A Southern Indiana road trip surprises with a museum, monastery, mill, movie location, and much, much more.
I was a guest of Visit Dubois County, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.
A Southern Indiana Road Trip
The drive south from Bloomington was pretty much what I expected. Highways and backroads winding their way through iconic Midwestern cornfields, interrupted sporadically by the occasional small town or municipality. The only unexpected event was the cold front that had invaded August, leaving low humidity and mild temperatures in its wake. As we passed through the town of Alfordsville at 9:51 AM, the weather app on my iPhone registered a perfect 67°. Not a bad way to start the day . . . .
We continued southbound on US 231, over rises and around curves, cruising through miles of unchanging landscape. Within the hour, however, our Southern Indiana road trip would begin to reveal a regional history with locales even more unexpected than unseasonal air.
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The Dubois County Museum
Arriving in Jasper, our first stop was the Dubois County Museum, the perfect authentic introduction to the region and its German Catholic heritage. This museum houses an impressive collection of regional memorabilia that fills the 47,000 square foot structure. Though not Smithsonian in presentation, it was readily apparent that a host of local volunteers and donors, some of whom were our guides, had lovingly donated countless hours and dollars to preserve their local history.
The upper level of the museum features sizable exhibits of local sports, economic, and military history. While viewing the World War II collection, I could only imagine the irony and internal conflict of these German-Americans engaged in battle with their Fatherland.
I especially enjoyed touring the lower level of the museum with its collection of farm implements, sawmill machinery, vintage vehicles, and a genuine log cabin. With a wealth of artifacts at their disposal, volunteers designed Main Street Dubois County, to make the museum more accessible for children. This quadrant of city blocks in miniature, featuring assorted facades of 1890s-era storefronts and other small town establishments, was a clever way to group and display donations within thematic context. Even though this section of the museum is geared for children, adults will find it engaging and educational as well.
The Trail of Faith
Our next stop in town was the St. Joseph Catholic Church. Built between 1867 and 1880, this Neo-Romanesque structure features imported Austrian mosaics, Italian marble, and German stained glass. St. Joseph’s is a key site on Dubois County’s Trail of Faith, an 85-mile road trip route featuring 19 Catholic and Protestant churches, each over 100 years old. Our schedule prevented us from driving the entire route, but the following morning we visited another site on the Trail.
Dubbed the “Castle on the Hill,” the Monastery of Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand is home to one of the nation’s largest communities of Benedictine women. In 1867, four Sisters of St. Benedict, a 6th century order, arrived from Germany to teach the children of Southern Indiana. The monastery grew from these humble beginnings, and from 1870-2000 the Sisters ran a boarding school on the monastery property.
For me, the highlight of our visit was the tourism director herself, Sister Christine Kempf, who came to the monastery in 1955. Sister Christine gave us the grand tour from her motorized chair, alternately sharing the history of the monastery, pointing out architectural details from the 2005 restoration of the church, and engaging us with anecdotes both humorous and moving. One account told how a group of younger Sisters had ventured through narrow passageways to reach the high dome of the church. Although it was not expressly forbidden to scale the heights, it had been discouraged, and the naughty nuns were mortified when someone overheard them talking and discovered their transgression.
During our tour of the church, nuns entered at various times to pray, faithful to their first ministry as Benedictine Sisters. Most of the Sisters were dressed in modern street clothes, but we did see the occasional traditional black veil. Sister Christine made it clear that the church was not for the sole use of the Sisters. “Anyone can come spend quiet time with Jesus,” she said.
The newest addition to the community is a microbrewery called St. Benedict’s Brew Works, set to open later this month on the monastery campus.
Other Religious Roadside Attractions
Although not part of the Trail of Faith, we visited two additional religious sites while in Jasper. Completed in 1979, the Holy Family Parish Church holds two architectural records, one being the world’s longest unsupported roof beam (130. 5 feet) at the time of the church’s construction. This modern cathedral also features two large faceted windows. The smaller window illustrates the history of Jasper while the larger tells the story of the Holy Family. Covering 3,015 square feet, it is the second largest faceted window in America.
I love discovering bizarre and offbeat destinations, and I found one in Jasper. Situated within city limits on the property of The Providence Home is a grotto built entirely of geodes collected from the area. Simply put, geodes are rocks with crystal-filled centers that some say symbolize the inner beauty found in everyone. Constructed between 1960 and 1970, the grotto and surrounding rock garden was a labor of love for Father Philip Ottavi, who directed the construction without blueprints.
What better to complement the heritage of Dubois County than authentic German cuisine at one of the Top 10 independent restaurants in Indiana? That is why we stopped for a bite at The Schnitzelbank. With a menu chock full of German specialities such as wiener schnitzel, sauerbraten, knackwurst, bratwurst, and bockwurst, how could you go wrong? Since it was lunchtime, I opted for a reuben sandwich paired with a side order of gruner spinat (a savory casserole of spinach, eggs, mushrooms, onions, and cheese). Oh, and I did sample the soup and salad bar, as well. It was safe to say that I did not leave hungry.
To enhance the ambience of our dining experience, Sandra Chastain played her accordion and serenaded us with German folk songs. Later, she distributed lyric sheets and invited us to all join in singing various tunes, including the Schnitzelbank song. I like to sing, but my German needs major work . . . .
Jasper, Indiana, was recently ranked #3 in Midwest Living Magazine’s Top Ten Best New Places to Eat, Play & Stay. I believe this honor was due in part to some impressive urban development including the Jasper City Mill, the Spirit of Jasper train and depot, and the connecting Riverwalk.
With full bellies, we headed first to the Jasper City Mill to see the workings of the waterwheel and millstones. One of the newest additions in town, the gristmill was built to look like it was straight out of the 1800s. In fact, it was built on the site of the Enlow Mill where Thomas Lincoln and his son Abraham bartered for corn meal in 1828.
There were so many things to see and do in Jasper, but I was especially drawn to the City Mill with the rustic lines and angles of its timber frame construction and the authenticity of its working mill.
From time to time throughout my life while visiting the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina and North Georgia, I have seen millstones displayed at museums and farms, but I never completely understood how they ground corn until I saw the demonstration at Jasper City Mill.
The exterior of the Jasper City Mill was equally as intriguing as the interior. We got a better view of the waterwheel as we joined the Riverwalk and crossed the bridge over the Patoka River.
We did not have time to walk the 2.5 mile shaded trail along the river, but I imagine it is especially beautiful in the fall.
Across the river we rounded the bend to discover the Jasper Train Depot, home to the Spirit of Jasper luxury passenger train.
The Spirit of Jasper runs a variety of dining and scenic excursions on weekends during the summer and fall months.
Three alternating locomotives pull the Spirit of Jasper’s Club, Lounge, Parlor, and Monon cars on various themed excursions, as well as the express train to French Lick, Indiana.
Dinner led us to Snaps bar & grill, a watering hole where locals have been gathering since 1872. In fact, Snaps holds the oldest liquor license in Dubois County, as the first establishment to receive one at the end of Prohibition. Specializing in Cajun & Creole dishes, they served up an appetizer of fried Gator Snaps. I have to say fried gator bites were the last thing this Florida boy expected to eat in Indiana. My excellent entree was a ribeye smothered with onions, peppers, and pepper jack cheese, and it filled me to the point I could barely sample the desserts passed around the table at the end of the meal.
About seven miles south of Jasper lies the city of Huntingburg, whose claim to fame is the historic League Stadium featured in the motion picture A League of Their Own starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donnell. This fictionalized account is based on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, active from 1943-1954.
Park Director Jim Rueger, who played the role of a groundskeeper in the movie, met us to give us a bit of stadium history and tell us about the on location shooting of the movie.
League Stadium, originally built in 1894, served as the home field setting for the Rockford Peaches, the featured team in the motion picture.
Beginning construction on June 4, 1991, set designers added wings on both sides of the spectator stands. Shooting started on August 19, and continued on location for about two weeks.
Budweiser and Coca-Cola paid Columbia Pictures one million dollars apiece for the billboards flanking the scoreboard.
A League of Their Own was released in the summer of 1992, and was considered a box office success. League Stadium also served as a film location for other motion pictures, including HBO’s Soul of the Game and Hard Rain starring Morgan Freeman and Christian Slater.
Note: League Stadium is a stop on the Heartland Historic Baseball Trail, a road trip route through Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky that may interest baseball fans.
Harvest Moon Bed & Breakfast
We enjoyed our final meal in Dubois County at the Harvest Moon B & B in Ferdinand. Innkeeper Ruthie Mattingly prepared us a delicious lunch including cream of broccoli soup, a chicken BLT on homemade bread, banana cream pie and red velvet cake for dessert, and pitchers of lemonade.
Two days in Dubois County was not enough to fully enjoy all that it has to offer, but it was time for us to move on to Spencer County to visit St. Meinrad’s Archabbey, the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, and Santa Claus, Indiana.
You know I love riding the backroads through the cornfields of a Southern Indiana road trip!
Josh, Erin, Mia, and Caius from Explore with Erin, Patti Morrow from Luggage and Lipstick, David Hoekman from Group Tour Media, Patricia Hall from Fairfax Family Fun, and I were guests of Kevin, Jessica, and Whitney from Visit Dubois County, but the overwhelming pleasure of a Southern Indiana road trip was all ours.