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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

STATE PARKS: Spring Mill


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Spring Mill 1800s village cabin./Photo by Haley Church

At Spring Mill State Park, cultural history is preserved alongside natural history, said DNR program director Coletta Prewitt. You’ll find the 1800s village, Gus Grissom Memorial and Twin Caves boat tours in addition to the shimmering springs and tranquil trails. 

“You could spend an entire week here and still have things to do,” said Prewitt. “At what other park can you see a space shuttle and a gristmill over 200 years old?”

A Step Back In Time

By Haley Church

It’s 1863. You approach a small village shadowed by a massive gristmill powered by a nearby spring. 

Twenty buildings are in use today, and six of them are originals from the 1800s, including an apothecary, mercantile shop and the towering mill.

The limestone structure is almost 200 years old. You enter in through a side door and climb up the wooden floors to and find a man wearing a leather hat that resembles a train conductor’s.  

Meet Jeff, the miller:

It’s hard to imagine a mill this size being built in six months, but Jeff Prechtel says it was. Limestone was quarried for the massive mill in 1817. It uses the water from a nearby cave spring, which stays a constant 57 degrees and never freezes.

Jeff grinds corn every hour, on the hour.

“I like history and being able to demonstrate a skill that is not that common at all anymore,” he says.

The heavy millstone crushes the corn kernels, spilling gold meal into a waiting box below. 

Meet Tom, the blacksmith:

You continue through the village to find a building nestled just behind the carriage house. Clang, clang, clang. Fiery sparks fly around the head of Tom Wilder. He says the metal needs to be warm enough to mold like butter. He plays with fire, quite literally — his bare hands are blackened with ash. He grips a carefully pointed metal prod in between hammering.

“I’m retired and this is my playhouse,” he says.

Meet Marietta, the weaver:

After 29 years at the village, Marietta Boliaff still works the two-harness loom that’s about the width of a kitchen table for a family of four. She weaves rugs, placemats, table runners and curtains. Hundreds of threads are intricately strung in front of her, forming the warp of a multi-color rug.

How long does it take?

“That’s the question everyone asks me,” she says, “And I tell everyone the same thing: Four hours. You never know with these things, and it all depends on what you’re making.”

Visitors can buy the woven goods at the mercantile shop, just a few buildings down.

Meet Doug, the woodworker:

The afternoon sun lights up the woodworking shop, where you’ll find everything ranging from children’s toys to custom, award-winning bowls. Doug Alexander, in a brown hat and black suspenders, peers out from behind small rounded spectacles, eyeing his work.

“I’m the new kid on the block,” he said. “But woodwork is right up my alley.”

He shows off a carefully carved swan no bigger than the palm of his hand. Doug also makes authentic wooden tools for his fellow interpreters to use.

Meet Pam, the gardener and potter:

Pam Shull has worked at the village for eight years, and volunteered before that. She wipes sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand as she assembles the materials needed to make clay pots. The resident potter and gardener, Pam has also taken on the roles of wheat weaver and candle-maker. 

“Anything you do with your hands, I can do,” she says.

In a normal village, a potter would travel from town to town as services were needed. But Pam stays here to do the work of four or five people.

“She’s the first one to come in the spring, and the last one to leave in the fall,” Coletta said.

Spring Mill Must-Do’s

By Haley Church

1800s Village: You could spend an entire day engaging in the lifestyle of pioneers, from visiting the blacksmith to dropping by the saloon.

• Twin Caves: OK, so maybe you’re not up for belaying down into a dark hole. But from May 1 to August 31, you can take a boat tour through Twin Caves for $3. You may even see an endangered blind cave fish.

• Spring Mill Inn: After a day of exploring, check into the four-story limestone lodge. Common areas have fireplaces, and most rooms are furnished with handmade Amish rocking chairs — perfect for winding down.

• Nature Center: Open as early as March until the end of October, the center gives kids the chance to see six live snakes and the resident box turtle. Kids can also enjoy a coloring area and a puppet stage. Park naturalists answer questions about the natural or cultural history of the area.

• Grissom Memorial: Hoosier born and bred Virgil “Gus” Grissom was America’s second man in space. At Spring Mill, you can learn about his life and his time in the space program. Personal artifacts on display include Gus’ space suit and the Gemini 3 Molly Brown capsule.

• Trail 4: It’s a loop — but you wouldn’t expect it with the ever-changing landscape. A mostly uphill battle for two miles will take you by Donaldson Cave and Hamer Cemetery. The trail takes about an hour if you move at a moderate pace, but be sure to stop and enjoy the scenery.

• Picnic sites: On a weekend afternoon, the shady picnic areas near trickling streams quickly fill up with families and friends grilling out and chilling out. A concession stand at the entrance of the village offers snacks like popcorn and hotdogs, as well as many ice cream selections.

Spring Mill by the numbers

By Paige Hutson

15 squirrels seen by Haley and I in one day 

7 village employees in Pioneer Village (weaver, leatherworker, woodworker, miller, gardener/potter, blacksmith)

21 buildings operating in Pioneer Village

6 original buildings in the Pioneer Village (springhouse, apothecary, mill office, nursery/school, mercantile, mill)

Over 650,000 Spring Mill visitors annually

2,000 degrees – temperature at which metal turns glossy white. The Pioneer Village Blacksmith often does his best work with metal at this temperature. 

Take a trail

By Paige Hutson

rail 4 starts out flat. You might ask yourself how such an easy trail could be labeled "rugged" on the park map. Gray squirrels dart into the path in front of you, stopping to study what you're doing. Signs for picnic sites line the trail, which doesn’t yet feel like it's earned the title of rugged.

All of a sudden, the trail goes straight uphill. 

he path opens up where trees were cut to make room for a power line. Pioneer Village can be seen at the beginning of the trail if you peek through trees. 

The trail continues to wind around, curving around trees. Your thighs might start to burn with the strain. The path gets narrower. Moss covers the rocks on the sides.

You'll find your trek interrupted by a back entrance to the Pioneer Village, where you can take a break if the strain is too much. If you continue, a sign for an old Lime Kiln tells the story of when limestone was used to create mortar and fertilizer.

Many flights of stairs await you during this trail, and the first one is at least two stories.  The trail loops and passes the Hamer Pioneer Cemetery, where you can stop to study some of the old graves, some as old as the early 1800s and some from the last two decades.

The trail loops around through stairs and paths to a trail toward Donaldson Cave, where a barely visible yellow sign tells that the cave is closed in an effort to contain White Nose Syndrome, a disease responsible for the deaths of thousands of bats in the eastern United States. Spring Mill wants to make sure the disease doesn't endanger the bats in their caves.

If you still want to walk down the path and observe the cave entrance, you make your way down about five flights of stairs through the wood. Forest greenery is all you can see on either side of the staircase. You come to a creek leading to the entrance to Donaldson Cave. Make sure you pause here to take in the atmosphere. If you walk into the opening, absorb the smell of the cave walls. Even when you whisper, you can hear your voice echoing off the walls. 

When you take the trail back to finish the last half of the hike, you'll pass other sights including the Alexander Wilson Monument.

Meet a bat!

By Paige Hutson

Hey there, I'm a Myotis Sodalis, but my friends usually just call me Matt. Normally you can find me all over the Spring Mill caves, hiding around every corner waiting to say hello.

Many of us live here at Spring Mill. I’m an Indiana Bat, but my cousins the Little Brown Bat, the Big Brown Bat, the Rafinesque's Big-eared Bat, the Southeastern Bat, the Gray Bat, the Eastern Red Bat and the Eastern Pipistrelle live here, too.

The caves are the perfect temperature and I never get cold while I’m sleeping. Even in the middle of winter, the temperature stays above 50 degrees.

I really love to have sleepovers with friends. I invite the whole neighborhood and we sleep in a cave for months at a time!

I think I've lost weight this year. Now I only weigh as much as three pennies!

My favorite food is a flying insect. Be thankful I eat them so they don’t bother you. 

My brother's girlfriend just died last week from White Nose Syndrome. We miss her so much! Please follow safety rules to keep me and my friends safe.

FACTS ABOUT WNS 

By Paige Hutson

Donaldson Cave is currently closed to decrease the spread of White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) among bats in Spring Mill. Unfortunately, this condition has affected many different species throughout the eastern United States. If cave crawlers aren't careful, it could threaten bats here in Indiana

WNS is caused by a fungus called Geomyces destructans, discovered in New York in 2006. It has since spread to many other states in the region, including Indiana. Now mortality rates have skyrocketed to 95 percent, with six out of nine hibernating bats infected

WNS affects bats in times of hibernation. The white fungus grows on the muzzles and wings of their bodies

What are the signs? Infected bats will fly erratically during the day or wintertime. The white fungi will cover their nose and wings. Large groupings of infected bats will sometimes gather at the opening of a cave.

White Nose Syndrome might not infect humans, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care. Bats eat insects. If their population decreases, insect populations will grow. This could damage our agriculture as farmers combat pests with pesticides. Bat feces are nutrients for other ecosystems in caves. Without bats, other animals become endangered

If you want to help save the bats, respect the closed caves. The park has closed them for a reason. The fungi from one closed cave can get on clothes and transmit the disease to other open caves

For the Foodie

By Haley Church

At the gristmill, corn is ground every day. You can purchase a bag of corn meal for $3. I picked one up and tried out a recipe:

Golden Corn Cake

¾ cup corn meal

¾ teaspoon salt

1 cup flour

1/3 cup sugar

5 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup milk

1 egg, well beaten

2 tablespoons melted shortening 

Mix and sift dry ingredients. (Don’t sift the corn meal.) Add milk, egg and shortening. Bake in greased pan 20 minutes at 425 degrees.

Jeff, the miller, had warned me that the Spring Mill corn meal is quite literally “just ground-up corn.” I ventured on and tried the first recipe on the back of the brown package. Since I planned to share with my family, I doubled the recipe to make a 9x13 pan of the golden corn cake. In a gas oven the batter turned golden in 16 minutes. I removed it, tentatively expecting to taste something gritty and earthy. Surprisingly, the sugar and flour made the coarse corn meal more cake-like. It could be a little more moist and sweet, but overall, I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Hidden Places - Paige's Pick

By Paige Hutson

Village gardens


In Pioneer Village, there are two stone arches leading the way to the garden kept by the village's gardener. It's a beautiful place to walk through. Take a picture, relax and enjoy the season's plants and flowers. 

Penny quilt
In the nursery and daycare building of the Village, a bed in the back bedroom is covered with pennies. Visitors from all over stop and throw a penny on the handmade quilt. Somewhere on the quilt is a penny I left for future visitors to see.

Cave kisses
While you can go on the Twin Caves Boat Tour in the left cave, you can also step into the mouth of its twin on the right. Climb through the wide opening and get a few cave kisses – falling droplets of water from the cave’s roof.

Spring Mill memory

Marilynne Phipps, 62. Marilynne loves being outdoors and sharing with others the beautiful things that God has created.

“One time, we and our neighbor’s family went camping, and we had a lot of rain before we got there. The campground was saturated, and it was still raining. It was very windy, so we draped a tarp from their camper to ours, and we could visit with each other without getting wet. It turned out to be so much fun playing cards and games and sharing a big pot of chili."