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Willkie Home, Covered Bridges, Historic Mansions and More
Tuesday, May 22, 2018

By Nelson Price | Photographs by Tom Weakley and Julie Newhouse

A visit to a Civil War-era home in Rushville where Wendell Willkie lived during his 1940 presidential campaign – with his grandson David Willkie as the host – was among the highlights of the Spring Pilgrimage. A day of glorious weather – May 22 was a sunny Tuesday –began with a walking tour in the picturesque town of Aurora on the Ohio River and a “progressive luncheon” at historic mansions there. Between the visit to Aurora and the stop at the Willkie home, the Pioneers enjoyed a multi-sensory visit to a 19th-century covered bridge that had made headlines thanks to a community rebuilding (or “resurrection from a tornado”) project.

With a maximum capacity of 51 Pioneers participating, the group traveled on a motor coach from Indianapolis to southeastern Indiana. The first destination was Aurora (population 3,800) where the Pioneers were greeted by Dearborn County and town officials as well as by a Civil War re-enactor who portrayed a local physician involved with the 19th Indiana Regiment (part of the legendary “Iron Brigade”). In the meeting room of the Aurora Town Council, they described the history of the town, which was founded in 1819, and the personal story of the physician who joined the Union Army.

That was followed by a “Windows of Aurora” walking tour led by one of the local artists who participated in a distinctive, community-wide project to create paintings and murals in the windows of historic and contemporary buildings. The artwork depicts scenes of daily life in the river town during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Pioneers were captivated by paintings or murals of a coffin-maker, a milliner, a blacksmith, a horse-drawn ambulance, and a livery, among many other creative scenes in the ongoing window project, which was begun in 2007.

After the walking tour, the Pioneers visited two historic mansions perched on bluffs overlooking the Ohio River. Hillforest, a National Historic Landmark, was built in the 1850s by Thomas Gaff, a Scottish immigrant who became a wealthy industrialist. The stunning, yellow mansion – which has arched windows, elegant balconies, and spacious porches – was the home of generations of the Gaff family for more than 70 years. The Pioneers toured the entire mansion, from a subterranean pantry to a belvedere at the top.


Luncheon entrees were served to the Pioneers on the first floor of Hillforest. For dessert, the group traveled to Veraestau, a Greek Revival-style, five-bedroom mansion owned by Indiana Landmarks. Built in phases over an extended period that began in 1810, Veraestau is best known for its spectacular views of the Ohio River from its grounds.

Pioneers travelers on the front lawn of Veraestau, overlooking the Ohio River.

The Pioneers traveled from Dearborn County to Rush County, disembarking from the motor coach at the Moscow Covered Bridge, where lively musicians and historic re-enactors greeted the group. So did Rush County native Larry Stout, former president of the Covered Bridge Society of Indiana. He described the techniques of the Kennedys, a bridge-building family based in Rush County. They built white covered bridges (unlike those in Parke County, which tend to be red) adorned with decorative script. That description fits the Moscow Covered Bridge, originally built in the 1880s over the Big Flatrock River. In 2008, a tornado destroyed the historic bridge. Thanks to a county-wide effort – which involved salvaging some of the wood from the river, where it had been flung by the tornado – the Moscow Covered Bridge was rebuilt amid much fanfare, with a rededication ceremony in 2010 overseen by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Moscow Covered Bridge in Rush County

The next destination was historic East Hill Cemetery and the burial site of Wendell Willkie (1892-1944), the Elwood native and maverick businessman who, in 1940, became the unexpected Republican challenger of Franklin D. Roosevelt. David Willkie met the Pioneers at the gravesite of his grandparents and shared insights about them. His grandmother, Edith Wilk Willkie, was a native of Rushville; her husband based his presidential campaign there and bought hundreds of acres of Rush County farmland.

The Willkie Home in Rushville

After traveling into Rushville (population 6,000), the Pioneers stopped at the Rush County Courthouse, built in 1896. In a courtroom on the third floor, Rush Superior Court Judge Brian Hill spoke to the group about the history of the building and its features, which include stained glass panels. Judge Hill answered a range of questions from the Pioneers, who departed to enjoy a catered dinner reception.

The reception was at the ancestral home (built in the 1870s) of David Willkie’s family. Political history unfolded at the house where Wendell Willkie lived while campaigning for U.S. president. David Willkie displayed memorabilia from the campaign and books about his grandfather. After dinner, he chatted with the Pioneers on the front porch and participated in a Champagne toast to mark the end of a delightful Spring Pilgrimage.