Indiana’s Own Wine Country

By Mary Giorgio

Located along the Ohio River in Southeastern Indiana, the sleepy town of Vevay has an intriguing past. In 1802, the area became the site of America’s first commercial winery and later served as an important port community for transportation and shipping along the Ohio River. Pronounced vee-vee, the town’s Swiss heritage remains an integral part of community identity over 200 years later.

Vevay was settled in 1802 by Swiss immigrants. Supposedly, the area’s rolling hills reminded them of their homes in Switzerland. In 1802, Indiana was still a territory (it would not be granted statehood until 1816) and much of the area consisted of untamed wilderness. Chief among the area’s founding settlers was John James DuFour, who immigrated from Switzerland to the United States in 1796. As a boy, DuFour had worked on his family’s vineyard and learned the process of winemaking. He arrived in America intending to establish a flourishing winery. DuFour settled in Lexington, Kentucky, along with several members of his extended family. They began to experiment with 35 varieties of European grapes, but initially found none that grew well in America.

Within a few years, DuFour and his family decided to leave Kentucky. Their principal complaint was that the state allowed slavery. In 1802, the family moved to Indiana territory and planted roots in what would soon become the town of Vevay. In the ensuing years, the DuFour family encouraged other Swiss immigrants to settle in the area.

The community was officially platted in 1813 and given the name Vevay, after the Swiss town Vevey. When Switzerland County was established in 1814, Vevay became the county seat. It wouldn’t officially incorporate into a town, however, until 1836.

1920 (photo courtesy of The Indiana Album)

In Vevay, DuFour started a new wine-making operation on a 2500-acre plot. There, he grew just two grape varieties that he had discovered in Kentucky – Cape and Maderia. DuFour produced his first vintage in 1807, which was sold across the Midwestern frontier. DuFour’s winery is thought to be the first commercial winery to operate in the United States. The wine quickly became famous and was supposedly even served at Thomas Jefferson’s table.

For the first 30 years of the community’s existence, wine was the dominant cash crop. As other Swiss immigrants settled in the area, some also established their own vineyards. Louis Gex Oboussier moved to Vevay in 1805 and began another large-scale grape-growing enterprise. Today, an original farmhouse still stands on land that once comprised Oboussier’s farm. It is one of the last remaining buildings in the area dating to Vevay’s early years.

By the 1830s, the wine industry in Vevay was on the decline. The town soon found a new purpose as a thriving port community for other farming products. The most coveted cash crop in the area became hay. At the time, hay was in great demand for use as animal feed. With a location on the Ohio River, the town could easily ship its hay and other farm products to markets along the Ohio River and beyond. By the 1850s, the town was well established as a leading hub of shipping and transportation in Indiana.

While DuFour had been one of the leading figures in the establishment and early prosperity of Vevay, it was Ulysses Schenck who would become the town’s most prominent citizen during its era as a leading port community. Schenck, also a Swiss immigrant, had initially settled in Louisville, Kentucky. Following the Panic of 1837, he moved to Vevay in search of greater opportunity. Schenck opened a general store and quickly established himself as a leading merchant.

Steamship at Vevay. Photo from the Filson Historical Society.

Schenck was also a farmer and the biggest producer of hay in Switzerland county. To broaden his sales, he established his own shipping company, the Cincinnati – New Orleans Express Line Steamboat Company. Schenck’s great success and wealth earned him the local nickname, “Hay King.” Soon he was one of the richest men in the county.

Schenck’s fortune was so vast that his son, Benjamin, built one of the largest mansions in Vevay. The 8,000 square-foot home included a four-story tower, 35 rooms, and five bathrooms in 1874. In contrast, a family was considered affluent at that time if their home had one indoor bathroom. Schenck joined his father in the mercantile business but was also an entrepreneur in his own right. He owned the Vevay Weekly News and a local ink business. The Schenck Mansion is now a successful bed & breakfast operated by Jerry and Lisa Fisher.

By the early 1900s, shipping methods had changed and Vevay’s time as an important port community had come to a close. The farming community quietly continued producing agrarian products. The town’s population, even in its heyday, was never large. The 1840 census recorded a population of 1,200 residents.  The population reached a high of approximately 1,800 residents in 1880. Today, there are about 1,600 people living in Vevay.

SCHENCK MANSION, 1910

In recent years, the small Southeastern Indiana town has earned a reputation as a charming tourist destination. In 1995, over 100 years after Vevay’s wine industry collapsed, Tom and Jane Demaree opened The Ridge Winery in Switzerland County. The enterprise restored the wine-making business to the region. Today, Ridge Winery is a favorite stop on Indiana’s Wine Trail. Each August, Vevay is also the site of the popular Swiss Wine Festival, a family-friendly event that draws thousands of visitors each year.

Vevay also boasts numerous museums, historic sites, quaint shops, and unique dining opportunities. The town has two Bed & Breakfasts for visitors to enjoy. It is also home to the Eggleston House, a historic site built in 1837. The home was the birthplace of American writers Edward and George Cary Eggleston. The town’s Old Hoosier Theater and Historic Courthouse are also popular tourist attractions.

From commercial wine hub to important agricultural port community, Vevay prospered during the nineteenth century. Through eras of progress and change, the town has maintained its friendly persona and Swiss character. Today, Vevay’s charming atmosphere has made the town a popular getaway for many Midwesterners during the summer months.

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