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Aurora, Indiana is a town of less than 4,000 people located a short distance downriver from Cincinnati, Ohio. Although settled earlier, it wasn't incorporated as a town until 1845. Ten years later, the beautiful Hillforest Mansion was built for Thomas Gaff. Gaff and his brothers were successful entrepreneurs, and were involved in numerous businesses, including steamboats. Gaff had a telescope at the mansion so that he could see what was going on at the dock in Aurora. I imagine that he might have spent his summer afternoons on the porch watching steamboats go up and down the Ohio River.
Thomas Gaff was born in Scotland in 1808, and came to America with his parents when he was three years old. The family settled in Springfield, New Jersey. After learning the distillery business from his uncle, Thomas, along with his brothers John and James opened a distillery in Philadelphia. It was a success, although they suffered some setbacks during the Panic of 1837. Lured by tax incentives and land, they decided to move to Aurora, Indiana. James Gaff arrived in 1841, followed by Thomas two years later and John four years later.
The brothers quickly established a distillery and brewery in town. One of their products, Aurora Lager Beer, was reportedly so good it was exported to Germany. They were eventually involved in a variety of interests, including:
- Foundry and machine works
- Canal and turnpike construction
- A jewelry store in Cincinnati, Ohio
- A mill in Columbus, Indiana
- Two plantations in Louisiana
- Nevada silver mines
Since Aurora is located on the Ohio River, which was the major transportation artery at the time, the Gaff brothers owned a fleet of steamboats to transport their products. During the American Civil War, their steamboats were used by the Union Army. One of these, the Forest Queen, saw action in U.S. Grant's campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi. She successfully ran past the big Confederate guns overlooking the Mississippi River. Once south of Vicksburg, the Forest Queen shuttled troops from the west side of the river to the east, where they surrounded the town and laid siege to it.
The Gaff brothers became involved in local politics and civic affairs. John became mayor while Thomas and James served on the city council. They were involved in organizing the school system for Aurora, and founded the Aurora Gas and Coke Company. They also founded the First National Bank of Aurora, with Thomas serving as president. The Gaff brothers purchased the first steam powered pumper for the Aurora Fire Department. In appreciation, the fire department named it the Thomas Gaff. About twenty-five years later this pumper set a record when it was used continuously for 72 hours while fighting a fire.
Hillforest and Isiah Rogers
Isiah Rogers was an American architect who was born in 1800. He designed the Tremont House in Boston, which was built in 1829. It featured a host of innovations:
- Locked guest rooms
- Reception area
- Indoor plumbing
- Indoor baths
- Indoor toilets
- Free soap
This building set the standard for luxury hotels and earned Rogers the title "Father of the modern hotel." He went on to design other luxury hotels, the Astor Opera House and Merchants Exchange Building in New York, Hamilton County Ohio Courthouse, the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville Kentucky, and Hillforest in Aurora Indiana.
Isiah Rogers came to Aurora in 1853 to meet with Thomas Gaff & examine the ten acre plot on which he wanted to build. His design is in the Italian Renaissance style, but also incorporates elements from steamboats. These include the rounded central portion, which resembles a steamboat pilot house and the front porch, which looks similar to a steamboat deck. Construction of Hillforest was completed in 1855.
1855 - Present
Thomas Gaff lived comfortably with his family at this magnificent mansion from 1855 until his passing in 1884. It stayed in the family after his death until 1926. After World War II, it became a clubhouse for the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In 1955 they decided that it was no longer adequate for their purposes. Some local residents feared it would suffer the same fate as Linden Terrace. This one time home of James Gaff had been torn down. They formed the non-profit Hillforest Historical Foundation and purchased the property. In 1992 it was named a National Historic Landmark.
Today Hillforest is open to the public from April until December. It also hosts special events and can be rented for small weddings (up to 65 guests). Stop in sometime and visit this Isiah Rogers' masterpiece. Aurora is about 35 miles west of Cincinnati.