Southern Indiana offers visitors music, history, caves, and more

Santa welcomes visitors to the Santa Claus Museum, in Kringle Plaza in Santa Claus, Ind.
Santa welcomes visitors to the Santa Claus Museum, in Kringle Plaza in Santa Claus, Ind.

Visitors can easily fill a day or two at Holiday World & Splashin' Safari, but for those who like a little more variety in their vacations, there are plenty of other places worth checking out in southern Indiana. We stopped at a few of them on our recent trip.

One of the unexpected highlights of the trip was a place called Dr. Ted's Musical Marvels, a privately owned museum located in a nondescript warehouse-like building just off I-64 near the tiny town of Dale. Its cluttered interior contains an impressive collection of antique nickelodeons, street organs, hurdy-gurdys, player pianos, carousel organs, and other restored instruments from around the world. And thanks to the repair skills of the museum's owner, nearly every instrument works.

There really is a Dr. Ted. He's 65-year-old Ted Waflart, a former mechanical engineer and a practicing physician for more than 25 years. He began collecting antique musical instruments more than 30 years ago, and hasn't stopped since.

We were shown around the place by Millie Schum, a delightful white-haired lady who is every bit as much of an attraction as any of the museum's instruments. As she stops at an instrument and winds it up or flips a switch, she waits a moment for the music to start, then sways along with it, her eyes closed and a dreamy look coming over her face.

"This music will make you tap your feet, clap your hands, and if you're not careful, put a wiggle in your butt," Millie said.

The most impressive single piece is a colossal Belgian dance organ that's similar to a player piano. It's 12 feet tall and 24 feet long, and includes 535 pipes, two accordians, two saxophones, several drums, and countless colored lights.

Though Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky and made his early mark as an adult in Illinois, he spent the years between age 7 and 21 growing up in Indiana. The Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial just outside Lincoln City describes those years in a 15-minute video at the visitor center, and in a museum filled with exhibits and artifacts from the family's time there, including Lincoln's school papers and farming tools.

A series of trails leads to the grave site of Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who died soon after the family moved to the area, and also to a living-history farm, where park rangers in period clothing take part in activities typical of the Lincolns' time in Indiana.

Another site dedicated to the former president is Lincoln Pioneer Village in Rockport, where there are historically accurate replicas of cabins dating to the Lincoln era, including a schoolhouse, a church, a tavern, a law office, and several homes. The village was used in the filming of parts of a 1955 Burt Lancaster film called The Kentuckian.

The ground under southern Indiana is honeycombed with more than 2,600 caves, most formed by acidic ground water moving along planes in the limestone up to a million years ago. We toured one of the most famous ones, Marengo Cave near Marengo, designated a National Landmark in 1984.

The cave is more than four miles long, and guided tours of the drier upper-level passages are offered. For more serious explorers, there are extended climbing and crawling journeys into the undeveloped sections of the cave.

Marengo Cave, Indiana's most popular natural attraction, is open year-round. The temperature inside remains close to a constant 52 degrees, making jackets or sweatshirts a good idea even on the hottest day.

Kids can also pan for gemstones in a wooden water flume outside the gift shop.

The Holiday Drive-In Theater in Reo is not only part of a dying breed in America, but while other drive-ins have been closing, this one has been expanding. When it was built in 1955, the Holiday had just one screen, but over the years it added more, and today there are five screens. During the peak summer season an estimated 500 vehicles carrying around 2,300 people show up nightly.

The drive-in's projectionist, Gary Wade, seldom leaves his work behind, since he lives on the property year-round in a two-story, two-bedroom apartment inside one of the screen towers.

To get a little closer to home, and to spend the night closer to Marengo Cave, we stayed at the Leavenworth Inn, a sprawling country B&B that consists of four beautifully renovated homes overlooking the Ohio River's scenic Horseshoe Bend. Each of the homes is furnished with antiques, but they all have central air conditioning, DVD players, and wireless Internet service, and the main building includes a wood-paneled library with hundreds of current and classic books and DVDs. And if you start a book, which I did, the innkeeper will let you take it home as long as you promise to send it back when you're done.

In front is a picturesque gazebo that's often used for garden weddings, and out back are courts for tennis and shuffleboard, along with bicycles and equipment for horseshoes and croquet.

Homemade cookies, coffee, tea, and orange juice are set out in the inn's dining room, but breakfast, which is included in the price of a room ($94 to $114 in summer), is served across the street at the aptly named Overlook Restaurant, a full-service place that offers impressive views of the river from both its dining room and its large wooden decks. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner as well.