Celebrating 200 Years In the City of Spires
Photo by Catie Viox
Think about the quintessential small town. What comes to mind? Charm? Genuine hospitality? A picturesque setting with unique shops, stunning architecture, and one-of-a-kind activities? Does this sound enticing? If you long to get away from the hustle and bustle of busy life, and you live in the Greater Cincinnati area, you needn’t look further than your own backyard.
Located 30 miles west of Cincinnati, Aurora, Indiana is a quaint river town that exudes an easy-going personality you may have thought only existed in Hollywood movies. Whether you’re shopping for a new outfit or touring a historic landmark, you’ll be welcomed with a warm smile and friendly hello.
Aurora was platted in 1819 by Jesse Holman, a statesman and local attorney. It was nicknamed the “City of Spires” because of the six church spires that rise above the skyline. An industrial town, Aurora constructed riverboats that traveled along the Ohio River. It was also well-known for its furniture-manufacturing and casket-manufacturing, as well as its breweries and distilleries – some of which still operate today.
Keeping Aurora Thriving
Adversity is natural for anything that’s been around 200 years, and Aurora has faced its share of obstacles. In 2018, the town’s 2nd Street, a hub for shops and restaurants, was inaccessible for months while new sidewalks and lights were installed. FEMA has also been a burden, demanding expensive flood insurance, then raising Aurora’s flood zone from one-third of the downtown area to two-thirds. A few businesses have watched their sales dwindle thanks to heavy competition from larger retailers. Aurora, however, is nothing if not resilient. In recent years, there has been a movement to revitalize the town. This mission is spearheaded by Marty Rahe, a self-proclaimed preservation nut. Born in Cincinnati and raised in Aurora, Rahe’s first job was working at Ohlmansiek’s Barbershop, earning a cool 15 cents shining shoes – and he saved every penny.
After graduating from college, Rahe served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Once his service was complete, he traveled the world as an international banker. His heart, however, always remained in Aurora.
“It all started following my father’s passing by making apartments for my mother and her friends,” Rahe recalls with a smile. “And that was enough to get me rehabbing historic properties in the town.”
Rahe is committed to keeping Aurora attractive, not only to visitors but to the community. After the town’s only doctor retired, Rahe built a brand-new clinic to ensure Aurora always had two doctors on staff.
Rahe also converted an old elementary school into a multi-faceted community center geared toward children. The center includes a 12,000-square-foot gymanarium, where 150 kids participate in gymnastics. Rahe is proud to note that two of the young gymnasts placed 1st and 6th in state-wide competitions. The center also has a dance studio with 250 students, a driving school, Special Olympics, and a daycare.
“It’s healthy for the kids. And it’s fun! This is not about making money,” Rahe states. “It’s about passion. I’m passionate about this town and I do what I can to keep it going.”
Rahe continues to renovate properties today, updating what he calls ‘fire traps’ with new plumbing and wiring, while maintaining the inherent beauty.
“Aurora is a great old town,” he notes. “And it’s great that I can save these old places and keep them sustainable.”
A Guided Tour Through the Town
Aurora has hidden gems around every corner. The following are just a few of the places you should check out while you’re in town.
The Livery of Aurora is a former livery that has been converted into an all-purpose events center. The facility offers a unique blend of modern-meets-historic. While the state-of-the-art sound system and dance floor are contemporary, the support beams were part of the original 1875 structure. Beautiful oil paintings and antiques from Argentina,
London and Chicago adorn the walls, and a piano dating back to 1885 is prominently displayed near the entrance.
If you’re in the mood for something sweet, you must visit Wellington’s Ice Cream Palace. Inside the bright and cheerful store, you’ll find a working jukebox, shelves lined with whimsical knickknacks and games, and a scrumptious vanilla ice cream that has been rated number one in the U.S. Don’t worry – Wellington’s serves all the other classic flavors as well. Outside is a beautiful garden area where you can enjoy your tasty treat while relaxing in a plush chair. It’s the perfect setting for a summer evening with the family. Or perhaps a date night with your sweetheart.
Other interesting places to visit include Geneva’s Quilts, where you can have a quilt restored, a new quilt created, or even learn quilting techniques by taking a class. The 1819 Boutique offers top-of-the-line women’s clothing, and you can find the perfect souvenir at Lucky Feather Soapery & Mercantile and Amy’s Inspiration Christian Gifts & Bookstore. If you’re looking for a new loveseat or mattress, stop by Gamble’s furniture store, dating back to 1908. It’s the oldest furniture store in Southeast, Indiana. You’ll be impressed by the fantastic selection of high-quality products. An added bonus is everything comes with a service guarantee.
If shopping isn’t your cup of tea, take a tour around town instead. Aurora has a rich history, and plenty of passionate folks eager to share its stories. Hillforest Victorian House Museum, a stately Italian Renaissance mansion, is a must-see. The bold, symmetrical house – designed in 1855 for industrialist and financier, Thomas Gaff – looks over the Ohio River from its hilltop location. Inside, you’ll find a flying staircase, ornate carpet, exquisite artwork, and a dining room that has all of its original decor – from the wood-carved chairs to the fine china. Once outside, be sure to visit Harris Cabin, one of Indiana’s oldest log cabins. Built in 1825, the cabin serves as both a relic and a specimen for how architecture evolved throughout the 1800s. Tours of Hillforest are offered Tuesday through Sunday, from April until December.
Your next stop: Veraestau. As you navigate a winding road with magnificent oak trees, you’ll pass an Indian mound and a small carriage house displaying two antique coaches. Moving further ahead, a sprawling farmhouse will come into view. Veraestau was built in 1810 by Jesse Holman and can be rented for special occasions. While some sections of the house are a bit more contemporary – like the 1950s-era baby blue kitchen – others are straight out of the 1800s. Many of the rooms have their original furniture (keep a sharp eye out for the crystal punch bowl in the dining room – you may learn a fun tidbit) and a few of the bedrooms have wood-burning stoves. One delightful feature is a closet filled with vintage clothing. Free with the price of admission is one of the most commanding views of the Ohio River you’re going to find. It’s absolutely breathtaking.
Other landmarks to note are the Aurora Public Library, the Local History Library @ The Depot, Steadman’s Foundry and Aurora Casket Company.
Celebrating 200 Years in Style
2019 marks Aurora’s bicentennial, and the town has been celebrating in style. The Belle of Cincinnati BB Riverboat offered afternoon sight-seeing and evening dinner cruises for one weekend in mid-September. That same weekend, Aurora hosted a Veterans ceremony where a B-25 bomber flew over the town, and a naval landing ship tank - 325 from World War II was proudly displayed on the riverfront.
Afraid you missed out? Don’t worry, there is still plenty of fun to be had. October 2-5 is the 111th Aurora Farmers Fair, the oldest continuously-run public festival in Indiana. The fair will include live music, an exhibit hall at the Lions Club Building, rides, food, and a King and Queen contest. The celebration will kick off with a two-hour street parade. Aurora sure knows how to party!
So, is Aurora what you imagine when you think about the perfect small town? Let’s see. Charm? Check. Genuine hospitality? Check. A one-of-a-kind experience? Double check. Aurora has something for everybody – from shopping, to history, to beautiful architecture, to scenic views of the Ohio River. Do yourself a favor and plan a trip. You’ll leave with memories that can’t be replaced. And seriously, try the vanilla ice cream at Wellington’s.
For more information about Aurora, IN, visit their website at www.aurora.in.us.