sent here to establish a trading post that would discourage the local natives from trading with the British. When the French lost the French and Indian War, however, those very British took control. Later, it became the first capital of the Indiana Territory from 1800 to 1813 and the first city established in the state.
All of that being the case, the city’s national landmark might be the best place to start exploring. The George Rogers Clark National Historical Park is home to the largest national monument west of Washington, D.C. Situated on the banks of the Wabash, it commemorates Clark, organizer of the group of frontiersmen who retook Fort Sackville (located roughly where the memorial is now) when it was held by the British during the Revolutionary War. (He was also the brother of William, who explored the wilderness with Meriwether Lewis.)
Inside the massive granite structure, you can watch a film about Clark, then see exhibits that include his 7.5-foot-tall bronze sculpture and 28-foot-tall murals by Ezra Winter that depict his famous battle. Save time for a riverside stroll while you’re there and watch for the statue of Bissot. At the foot of the Lincoln Memorial Bridge that leads to Illinois you’ll find a memorial to the USS Vincennes, which was the flagship of an expedition to the South Seas in 1846.
Also from Vincennes’ early days and worth a tour is the ornate Old Cathedral Complex and Library/Museum. Currently the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, its records date to 1732, when the first parish in Indiana was formed, making it the oldest church in the state. Its library houses Indiana’s oldest museum, whose oldest document is a papal bull issued in 1319.
At the Vincennes State Historic Sites walk through the original Indiana Territorial Capitol, where Gov. William Henry Harrison served from 1801 to 1812. Nearby is the state’s first college, the Jefferson Academy, which today is Vincennes University, and Elihu Stout’s Print Shop, where the state’s first newspaper was published. Not far away is Grouseland, the governor’s mansion during Harrison’s term. He later became the country’s ninth president, and the residence has been designated as his presidential home. Visit in the daytime or arrange a candlelit evening event.
Visitors who come in the spring can take part in the annual “Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous,” when reenactors stage battles from the Revolutionary War. The food, activities, games and demonstrations all bring the 18th century to life.
Military buffs will be further delighted by the Indiana Military Museum and Annex, one of the best collections of military artifacts in the Midwest with pieces from the time of the Civil War to the present. Outside are aircraft, tanks and a submarine reproduction; inside are displays of uniforms and equipment. The annex houses representations of wartime settings.
… And a few laughs
A more lighthearted museum you won’t want to miss is the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy. Located on the Vincennes University campus, here you can learn about the comedian and actor who remains Vincennes’ favorite son. Watch films about him and other comedians, learn about the art of comedy and paint your face electronically to see how you’d look as a clown. Skelton was also an artist, and some of his clown paintings are also on display.
“The Red Skelton Museum’s mission is to continue Red’s legacy of laughter to all generations,” says Anne Pratt, museum director and president of the foundation that oversees it, “and the great thing about the museum is that it is truly multigenerational. We see so many families who visit the museum with grandparents, parents and kids all together laughing and enjoying the day. Even the kids who may have no idea who Red Skelton was love his humor, and the interactive exhibits are great for them.”
While you’re here, catch a show at the adjoining state-of-the-art performance theater.
Art-lovers won’t want to miss the galleries downtown. Located in a historic 200-year-old home, ArtSpace is owned by artists Amy DeLap and Andrew Jendrzejewski, who offer representative and abstract art as well as sculpture and studio space for other artists. Open Gallery contains a variety of types of artwork and demonstrations by the artists who create them.
At the Northwest Territory Art Guild Gallery you can purchase outstanding work from local artists that range from pottery and quilts to paintings and three-dimensional pieces. And as Beam mentioned, Main Street also has a variety of small, locally owned shops. Stop at Charlie’s Caramel Corn and Candy Shop for chocolates and pick up a bouquet at Pretty Posies by Jan or learn to make your own floral arrangements.
It’s only natural
Ready to get outside for a while? The Fox Ridge Nature Park gives you the opportunity to explore prairie, woodland and wetland ecosystems and possibly meet with the insects and animals that live there. Or check out the Sugarloaf Indian Mound, which was used by Woodland-era Native Americans as a burial spot.
Between July and November head for Apple Hill Orchard, where you can pick your own peaches and sample the farm’s 40 varieties of apples, purchase home-grown produce or enjoy a glass of cider and a piece of pie from the bakery. The 1,000-acre Melon Acres offers a similar experience. Come and meet the Horrall family, whose passion for using innovative methods to grow quality produce has enabled them to harvest cantaloupes and watermelon along with cucumbers, asparagus and sweet corn for three generations.
Wrap up your day at Windy Knoll Winery, where high-quality wines are made from 14 acres of vines. The owners invite you to do a tasting or browse in their shop as you sip a wine slushy. Vincennes Brewing Co. offers locally made craft beer and sharable plates of panini and flat breads to go with it.
Repast and rest
If you’re here for breakfast or lunch, locals say Graze 1885 is the place to go. The name is a combination of the owner’s belief that the best way to eat is to sample lots of different foods and the year the building where the restaurant is located is believed to have been built. The bakery and café top their breakfast menu with bagels, eggs and parfaits. Lunch might be unusual salads, wraps and bowls, perhaps paired with a glass of wine. The best place to sit is on the second floor, where you’ll enjoy a view of the George Rogers Clark Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial Bridge and the Wabash River. Another good lunch spot downtown is Pea-Fections, which offers, among other menu items, a memorable signature chicken salad.
Several locally owned restaurants will be happy to serve your meal at dinnertime. La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant offers an extensive menu of traditional favorites as well as creations such as Burrito de Popeye and Pollo Azteca. A wide variety of healthy and vegetarian options is also on offer and be sure to save room for flan or a sopapilla with ice cream for dessert.
Family-owned Bill Bobe’s Pizzeria has been providing Vincennes residents and visitors with pizza since 1954. Lunch specials include stromboli, and they’ll provide a gluten-free crust if you ask. Dogwood Barbecue serves tasty Amish-made treats such as cinnamon apples alongside its beef, chicken and pork. You’ll find something for everyone in your group at Café Moonlight, from bacon-wrapped filet mignon to chicken piccata and several types of seafood.
When it’s time to bed down, you have a wide range of choices, too. If you enjoy camping, check out Oubache (pronounced Wabash) Trails Campground. In this heavily wooded area you can picnic, fish, study wildlife and play basketball or volleyball. Both tents and RVs are welcome, and amenities include showers and laundry facilities. Vincennes RV Park is another option, and several other camping grounds are located outside of town or across the river in Illinois.
Popular chain hotels here include Comfort Suites, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express and the like, but if you want to be a little more adventuresome Vincennes Bed and Breakfast, located in the historic Reily Home, might be the place for you to spend the night. The home was built by George Reily, a Vincennes attorney who commissioned it around 1885, when an architect from Indianapolis came to design Vincennes University.
Along with its bedrooms, original never-painted woodwork and dramatic staircase, the house offers three porches where you’ll be welcome to relax with a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine in the evening. After that owners Saundra and Mark Lange will tuck you into rooms whose furnishings maintain the sense of the home’s vintage and have names such as the Captain Reily Room, the Garden Room and the Railroad Room.
“In the mornings we set out a continental breakfast so that guests can help themselves at their leisure. One of our guests commented that our food isn’t gourmet, it’s comfort food,” Saundra Lange says. “It is a comfortable, easygoing, yet elegant house that is alive with guests from every corner of the earth: Australia, Israel, China and many of the United States.”