Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Whirlwind Weekend WHH History Tour

inside the 2nd gate at last!
Perhaps you've noticed that I have a zeal for our trivialized 9th President? My wife has. For my half-century birthday, she surprised me with a Whirlwind Weekend William Henry Harrison History Tour in Ohio and Indiana. How about that? All the stops were presented to me in a sealed envelope along the way, so I didn't know what was next! She even packed my "got William Henry Harrison?" t-shirt for the occasion. Huzzah!

Stop #1 on Saturday, June 13th was a short drive to the Harrison Memorial and Tomb in North Bend OH.
I've been here several times but my wife really went the extra mile on this one. You can usually only go into the 1st gate of the tomb and peer into the main area. The 2nd gate stays locked except on special occasions. I guess this was one those. Tricia got a hold of Terry Simpson who is in charge of the property. She arranged for him to meet us there at 7:30AM and let me in the 2nd gate to stand inches away from WHH himself!  I've spoken to Terry before over at the Harrison-Cleves Museum. It was fantastic of him to meet us there early on a Saturday morning. Oh, and there appeared to be some empty spots in the tomb near William Henry and wife Anna Symmes. I called dibs on one of them. I just found out I'm related to WHH by marriage. My 4x Great Grandfather William Henry Smith was a cousin of the Symmes family.

Stop #2 was the main course, Harrison's home he had built in Vincennes IN, the Indiana Territorial capital in the early 19th century, population 700. He named his home Grouseland, for the many game birds on this 300-acre tract of land in this former French trading post. Harrison arrived in Vincennes in 1801 as Governor and once completed lived at Grouseland from 1804 - 1812. This has been on my "local" history bucket list for a while.
view of Grouseland from the historic walnut grove

William Henry Harrison moved from North Bend OH to Vincennes with his wife Anna Symmes after he was appointed Governor by President Jefferson. Tricia and I had the luxury of a modern highway that took a pleasant 4 hours. By contrast, land routes were rare, rugged and dangerous in 1801 so the Harrison family took the 4 week trip by boat down the Ohio River to Louisville KY and then to southern Indiana where they continued upriver by keelboat on the Wabash. By all accounts, they had good weather or it would have taken much longer. I'm glad we live in 2015!

Our drive along Rt 50 was beautiful and highly recommended vs the somewhat faster but more boring I-74 to I-70 route. We passed through and by Hoosier National Forest Martin State Forest, a couple of wildlife refuges and many small historic towns. I would like to come back to that area and explore it a bit more. Indiana ain't just corn fields. One would think it would all be flat (like the Interstate) but it was hilly and forested in many spots and reminded me of driving through parts of rural Kentucky. Of course, if you enjoy billboards and chain restaurants take the interstate. Your call.
My friend and fellow geocacher Mark also helped Tricia pre-plan some geocaches for me to find on the way so I didn't have to do that on the fly. Huzzah!
Harrison and Tecumseh met here!
Once we got to Grouseland we took the guided tour of the Virginian plantation styled brick home and its 17 rooms, including an attached one and a half story dependency. The friendly staff there was great and rather than just be a good sport, my wife actually enjoyed it herself. Because it was a private collection, no photos were allowed in the home. There were signs everywhere about that. Did I cheat? Maybe once. This site and the official site have some pretty good interior photos and descriptions as well as some history of the home after Harrison moved back to Ohio during the War of 1812.
Some interesting tidbits I took away from the visit - The house was built to withstand attacks by hostile Indians, British or any general melee. The windows were shuttered inside and out as a defensive measure. There was, in fact, a bullet hole in the dining room shutter, an alleged attempt on Harrison's life by a rogue frontier ruffian. The basement windows also had bars with a clear view of the Wabash River so that any incoming river traffic could be observed and defended if necessary. Exterior and interior walls were three bricks thick and the basement had a water well, munitions storage and a French drain toilet in the case of any long siege. As I understood it reading elsewhere, Harrison started the first Indiana Public Library in this basement too.
It's worth noting that Vincennes University, across the street from Grouseland, was Indiana's first college and, you guessed it, founded by WHH in 1801.
gift shop stop
The home was quite spacious for his large family (I think five of his ten children were born here). We learned that the good Governor had an open door policy whereby any citizen that felt unsafe in this hostile frontier could find refuge at the mansion. It was common for one to find regular citizens and travelers sleeping in the upstairs hallways.
We could also see some minor structural damage from the powerful 1811-12 New Madrid Earthquakes. These were the quakes that caused the Mississippi River to run backward in one section and the rumble was felt as far away as Boston. This is one strong house and it's clear that Harrison cared for the people he governed based on his protective policies and promotion of education. Huzzah!
One of the highlights for me was seeing the hat and sword that Harrison wore at Tippecanoe along with a remnant of the flag from his regiment in that battle. It was also great sitting in the walnut grove where the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and Governor Harrison had their parleys in 1810. One of those meetings almost ended in bloodshed but cooler heads prevailed. If that had turned out differently we may never have heard much of Tecumseh or Harrison, if at all. Lewis and Clark, whom Harrison knew from the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, also stopped here on the way back from their famous expedition.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indy
I was unsuccessful in playing matchmaker to my teenage daughter (unbeknownst to her back in Cincinnati) with the teenage docent who really seemed to enjoy his volunteer work and knew his stuff. He was taken, so I'll have to look for another future son-in-law. Because of my yakity yak with the wonderful like-minded staff and my dawdling in the gift shop (where I picked up some great trinkets for my collection), we blew Tricia's timeline a bit for the next stop. That just meant we had to eat lunch on the run.

Stop #3 was an overnight stay at the Hilton in Downtown Indianapolis a block away from the mighty impressive 19th century Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Monument Circle which includes accolades to local early history including of course WHH. They were doing repairs so it was all covered in scaffolding. We had a nice dinner downtown that evening.

Stop #4 on Sunday was also near the hotel. It was the grandiose Indiana War Memorial which was dedicated by General Pershing in 1927. It had well-done displays on Indiana's contributions to the various war efforts from the Revolutionary War to WHH's War of 1812 service up to the present day and ended with the 110' tall Shrine Room with its massive 24 marble pillar. You can see it in a virtual tour here. It is quite overwhelming to stand in that quiet and massive room.

Pez Prez WHH overlooks Downtown Indy
Alas, all good things must come to an end and we had to head home on Sunday afternoon. What a great way to spend a weekend for a WHH and local history fan like me!

Maybe for the 60th, Tricia will take me to Harrison's birthplace, Berkeley Plantation in Virginia? Fingers crossed!

Other Gehio related WHH posts you may find interesting: