It Was a Dark and Stormy Night….at Whispers Estate

It may be a cliché to say it was a dark and stormy night, but as we pulled into the eerily empty downtown of Mitchell, Indiana on our way to tour Whispers Estate, it literally WAS a dark and stormy night. In fact, it rained for the better part of two and a half hours as my 19-year-old daughter and I made the drive south of Bedford but, as we were headed to an actual purported haunted house, we didn’t really mind. It only added to the experience.

Whisper Estate in Mitchell, Indiana

Whispers Estate in Mitchell, Indiana

Frankly, as we crawled to a halt on Warren Street, we both realized this place didn’t need any help from Mother Nature. If spooky has a poster child, it’s Whispers Estates.

Pulling up in the dark, it wasn’t difficult finding the place. Just picture a typical block near the downtown of any small Indiana burg with its large older homes in various shapes and sizes and you’re half way there. Now picture one of those large houses standing silent, dark and foreboding with only creepy purple light streaming from its street lamps and you’ve crossed over to the other side. Whispers Estate announces its presence in silence and – lucky you – you get to pray that silence is the only thing you hear. Given its past history of growls, knocks, self-closing doors, childish singing, falling objects, mysterious footsteps and vague whispers – hence the name, Whispers Estate – before the night is over, you may be begging for a little silence from beyond the grave yourself.

And did I mention the earthquake shaking toilets? Which, in this instance, have nothing to do with either my husband or too many refried beans? More on that in a moment.

We parked on the street, somewhat unsure of what to do as I had forgotten when I registered for our hour-long flashlight tour that we were to meet in the garage in the backyard. I did, however, remember that we were to wear athletic shoes. No hard sole shoes are allowed on any flashlight tours or mini investigations to reduce background noise. This became a reoccurring and somewhat unsettling theme during our visit to Whispers Estate. The home’s owner, Van Renier, and his tour guides are very serious about the goings on at Whispers Estate and, collectively, they take great pains to explain away and debunk ANY unusual occurrences. Their attitude was so upfront about what wasn’t paranormal that, I’ll admit, I was impressed. And then, I’ll admit too, I was nervous.

If they voluntarily explain every odd noise, just what, pray tell, can we attribute to the UNexplained ones? That had me pondering.

My daughter, Jackie – a lover of all things ghostly – stood back on the sidewalk as I climbed the steps to the front porch where a solitary rocker sat. At any moment I expected it to start rocking on its own, but fortunately, it cooperated which was good since I forgotten to put on a pair of Depends. Naturally, a funeral home stands cattycorner to the house and, in this dark little town which seems to have forgotten to pay the light bill, it was the only building well lit. Turning back toward the house, I tried peering through the windows, but could see nothing as they were blacked out. Terrific, I thought. Bring on the dark.

Jackie in her element at Whisper Estate

Jackie in her element at Whispers Estate

Back on the sidewalk, we were joined by three middle-aged couples who didn’t know each other, but who all happened to live in Avon. Since there is safety in numbers, we proceeded as a group through the rain to the backyard and entered the garage which serves as a makeshift launching pad to the supernatural world beyond.

There we signed in, handed over our liability release waivers – which declared us to be healthy and which gave the folks at Whispers Estates permission to seek emergency medical treatment if we needed it – we selected our flashlights from a basket on the table, and sat down to await our tour. As we sat, we chatted with the guides while also looking at posters displaying pictures of past visitors who apparently got more their money’s worth. From a police officer with a large bite mark on his arm to a teenager with three strange, red scratches on the back of his neck, evidence mounted that this wasn’t your standard, run-of-the-mill, high-school-fundraiser, pop-up-only-at-Halloween type of experience.

And naturally it was after I read the description of some earthquake-like experiences on the toilet that I heard my daughter ask innocently enough, “Is there a bathroom I can use?”

Great. No more soda for you, grasshopper.

Like most old garages, the one at Whispers Estate is potty free, so one of the tour guides led us through the back door of the house to the small bathroom just off the kitchen. Fortunately, there was a light, but bright as it was, we still looked around nervously while awaiting a good shaking as we took turns doing our business. Had something happened, at least we would have been in the right place.

Returning to the garage, we joined the other six for a lesson on the house’s less than pleasant history. Note – I stuck around and was able to hear this same introduction to the 10 p.m. tour group which was comprised of young girls (who I would guess to be about 10-years-old) and their parents. As I sat in the background listening to this same introduction, I realized that the guide was downplaying certain aspects of the goings on in the house – and rightly so. Once more I was impressed with the staff at Whispers Estate. Apparently, when you give tours at a house that is really haunted, the goal is to not work at scaring the guests. After all, why make the effort when you can let the house do it for you?

Young Rachel Gibbons died in the house and may have never left.

Young Rachel Gibbons died in the house and may have never left.

Flashlights in hand, the eight of us finally proceeded through the backdoor. One poor man had made the unfortunate mistake of expressing a lack of enthusiasm for all things paranormal so our first tour guide nominated him to open the doors of each room as we entered. Another victim – I mean, visitor – was nominated to shut the doors of each room behind us. Quickly, we proceeded through the main hallway to the parlor where we sat down and the real tour began.

For the record, I’m not going to give away any of the tour highlights. Each room is unique and comes with its own story. For example, in the parlor we were first introduced to Rachel, the young adopted daughter of Dr. John Gibbons and his wife Jessie. One Christmas eve, Rachel snuck downstairs to peek at the presents, but her nightgown caught fire in the parlor and she died a few days later as the result of her injuries. Mother Jessie died in the master bedroom of tuberculosis. Four other people are also known to have died in the house, not counting any patients of Dr. Gibbons, who apparently couldn’t keep his hands to himself.

The flashlight tour covers the house from attic to basement including a red-painted room that had each of us muttering, “redrum” from Stephen King’s “The Shining.” The good doctor’s exam room did give me a frightful start when I noticed the scale on the floor, which reminded me of the horribly hateful one in my own bathroom back home. My daughter nearly fainted when she spied an actual rotary phone and may still need counseling.

As we toured the house, the three women from Avon openly called out to Rachel throughout the house, but heard nothing in reply. The house’s owner, Van Renier, joined us at the end of the tour and asked that none of the child spirits be provoked. Van is protective of his young spirits, though not so with the one referred to as “Big Black” who may be responsible for the scar over his right eye – tangible evidence from his own encounter when he was shoved down the stairs of the attic.

Our tour was the first of the night at 8 p.m. and, for the most part, we survived it unscathed. The 9 p.m. tour apparently was not so lucky, given that a large shadow followed them up those same attic stairs responsible for Renier’s scar and, while the group stood in the “redrum” red room, they could hear soft knocking on the door. The guides told us that, as the night progresses, activity picks up so if you’re dead set – excuse my pun – on having an experience, the later the better.

Of course there had to be creepy clown dolls in Rachel's bedroom.

Of course there had to be creepy clown dolls in Rachel’s bedroom.

As for me, I will admit, I’ve never had an encounter with anything paranormal. But I’m not saying I don’t believe. Two people whom I have known all of my life and who will remain anonymous have had experiences and they are two of the most honest and least imaginative people I know. As for me, nothing.

I shared my lack of paranormal experiences with Van who did give me the greatest chill of the night. As we discussed his own experiences in the house which have led him to believe and my own lack of paranormal experience, he warmed, “You can’t un-ring the bell. Do you really want to fall down the rabbit hole? Because once it happens, you can’t go back and pretend it didn’t.”

Now that’s a scary thought.

For me, it has yet to happen. At least, I think it hasn’t happened. In Jessie’s bedroom I experienced a feeling – I won’t give it away so as to not prejudice you should you go – just as our guide began to describe this very same feeling. Was it paranormal? I don’t know. I also don’t know if I really want to thoroughly un-ring that bell. But curiosity is a wicked mistress so I’m sure at some point, I will go back.

I left with a t-shirt stating I had been examined by Dr. John.

I left with a t-shirt stating I had been examined by Dr. John.

If you would like to un-ring that bell for yourself, Whispers Estate offers flashlight tours hourly from 8 p.m. to midnight and mini-investigations starting at midnight through either 3 or 4 a.m. (the times change from month to month) beginning at the end of August and running every weekend through October. Halloween is primetime so make your reservations early as tours and investigations fill up fast and the number of participants is limited. While regular tour hours end after Halloween, Whispers Estate is happy to schedule visitations for groups of 10 or more at other times throughout the year. My suggestion? Even if there are only seven or eight of you, given them a call and ask. They may just accommodate you.

Flashlight tours run $10 per person and, in my opinion, are well worth it even if you don’t end up wetting yourself in the process. Mini investigations run $10 per hour per person, thus an investigation from midnight to 3 a.m. will cost you $30 per person, and until 4 a.m. will cost you $40 per person. I haven’t participated in a mini investigation yet so I can’t tell you what goes on, but it is definitely on the bucket list and you can get a sense for these investigations on YouTube.

For more information on Whispers Estate and to schedule a tour or mini investigation, check out the website at: http://whispersestate.com/

To follow the mansion’s haunted happenings like the Whispers Estate’s Facebook page at:

https://www.facebook.com/#!/whispersestate?fref=ts

Follow my newspaper column blog at: http://outaroundwithrobin.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobinFritz or email at outaroundwithrobin@gmail.com

481266_10203777348727600_1608806686782902373_nBy Robin Winzenread Fritz

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Down Under in Downtown Indy

I’m standing on Whistler Plaza just west of the City Market in downtown Indianapolis on a gray, dripping wet Saturday afternoon waiting for my friend, Libby, who is joining me for a tour of the market’s underground “catacombs” provided by the Indiana Landmarks organization. But today the tour is starting five minutes early and she’s running about five minutes late which is ironic since she’s a downtown lawyer who bills her clients in six minute intervals.

Time to take a tour

Time to take a tour

Fortunately, the tour starts with a very interesting lesson on the history of the market, so as we stand on the plaza listening to volunteer tour guide, Craig Barker, talk about the large brick arch anchoring the southeast corner, Libby is able to check in, sign the waiver and catch up in time for me to tease her about lawyers having no real sense of time. Armed with a dry wit herself, she’s just in time to hear Barker say the large brick arch beside us actually remained hidden away for years, prompting Libby to ask as dryly as possible, “Wait, hidden? How? It’s seems a pretty big thing to hide.”

Big and hidden indeed. But, unbeknownst to many who frequent downtown, it’s not the only sizeable architectural gem that has spent some serious time out of sight and out of mind. For beneath our feet lie even more large brick arches, in addition to tunnels, and it’s these hidden gems which comprise the subject of the catacomb tour we are about to undertake.

As I stand there listening to Barker tell how the arch was hidden between two buildings no longer standing on the site and wasn’t rediscovered until the early 1970s, I can’t help but wonder how many times I passed through this plaza while working downtown, and never really contemplated what the arch was or why it was there. Now, thanks to Mr. Barker and Indiana Landmarks, I know.

This arch and the series of arches beneath our feet are the last standing remnants of Tomlinson Hall, an imposing auditorium that once dwarfed City Market in size and played host to political rallies, speeches, conventions, musicals and dances, including Count Basie and his world famous orchestra which performed at a Valentine’s dance in 1953. The hall was built in 1886 to compliment

An advertisement for a dance at Tomlinson Hall

An advertisement for a dance at Tomlinson Hall

City Market and the former Marion County Courthouse across the way on Market Street, and the “catacombs” beneath Tomlinson served as underground storage for the hall and the market next door.

During its heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, City Market was the one-stop shop of its time, a forerunner to today’s supermarkets, while Tomlinson Hall was an entertainment destination with a main hall that seated up to 3,500 people. Unfortunately, Tomlinson Hall suffered a serious fire in January of 1958, leading to its demolition with the arch from the southeastern tower being the only above-ground feature still intact. Fortunately, nearby City Market and the underground storage area also survived the fire.

After the history lesson, which included several pictures of Tomlinson Hall and City Market from their horse-and-buggy days, Barker led us into the market’s modern-day west wing and down a flight of stairs to a rather industrial looking hallway beside a rather nondescript gray metal door. For a moment, it made me think of Willy Wonka right before he opened the tiny door into his chocolate factory, but rather than finding Ompaloompas, I wondered if there were be some rather healthy rodents waiting on the other side instead. Sadly, no on both accounts.

The last standing remnant of Tomlinson Hall

The last standing remnant of Tomlinson Hall

Leading the way, Barker took us through the door, flashlight in hand, past some modern utility pipes to the right at which point we turned left and, low and behold, there they stood, the brick arches of the catacombs, calling out to be explored.

Technically, the area in question isn’t a real catacomb as nary a grave, skull or body can be found – which may or may not be a disappointment, depending upon your personal tastes – and, which in reality was once just a fancy basement to a large building at one time, but what basement it was. Built of a series of brick arches that angle off in every direction, it IS an imposing sight to see and is just well lit enough to be somewhat spooky. Call me crazy, but when I explore something underground called catacombs, I love a little ambiance and, in this case, the combination of low light and ample darkness delivers.

I won’t give away the particular secrets of the tour as it really needs to be taken to be appreciated. Needless to say, Barker led us throughout the space and regaled us with various tales of happenings down below which make you want to explore Indianapolis’ history even more. Walking through this space, touching the worn bricks and getting a “catacomb kiss” – a drip of water from the rain falling overhead – has you wondering what else is hiding away in downtown Indianapolis that has a history and stories to share and which deserve to be told.

Fortunately someone with Indiana Landmarks felt that way about the catacombs, though no one can recall who first came up with the idea for the tours. According to Kelly Gascoine, Program Coordinator for Indiana Landmarks, the organization began offering the tours to guests in town for the Super Bowl in 2011. The tours proved to be so popular, the organization decided to continue offering them on a more regular basis and they’ve been popular ever since.

Tours are offered in 30 minute increments from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of May through October, but groups of 10 or more can schedule tours at other times throughout the year too. In short, Indiana Landmarks is willing to work with you as it is proud of Indiana’s heritage and it never hurts to ask.

Tomlinson Hall back in the day

Tomlinson Hall back in the day

The tours have proven to be so popular, that Indiana Landmarks recommends making reservations, though on the Saturday we attended, they were able to accommodate several drop in visitors, including Margareta Thorsen and Jenny Shih, the president and vice president respectfully of the National Association of Women in Construction, who were visiting Indianapolis for an industry convention and who were able to share their knowledgeable opinions about the structure. After the tour, in fact, Thorsen and Shih both commented that in earthquake prone California where they both live, such a tour couldn’t even be offered to the public due to liability issues.

The tours cost $12 for people ages 12 and up, unless you’re a member of Indiana Landmarks at which you can take the tour at the discounted price of $10. For ages 6 to 12, the price is $6. Proceeds from the tour are split evenly between Indiana Landmarks and City Market, with Indiana Landmarks’ portion used to help preserve historic sites in and around Central Indiana and the state.

If tickets are bought in advance through Eventbrite, one can select the time of the tour preferred and print them out at home or you can take a chance and drop in on a tour which normally start at the top and bottom of the hour. Three volunteers were on hand the Saturday we visited, and we broke up into two groups of 10, but the weather was uncooperative that day and may have damped attendance so be forewarned. In essence, drop in guests may miss out if the weather is nice and downtown is hopping with activity.

The online ticket I purchased stated in large letters that attendees must wear covered shoes, but for those of us like me who only notice that warning while standing in line moments before the tour need not fear as drop-in guests in flip flops and unobservant idiots in sandals like myself were not turned away. Looking back at the website days later, I noticed that it states covered shoes are recommended – as opposed to required – as is stated on the ticket.

Tour guide Craig Barker shares a story down under

Tour guide Craig Barker shares a story down under

Participants do need to sign a liability waiver as the dirt floor is very uneven, and guests in wheelchairs, walkers, or strollers or even those with canes can’t be accommodated at this time which is unfortunate, but which is a reality when touring a space that hasn’t seen the light of day in over a 120 years.

The tour is rather quick, but well worth the $12 as it catapults you into a space that harkens back to a simpler time. Looking at old sepia-toned pictures of Market Street crammed with horses and vendor stalls and people before Tomlinson Hall fills you with a sense of wonder. Our downtowns from Indianapolis to Greensburg to Madison at one time really were the place where one went to get it all. From meat to milk to nails to haircuts, they were the heart and soul of our communities. Yes, time marches on and things change, but sometimes we would do well to spend a little more time contemplating what life was like in another era.

The City Market catacomb tour is one such opportunity.

For more information on Tomlinson Hall and the catacomb tour, visit Indiana Landmarks’ website at http://www.indianalandmarks.org/tours/calendar/Pages/SearchResults.aspx?EventID=567. Tickets for the tour can be purchased online at https://catacombs2014.eventbrite.com.

For more information on Indianapolis’ historic treasures, check out Historic Indianapolis.com. My friend, Libby, is a contributing writer to Historic Indianapolis and walks the walk from her restored home in the old historic Northside District where she sits on the board of the Old Northside Neighborhood Association. You can catch up with Libby and her articles at http://historicindianapolis.com/heritage-steward-libby-cierzniak/.

Follow my blog at: http://outaroundwithrobin.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobinFritz

Just a Hoosier girl at heart

Just a Hoosier girl at heart

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

Reprinted with permission from the Greensburg Daily News and the Indiana Media Group

At Home with Indiana Artist T.C. Steele

I’m standing in a living room, admiring the bold olive green paint, the dark polished woodwork and the shelves lined with books. But it’s the west wall that keeps grabbing my attention. Nearly every available space is covered in paintings, including landscapes and portraits, all skillfully done and breathtakingly beautiful. But, in the home of Hoosier artist T.C. Steele in southern Brown County, staring at his amazing works of art, I shouldn’t expect otherwise.

T.C. Steele's paintings grace the wall of his front parlor at his home near Nashville, Indiana.

T.C. Steele’s paintings grace the wall of his front parlor at his home near Nashville, Indiana.

I’m visiting the T.C. Steele State Historic Site just two miles south of Belmont off of State Road 46 west of Nashville and I’m thoroughly enjoying the blissful atmosphere. Any Hoosier who’s ever traveled in Brown County in the fall knows that the leaf peeper traffic can sometimes rival that of I-465 during rush hour, but turning on to T.C. Steele Road – which is NOT well marked, by the way – it’s possible to leave the thundering Harleys behind. This quiet, winding, tree-covered road is, in places, barely big enough for two cars to pass and is gravel in spots. On the Saturday I visited, I saw not a single one as I drove to the 211 acre site.

Coming to the former homestead of Indiana’s foremost landscape artist, one is immediately taken by the beauty of the place. Steele’s former home is an amalgam of towering oak and tulip trees, formal gardens, sweeping lawns, climbing vines and goldfish ponds which once served as emergency water sources for the home in its early years when it lacked running water. Dark red buildings – from the artist’s former outdoor studio to his larger, dream studio, to the home he shared with his second wife, Selma – dot the landscape and, frankly, as an amateur artist, it made me want to grab an easel and paint.

Inside the home of T.C. Steele

Inside the home of T.C. Steele

The grounds and formal gardens, which Selma Steele created for her husband to do just that, paint, are free for visitors to explore along with several hiking trails scattered about the 211 acre site. I popped into the office/gift shop to inquire about a tour and, discovering I had a 45-minute wait, I gladly spent it exploring and hiking. A slow idle among the gardens to the goldfish pond rewarded me with not one but 21 frogs sunning themselves on lily pads, and I had the pleasure of dodging dozens of falling acorns as I explored the Dewar log cabin which Selma Steele rescued from demolition and had moved to the property in the early 1930s.

After a half mile trek on the aptly named “Trail of Silences” which is not aptly rated as moderate given my desk-job physic, I waited outside the doors of Steele’s large studio for the tour. By this time a handful of other visitors had arrived, but, still, we barely constituted a crowd. After a brief background on Steele, his wife and their home, known as The House of the Singing Winds, Indiana State Interpreter John Moore unlocked the studio door and we were plunged into the world of the artist.

Theodore Clement Steele – T.C. to family and friends – was the most prominent artist of the Hoosier Group, a circle of talented, nationally recognized Indiana artists which also included Otto Stark and William J. Forsyth. Born in Gosport, Indiana in 1847, Steele lived most of his life in Indiana with the exception of five years spent training in portraiture at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany. While in Germany, Steele was exposed to the work of landscape painters who embraced en plein air impressionism – a style of painting aimed at catching natural light while painting on site and out of doors – and it would eventually change his own style of painting and lead him to this out-of-the-way hilltop in remote Brown County.

Upon returning to the United States in 1885, Steele began making his fortune as a portrait artist in Indianapolis– this being the pre-selfie days of ever present cameras – and he and his first wife, Libbie, amassed enough money to purchase a summer home in Brookville where he practiced his landscape painting skills. That Steele once called Brookville home was news to me, and it turned out to be just one of the many interesting tidbits I learned during our tour of Steele’s studio and home. To know that one of my favorite artists once lived as close to me as Brookville was surprising to say the least. One can’t help but wonder what may have happened to Franklin County had Steele remained in Brookville, rather than forsaking it for Brown County in 1906.

One of Steele's paintings from his Brookville, Indiana days

One of Steele’s paintings from his Brookville, Indiana days

But forsake it he did, leaving Brookville in grief after the death of his first wife. Eventually Steele met his second wife, Selma Neubacher – who, at 23 years his junior, was an artist friend of his three children – and, after scouting around Brown County for some time, Steele purchased this hilltop as the site of his next summer home in 1907.

That same year the Steeles built their home, expanding upon it over time and adding other outbuildings as needs arose. During their years at The House of the Singing Winds, the view from the porches – as seen in many of Steele’s paintings – was expansive as the area had been logged and farmed, unlike the rather wooded grounds surrounding the home today. On the day I visited, it was possible to compare an actual view of the home with one Steele had painted decades ago from the same vantage point. The Indiana State Museum manages the site and with over 300 of Steele’s paintings at its disposal, changes the exhibits often, but as the home is featured in many of his paintings, you will most likely have the same opportunity to do so yourself, should you visit.

Outside Steele's dream studio at his home near Nashville, Indiana

Outside Steele’s dream studio at his home near Nashville, Indiana

T.C. Steele died in July, 1926 and is buried alongside Selma on the grounds which proved to be another surprise for me as I hadn’t planned on standing at his grave, but was honored to do so. Selma Steele struggled financially after his death, but remained at The House of the Singing Winds until her death in 1945. Upon her passing, it was discovered that Steele’s last painting – a still life of Selma’s peonies – was still upon his easel.

Selma left the property and paintings to the State of Indiana as a tribute to her husband and his work, but it fell into disrepair until the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Indiana State Museums and Historic Sites took over its care in the 1980s. Extensive repairs, renovations and restorations were undertaken, and Steele’s paintings were restored. Today, it is a testament to T.C. and Selma’s individual talents, his with a paint brush, hers with a garden trowel.

One of T.C. Steele's paintings of his home near Nashville, Indiana - The House of the Singing Winds

One of T.C. Steele’s paintings of his home near Nashville, Indiana – The House of the Singing Winds

The T.C. Steele State Historic Site is open year round, Tuesdays through Saturdays 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. and Sundays from 1 to 5 P.M. The site is closed on Mondays and holidays. With the exception of the Dewar Cabin, the buildings are not open to the public except during the daily guided tours which are frequent and well worth the wait and cost. Parking is free and readily available, and visitors can explore the grounds, gardens and trails for free too, but admission is charged for tours. Prices are $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and $2 for students and children over the age of three. Children under the age of three are free. Group rates are available too and members of the Indiana State Museum or any one of its other 10 historic sites get free admission.

For more information on the T.C. Steele State Historic Site or to plan your visit, check out the following links.

Friends of T.C. Steele – http://www.tcsteele.org/

Indiana State Museum – http://www.indianamuseum.org/explore/t.c.-steele

Follow my newspaper blog at: http://outaroundwithrobin.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobinFritz or email at outaroundwithrobin@gmail.com

Me working on a community art project - painting crosswalks in Shelbyville, Indiana.

Me working on a community art project – painting crosswalks in Shelbyville, Indiana.

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

Reprinted with permission from the Greensburg Daily News

Winding My Way Through Indiana’s Wineries

I’m having a fruit fit and we’re not talking salad. I can’t decide whether I want blueberry, blackberry, red raspberry, cherry, plum or apple. And let’s not forget grape. Fortunately, as part of the Rushville Psi Iota Xi Fall Wine Tour, I can sample each delicious fruit-filled wine before I decide which – or even how many – bottles to buy and take home. And trust me, it’s a difficult decision. I’m currently drooling over the blueberry at Ertel Cellars Winery just a few miles southeast of Batesville, and we’ve only just started the tour. Plus, I have a hankering for merlot, the day is young, the wine samples will be plentiful, and I have to carry what I buy.

Bottles of wine at Ertel Cellars Winery near Batesville, Indiana

Bottles of wine at Ertel Cellars Winery near Batesville, Indiana

Good thing I work out.

And good thing the Psi Iota Xi wine tour comes with a chauffeured tour bus because, if past history is any indication, I’m a cheap date and will need it. Fortunately, Psi Iota Xi has pulled out all of the stops with the tour I’m on, and it’s doing the same again with its upcoming 2014 fall wine tour highlighting three area wineries, including Buck Creek Winery, Simmons Winery and Mallow Run Winery. This year’s tour is set for Saturday, November 1st, and, in addition to the tour bus transportation, it includes a sampling of wines at each location, one meal and prizes in addition to garden and back room tours.

What can I say? Sign me up – again!

Also, take note, you may receive a free wine trail wine glass at each location. We did on our tour, but I’m not sure if that’s part of the November 1st tour. As the glasses are cute and, well, are wine glasses, it’s worth asking about at the first stop. Still, cute as they are, they pale in comparison to my new favorite plastic wine glass with straw and a lid to keep bugs out, courtesy of my friend, Michelle, who introduced me to wine touring by bus in all of its many glories. Now THAT’S a friend!

The three wineries to be toured on November 1st are just some of the seven wineries that make up the “Indy Wine Trail,” one of five designated wine trails in Indiana. The wine trails stretch from Braiali Winery in far northeastern Indiana (on the “Wineries of Indiana’s North East Trail”) to the Pepper’s Ridge Winery in the Evansville area (part of the “Hoosier Wine Trail”) and include various parts in between. The Indy Wine Trail – not to be confused with the “Indiana Wine Trail” – also includes urban wineries in Indianapolis such as Chateau Thomas in addition to Simmons, the furthest south on the Indy Wine Trail, near Columbus.

The five Indiana wine trails are the brain child of the Indiana Wine Grape Council and were created to foster collaboration between regional wineries in an effort to offer customers a localized wine experience. Visitors can travel from winery to winery to learn about the various wines produced in the state with wine tastings offered regularly at each location. As the trails include visits to several wineries, everyone is encouraged to designate a driver – such as our poor tour bus operator who gets to travel to each winery without touching a single drop so have mercy and tip him or her well – and drink responsibly.

So many bottles, so little time....

So many bottles, so little time….

At Buck Creek Winery in southeastern Marion County, Psi Iota Xi tour guests will sample from Buck Creek’s large collection of red and white wines and will get a private tour of the back room. With names like Dew Drop (a sweet white with a hint of peach and citrus) and Christmas Cherry (a vibrant red made from sweet and tart cherries), deciding which to buy at Buck Creek may also have you eenie, meenie, minie, mowing your way around a half dozen bottles too. Or maybe that’s just me.

The tasting room and restaurant at Ertel Cellars Winery near Batesville, Indiana

The tasting room and restaurant at Ertel Cellars Winery near Batesville, Indiana

At Simmons Winery, tour guests will enjoy lunch while sampling wines and wandering the winery’s beautiful gardens. Located on the family’s 115-year-old farm in northeastern Bartholomew County, Simmons also offers a market during the summer months and features pumpkins come fall. With red, white and blush wines available, Simmons – like many of Indiana’s wineries – also makes several specialty wines, including a sweet dessert wine, Vidal Ice, and Winter Spice, a sweet red Marechal Foch combined with brown sugar and mulling spices which is great served warm, especially during the holidays.

At Mallow Run Winery located near Bargersville in Johnson County, try the Dry Traminette which is made completely from grapes grown in Indiana. A dry white with notes of cinnamon, nutmeg and apple, it’s perfect for a fall stroll around the grounds. And, like many of Indiana’s other wineries, Mallow Run offers several sweet fruit wines, including its number one selling rhubarb wine, a zippy little number with a tart zing, not to mention a gold medal “best in show” award from this year’s Indy International Wine Competition.

As for the aforementioned Dry Traminette, that wine is actually produced from a grape specifically cultivated to grow in the harsh climate of the Midwest. The Traminette grape was created by Herb Barrett at the University of Illinois originally as a table grape, but it was found to have excellent wine qualities in addition to partial resistance to several fungal diseases. The Traminette also proved to be more cold hardy than its more established parent, the Gewurztraminer grape, while retaining its flavorful character. The Indiana Wine Growers Council has named wine made from the Traminette grape as the signature wine of Indiana so, as a fellow Hoosier, you should definitely give it a try.

According to Purdue University, Indiana’s wine industry annually contributes more than $72 million to the state’s economy, with Indiana wine sales growing on average by more than 15 percent a year. The exploding number of wineries in Indiana – from nine to nearly 80 since 1989 – have certainly helped with the growth in those numbers. Indiana’s wineries currently grow grapes on more than 600 acres, with Indiana wine production exceeding 1 million gallons a year – which translates into 5 million bottles, half of which I’ve probably sampled. Ok, maybe not, but it’s definitely on my bucket list.

As for this fall’s wine tour, Psi Iota Xi has opened it up to the public, but as the tour bus is only so big, it’s first come, first served with a limit of 55 seats. Tickets cost $60 per person in advance and include the very worthwhile tour bus transportation for the day, wine tastings at each winery, a delicious meal, and a drawing for prizes. Again, tickets must be purchased in advance – no same day sales – and can be purchased from the Rushville Public Library. For more information call Jan Garrison at 765-561-1105 or e-mail janmg@rpl.lip.in.us or Robin Sowder at rsowder0602@gmail.com.

The bus departs from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Rushville at 9:30 a.m. – go to the west side of the church and just look for the big bus. Return time is approximately 5:30 p.m., but as that’s approximate, you may want to text your designated driver from the bus.

Vats of future goodness at Ertel Cellars Winery near Batesville, Indiana

Vats of future goodness at Ertel Cellars Winery near Batesville, Indiana

As for Psi Iota Xi, it is a charitable women’s philanthropic organization with chapters throughout the Midwest and places a special emphasis on speech and hearing-related causes. With that said, it’s great to be able to support a worthy cause while also enjoying a Saturday outing to experience some of the wonders Indiana has to offer, even if the end result blurs my speech in the process.

If you can’t make the tour, I encourage you to still check out Indiana’s wineries, several of which also have restaurants on site. Hours and days of operation differ at each winery, with some locations changing their availability based upon the seasons. For more information, to get directions or to plan your own visit to any of the three wineries on this year’s Psi Iota Xi tour, check out their websites at:

Buck Creek Winery – http://buckcreekwinery.com.

Simmons Winery – http://www.simmonswinery.com

Mallow Run Winery – http://mallowrun.com

For information on the Indy Wine Grape Council and the Indiana wine trails, go to:

http://www.indianawines.org/tour/wine-trails

Next Week – I explore Stream Cliff Herb Farm and Winery.

Follow my blog at: http://outaroundwithrobin.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobinFritz or email at outaroundwithrobin@gmail.com

481266_10203777348727600_1608806686782902373_nBy Robin Winzenread Fritz

Reprinted with permission from the Greensburg Daily News

Mayberry Isn’t Gone – It Just Moved to Indiana…

Now that's a big root...

Now that’s a big root…

My husband is feverishly pouring through seed catalogs looking for turnips.  He has grand plans to grow a monster because he wants to challenge family friend Phil in the annual largest turnip contest held every Friday after Thanksgiving at the St. Paul Tavern.  Phil is the reigning turnip king and fears no competition, even the cheaters.  Buckshot filled turnips, grafted turnips, he’s seen it all.  He wears his porcelain turnip pin proudly and says, “Bring it!” to all pretenders to the throne. 

Family friend Phil standing in the middle with his world class turnip

Family friend Phil standing in the middle with his world class turnip

Me?  I’m just in it for the pageantry, the walleye sandwich and any chance to wear a t-shirt that says, “I love a big root.”  Thus while all of America shops for discounted electronics, we get there early to grab a good seat – trust me, it fills up quick – and sit in a wonderful local tavern eating, drinking and feeling up big winter vegetables.

The gang's all here!

The gang’s all here!

If the world were a counter full of Baskin Robbins’ 31 flavors of ice cream, to the uninitiated, Indiana can seem very vanilla indeed.  We have no mountains to speak of, no flaming desert vistas, only one major city and our sole beach front property consists of about a hundred miles of Lake Michigan coastline with nary a palm tree, conch shell or shark fin to be seen ever.  Much like pickled herring, Indiana – and large turnip contests – is an acquired taste.

A glorious sunrise over my little slice of Hoosier heaven

A glorious sunrise over my little slice of Hoosier heaven

And I get that, I really do.  I’ve traveled the world and I know how good it gets.  I once worked with a woman who grew up in San Diego.  Her childhood consisted of ocean, mountains and desert all within an hour’s drive so to her Indiana was somewhat of a disappointment.  She lasted about four months.

So, again, I get it.

In truth, a good part of me is thankful that a majority of the world doesn’t appreciate our flat little slice of the globe.  It keeps life somewhat simple, sane and sweet and, for that, I give thanks.  

 For example, in my adopted hometown of Rushville, my children’s farm-kid-oriented high school cheer block was recently praised by a visiting ref at a local football game because –  rather than loudly shouting the old stand-by, “Nuts and bolts, nuts and bolts, we got screwed!” over a bad call – they politely cheered, “We beg to differ!  We beg to differ!” *Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!*

 His comment? “Are they really dissenting respectfully?” 

Yep.

Rushville High School students dance on stage while waiting the judges' results in the lip sync contest

Rushville High School students dance on stage while waiting the judges’ results in the lip sync contest

During a recent lip-sync contest held in the school auditorium, I watched as these same kids – teenagers, mind you – stood up, cheered and encouraged three young ladies who entered the contest and then succumbed to self-consciousness and stage fright.  Rather than laugh and boo them off the stage, these wonderful kids cheered, clapped, STOOD UP and encouraged them.  The girls found their mojo and continued.  When they walked back to their seats, their classmates continued to cheer.  It was heartwarming and affirming and was even better than the movie, Hoosiers, because it was real.  Take that, Los Angeles.

So I hesitate to sing our Hoosier praises because – shhh!!! – I don’t want to give the secret away, but – when you get right down to it – Indiana rocks, and no more so than during the holidays when nostalgia is as common and everyday as a Walmart commercial.

I love a parade!

I love a parade!

Case in point – the annual Christmas parade held just prior to Thanksgiving in my actual hometown of Shelbyville just 13 miles away.  The local town square which we call a circle – don’t ask – is blocked off to traffic, local stores stay open late, Christmas music wafts over the crowd, everyone comes out, children run amok and there’s a parade to boot. 

Horses march through the street pooping in front of the high school marching band.  Betweener-aged snowflake princesses file by in various convertibles – with the queen crowned later based on how much money she raised for her sponsoring charity as the determining factor.  My sister, Renee, walks shotgun beside her high school life skills class float, watching nervously for signs of falling decorations.  A motorcycle gang clad in leather cruises by slowly riding hogs.  Candy is thrown to the crowd and Santa brings up the rear.

My sister stands guard, watching for falling decorations

My sister, Renee, stands guard, watching for falling decorations

As the last float crawls by, everyone turns toward Santa’s little house, the light switch is flipped and transformers kick in.  Decorations blaze to life.  The fountain becomes a Christmas tree.  The statute of local author Charles Major and his bear cubs sport Santa hats and spot lights.  Take that, Las Vegas.

Let there be light....

Let there be light….

I love the Christmas parade because it’s a chance to stroll into Three Sisters’ bookstore, say hi to Carolyn and her sisters, shop for actual books with actual covers, and then grab a hot chocolate at their sandwich counter next door.  Beside them is my beloved art gallery where my friends Al and Diane and Candy and Kathy work on crafts, swap stories and offer up cookies and punch.

Three Sisters' Bookstore - an honest to goodness independent bookstore

Three Sisters’ Bookstore – an honest to goodness independent bookstore

As we stroll the circle waiting for the parade to start we run in to friends from church, friends from school, friends from work, friends from the gym, friends, friends, friends.   Take that, Times Square.

If parades and turnips and polite teenagers aren’t enough, there’s always the free showing of the movie, “Elf” held that same Friday after Thanksgiving at our little non-profit theater, the Strand.  Picture any movie cinema from the 1950s – located downtown right on the sidewalk, big marquee, flashing lights, small front windows covered in movie placards – and you can picture the Strand.  Nostalgia comes free with every bucket of popcorn and it’s even better when eaten in the balcony. 

Family and friends convene early, candy canes are given out, seats are taken, switched, changed and rearranged as we see more family and friends.  The theater darkens, the movie starts, the laughter is loud and life is good.  Call me crazy, but simple things can and do add value to life.

Yes, I get it that the majority of the world may be bored with turnips and small town parades and re-runs of free movies on the big screen.  It’s a coarser, harder world out there.

My little slice of Indiana isn’t perfect, for heaven’s sake, but we do get a great deal right.  I may have grown up in a flat little land whose charms are lost on many, but I’m still grateful nonetheless. 

Even the bears are decked out for Christmas

Even the bears are decked out for Christmas

It’s made me who I am.  I can go out into the world, love what I see and still come home and be happy in the Hoosier heartland.  And for that, I give thanks.

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

Just a Hoosier girl at heart

Just a Hoosier girl at heart

Prepping, Packing and Pre-Poop Planning

Palm trees - not Christmas trees - are hogging my imagination these days

Palm trees – not Christmas trees – are hogging my imagination these days

My typhoid shot is on backorder.  Now, Christmas and backorders go together like red hair and freckles, but one doesn’t normally expect it in third-world pharmaceuticals, partly because one doesn’t normally ORDER third-world pharmaceuticals.  But my doctor has to pre-order my upcoming typhoid shot as there isn’t much call for regular typhoid boosters in Milroy, Indiana, thus the resulting backorder.  Who knew?

I’m hoping this backorder of typhoid is a result of low demand, but the pessimist in me likes to whisper in my ear at night and say, ha, ha, ha, you fool, it’s just the contrary!  Demand is high and Typhoid Marys are a dime a dozen in Haiti!  But as I am my father’s daughter, I chase down the pessimist in me and beat her into submission with grandiose plans to buy duty-free alcohol in massive quantities.  Rum balls anyone?

I'm making a list and checking it twice... because now it's includes rum

I’m making a list and checking it twice… because now it includes rum

On the heels of my recent foray into Europe, I find packing and planning for a trip to a third-world country to be a great study in contrasts.  Venice and London required no inoculations.  As for Haiti, I’m already up by four shots and have two boosters to go, plus – hopefully – my typhoid vaccine, and I get to take malaria medicine in the process.  I’m also starting my low-dose introduction to Imodium too as my sister regaled me over Thanksgiving with tales of my brother-in-law’s diarrhea (hey, thanks Renee!) brought on by HIS malaria medicine taken prior to his dive trip to Honduras.  So I’m working on building a tolerance now because who wants to be stuck on a plane with Montezuma’s Revenge?  Or, since I’m Haiti bound, let’s call it the Papa Doc Trots.

... don't cry... don't cry... *sniff* ... don't cry... who am I kidding?  WAAAAA!!!

… don’t cry… don’t cry… *sniff* … don’t cry… who am I kidding? WAAAAA!!!

When the good Doctor Lake told me I needed Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, tetanus and recommended typhoid, I listened, because the good Doctor Lake has been to Haiti before and knows where of she speaks.  As a doctor, she’s been exposed to patients with typhoid and, given the risk factor, why not get the shot, she advised.  She also prepped a flu shot for me at which point I said, “Oh, I rarely get the flu.”  Her response?

“Robin,” she said, “it’s not for you.  It’s for them.”

Now there’s a thought.  Inoculations, she went on to explain, aren’t just for me, but for the many native people I will come in contact with while in Haiti.  While I may have the immune system of an elephant (and the thighs too), I can still be a carrier, and the last thing I want to do while on a mission trip is expose people with depressed tolerances and lack of ready access to medical care to something I fight off like skinny jeans.  It’s an interesting point I hadn’t considered.  So, naturally, I got the flu shot.

Fearless leaders says pack light.....

Fearless leader says pack light…..

The other great study in contrasts between planning for Haiti as opposed to western Europe is the packing itself.  I’m going down there to do construction work which isn’t as funny as it sounds because my father was a plumber who had two girls years before he had two boys.  The end result was that he treated us like boys for years, thus Renee and I can both swing a hammer, drive a tractor and – if the need calls for it – pee standing up.  I didn’t say it was pretty.

I'm dreaming of a sandy Christmas

I’m dreaming of a sandy Christmas

Back to my point.  Whereas my packing plan for Italy was to look polished, cosmopolitan and well-traveled (aka – not necessarily like someone whose closet resembles the clearance bin at Walmart which is closer to reality), my packing plan for Haiti fits in nicely with my telecommuting wardrobe.  I’m packing my oldest clothes.  I’m taking only one dress and it’s for church.  Out goes the jewelry and in go the work gloves and safety glasses.  And I’m trying to find bug spray and I’m praying my sunscreen hasn’t expired.  That can be hard to find in the winter, I’ve discovered.

It's like a Haitian version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" only with burros instead of tiny dogs

It’s like a Haitian version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” only with burros instead of tiny dogs

I’m also trying to figure out which Bible to take as it’s on the packing list sent to us by our fearless leader, David Duba.  David has supplied us with helpful packing lists, insurance forms and itineraries which come to my email inbox like early Christmas presents.  His online enthusiasm is infectious – but not in a typhoid kind of way – and rather than dreaming about putting up Christmas lights while the snow falls, I find myself daydreaming about swaying palm trees, dirt roads, and colorful local people leading burros around tiny towns.  It’s hard not to, you know?

I don't think this will fit in my carry on

I don’t think this will fit in my carry on

On that list is the Bible and now I have a decision to make.  Bibles aren’t small and David said pack light.  Of course the huge old family standard that my dad bought when we were kids is out.  It’s the size of a small VW Beetle, though the pictures are really pretty.  On the flip side, I still have my itty, bitty little vinyl-clad green version given to every elementary school child in Indiana during the 1970s, but it’s the New Testament only and, if I take it, I’ll also have to take a pair of reading glasses fit for Mr. Magoo.  Decisions, decisions.

God bless us, every one

God bless us, every one

But don’t worry, I’ll figure it out.  December 12th will be here before I know it and my backpack will be ready.  My camera batteries will be fresh and my spirits will be high.  Christmas isn’t about buying, wrapping and eating so much as it is about celebrating Jesus’ birth and ultimate sacrifice.  It seems most fitting to honor that gift by giving to others, and I don’t mean with cheese logs.  I’m ready to tote that barge, lift that bale and swing that hammer – though, trust me.  I wasn’t kidding about the rum.

Cheers to all.  And God bless.

Haiti for the Holidays

Taking a stroll down a street in Jeremie, Haiti

It’s Cyber Monday and it’s following closely on the heels of a record breaking Black Friday.  In Indiana alone, it has been estimated that the average household spent nearly $450 over the weekend.  After several years of economic doubt, it seems as if the country is exploding with pent-up consumerism that can no longer be denied.

But as Monday rapidly draws to a close, I have yet to spend a dime.  Call me a bad American, but I didn’t stimulate the economy.

I am, however, thinking about shoes – old shoes, worn shoes, used shoes, small shoes, shoes for children who have none to call their own.  If all goes according to plan, this time next month I will be back from a mission trip to Jeremie, Haiti where I will have helped several kind-hearted souls share gently used shoes with children who give the term “less fortunate” a new meaning.

The runway in Jeremie, Haiti awaiting the arrival of our commuter plane

It will be my first trip to Haiti and I fully anticipate having my expectations for what constitutes an acceptable lifestyle reset by what I will see – which, by the way, is one of many reasons why I travel. 

Case in point – my recent week in Venice taught me that my definition of “old” needed to be rethought.  In a country where a large well maintained building like the RCA Dome can come and go in less than 35 years says something about our expectations and priorities.  Venice makes do with 300, 500, even 1,000 year-old buildings held together by giant bolts and screws, and where snaps, crackles and pops are a way of life.  We freak out when doors won’t latch and ceilings crack.

When I left for Venice, I was actively looking for a new car to replace my 11-year-old Jeep.  The air conditioning doesn’t work, the ceiling fabric is starting to give, the radio light only comes on when it rains, it’s pushing 190K miles and, by most American standards, it’s old and I’m overdue.

But after Venice, I came back with a new appreciation for keeping what works and making the best of the situation.  At the hospital in Venice we watched orderlies moving an elderly woman in an old wooden wheelchair that looked like it predated the Titanic.  But guess what?  It worked!  It looked to be well maintained.  And I bet it was paid for.

When I returned home, I stopped looking.  My pretty red Jeep may be well seasoned like me, but it gets me where I need to go, so why give up on it now?  In this country, we give up on things too early and often for the wrong reasons.  I know of someone who once got rid of a perfectly good washing machine because it wouldn’t match her new dryer which she bought when the old one stopped working.  Am I the only one who finds that odd? 

Map of the Gebeau compound in Jeremie, Haiti. We’ll be working on the auto shop using our carpentry skills.

So I’m packing for Haiti, but I’m planning to have my expectations reset again.  I don’t know how yet – that still remains to be seen.  But I know that this trip will be an adventure and an experience and an eye opener.  That it comes on the heels of Christmas isn’t lost on me either for it is this time of the year when our desire for new toys grows to its most fevered pitch.

The local school has invited us to attend the children’s Christmas program.  I am excited beyond words.  I know that in the streets of Haiti I will see poverty, especially near Port au Prince.  I’m hoping it’s not as bleak as my imagination believes it to be.  But I’m also praying that in that little school in Jeremie I will also see hope and joy and happiness too – in short, things that come from family and friends and not from catalogs and websites and big-box retail stores.  That too remains to be seen.  More details on my trip and my fellow explorers to come soon, but for now, it’s enough to ponder the adventure.

(Photo credits – David Duba)

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