Learn the history, see the art of Southern Indiana

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The Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site offers guided tours.

JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. — For years, the small communities on the north bank of the Ohio River across from Louisville, Ky., could have been compared to Brooklyn, seemingly forever in the shadow of its glamorous fellow borough Manhattan.

That is until Brooklyn — much like a rebellious stepchild — broke free and came into its own in spectacular fashion. Now, Jeffersonville and neighboring New Albany, Ind., are hoping to do the same.

Cross the Big Four Pedestrian and Cycling Bridge linking Louisville to Jeffersonville, and you might be in another time, miraculously transported to the type of small-town America chronicled by playwright Thornton Wilder and novelist Sherwood Anderson.

The Jeffersonville area’s main attraction, however, goes back even farther — about 390 million years. The Falls of the Ohio River are a series of rapids flowing over limestone ledges that make this stretch of the river impassable for boats — the only natural obstruction along its entire 981 miles.

In this area, once covered by a shallow tropical sea, is one of the largest exposed Devonian-era fossil beds in the world.

The Falls of the Ohio State Park was the nation’s first conservation area, and the best place to start a visit is at the award-winning Interpretive Center. Next, head down to the fossil beds where you can see the outlines of corals, mollusks, and sponges that once thrived here — still embedded in the shale.

In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (younger brother of Louisville founder George Rogers Clark) started out from the Falls of the Ohio on their journey to explore the lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.

After a couple of hours spent with fossils, you’ll be ready to commune with live folk. There’s no better place to start than Schimpff’s Confectionary, where husband-and-wife owners Warren and Jill Schimpff take visitors on a tour of the old-fashioned candy store, treating them to their famous cinnamon red-hot drops, and entertaining them with  repartee worthy of a vaudeville act.

After you’ve sampled the candy, take a short drive to Huber’s Orchard, Winery & Vineyard to enjoy some liquid sweetness. Among the distillations available in the state-of-the-art tasting room are Blueberry Port, Applejack and Peach Brandy, and Blackberry Whiskey. Indiana’s largest estate-bottled winery now also distills whiskey at its recently expanded Starlight Distillery.

More than a winery and distillery, Huber’s has a marketplace where visitors can shop for baked goods, fresh produce, and homemade ice cream, or they can have the pick-your-own experience  — everything from apples and peaches to pumpkins and Christmas trees.

Art, art, everywhere

Every town should have a Dawn Spyker. The effusive redhead, Jeffersonville’s public art administrator, is a passionate advocate of all things artistic and a powerhouse when it comes to getting projects underway.

Since the initiation of JAM (Jeffersonville Art Movement) seven years ago, Spyker and her team of volunteers have overseen the installation of about 70 public art pieces, from a ceramic representation of a water molecule to sculptural bike racks to a row of unusual lampposts designed to look like railroad spikes.

JAM undertakes community art projects four times a year, an enviable record not often matched in much larger cities. Though there is currently no organized walking tour of the art, it’s easy enough to see on your own.

If you’re looking for a good lunch spot, follow the large red footprints to the Red Yeti & Red Foot Brewing Co. You may not encounter Bigfoot (he is rather reclusive, you know), but you will get some good eats.

Try the black bean hummus with bourbon-barrel-smoked paprika and brisket sandwich with bacon/onion jam and sorghum barbecue sauce, washed down with a pint of Red Foot Abbey pale beer.

For dinner, you can do no better than the Portage House, where New American cuisine is served in a converted house overlooking the river. Try an appetizer of roasted cauliflower with lemon caper vinaigrette and chili flakes before choosing from a variety of mouthwatering entrées. Finish the evening with a bourbon cocktail on the expansive front porch.

New Albany

The town of New Albany is just a 15-minute drive from Jeffersonville, and though the two share some small-town characteristics, they also differ in several respects. If Jeffersonville is carving out an artistic niche for itself, New Albany proudly showcases its history.

A good place to start your historic tour is the Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site. In 1867, William Culbertson, at the time reputedly the wealthiest man in Indiana, started construction of the three-story, 25-room mansion.

He spared no expense, making his home the town showplace. A guided tour points out hand-painted ceilings, marble fireplaces, elaborate wood graining and plasterwork, a magnificent carved staircase, and trompe l’oeil techniques designed to give the appearance of textured surfaces.

Though New Albany may not equal Cincinnati for helping slaves to safety via the Underground Railroad, it did make one important contribution to the effort.

What is now the Second Baptist Church began as the Town Clock Church in 1852 (so named because its clock was the town’s official timepiece). Its original Presbyterian congregation was fervently antislavery and was composed of some of the area’s most prominent citizens.

Their prominence was instrumental in the church’s serving as a place of sanctuary for escaped slaves making their way across the river from Kentucky into Indiana — the assumption being that their very prominence placed them above suspicion of breaking the law and harboring slaves.

The church, which now has a small Baptist congregation, was this year designated a National Park Service Network to Freedom site. No formal tours are offered, but if you would like to see the church and the area used to hide slaves, you can go to the website TownClockChurch.org and request a tour.

You can also explore New Albany’s Underground Railroad connection at the Carnegie Center for Art and History, where a permanent exhibit, “Men and Women of the Underground Railroad,” is one of the best I’ve seen on the subject, and a companion exhibit tells the story of former slave Lucy Higgs Nichols, who went on to become a nurse during the Civil War.

Among other activities not to be missed in New Albany are a stroll along the Ohio River Greenway, a pedestrian and bicycling path linking New Albany to Jeffersonville, and an evening at the Mesa Collaborative Kitchen. The kitchen offers interactive demonstrations with local (including Louisville) chefs and food purveyors. In an intimate setting — there is room for 20 people seated at a horseshoe-shaped counter — it makes for a fun experience with a lot of give-and-take between chefs and audience.

On the evening I was there, representatives from Louisville’s Evan Williams Experience and Cellar Door Chocolates proved that bourbon and chocolate are a match made in heaven.

So, it’s not only Brooklyn that has taken a bit of the spotlight away from a more famous neighbor. In what has to be one of the cleverest tourism marketing campaigns around, visitors are encouraged to experience Southern Indiana because, as they say, we are SoIN.

If you go

Where to stay: Sheraton Louisville Riverside Hotel, 700 W. Riverside Dr.; 812-284-6711; sheratonlouisvilleriverside.com. Situated on the Indiana side of the river just across from Louisville, it is a convenient spot for touring  Jeffersonville and New Albany.
Where to eat: Brooklyn & the Butcher. The restaurant’s slogan is “Big Steaks and Small Plates,” and it is also known for specialty cocktails (brooklynandthebutcher.com). NABC Cafe & Brewhouse. Housed in a renovated Rainbo Bread Factory, the New Albanian Brewing Co.’s craft beers are paired with locally sourced dishes (newalbanian.com).
FYI: goSoIN.com.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington, Ky., travel and food writer. Reach her at pnickell13@hotmail.com.