An easy drive from Chicago (125 miles via I-80 or I-90 to I-65 South), Lafayette and West Lafayette are not really twins, like, say, Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Lafayette is a typical Indiana industrial burg. West Lafayette, across the Wabash River and home to Purdue University, is a college town.
If you get off I-65 at the first Lafayette exit (Route 43), you'll come in along the Wabash River, which rolls lazily along on the left, while a steep hill climbs up on the right. As you come into West Lafayette, the top of the hill is lined with mansions--posh homes in a former life perhaps, now fraternity houses. Turn right at the first stoplight onto State Street and go up the hill through a block or two of "downtown" West Lafayette, and you'll see the university stretched out on both sides.
Purdue is your basic midwestern red brick university--not ivy-covered walls but many three-story buildings spread over a large and virtually treeless campus, its lawns broken up by large expanses of roadway, parking lot, and sidewalk. The university is dominated by its engineering, agriculture, and technical schools, which seem to impose a clean, orderly, and sterile atmosphere. Not much for the sightseer, aside perhaps from the grave of John Purdue (who donated the acreage on which the school sits), which is in the middle of campus by the flagpole in front of University Hall. And there's the home of Earl Butz, former dean of the Purdue ag school and secretary of agriculture under Nixon and Ford (2741 N. Salisbury). Forced to resign after the public furor that followed his telling of a racist joke, Butz was welcomed back here without shame or stigma; "Butz' Famed Sense of Humor Still Intact" read the local paper's headline.
If you get back on State Street and continue west past Airport Road (Purdue has a small airport, with commercial flights to Chicago), you'll find Purdue's Horticultural Park, several acres of labeled trees, flowers, and shrubs. Flat and all too neatly maintained, it too suffers from a maniacal rage for order. Far better to visit Clegg Gardens (see below).
In fact, aside from Von's Bookstore (315 W. State, 317-743-1915) and a couple of places to eat or sit with coffee, the west side offers little to delight the visitor. Time to turn around and cross the river.
Lafayette is a separate entity. The university may be a big employer, but the town exists for the most part just as it would if Purdue were not there. It lives on its industry, and though the industrial establishments (Alcoa, Essex Wire, the new Subaru plant, and A.E. Staley, which makes corn sweeteners, are the biggies) offer no enticements to the sightseer, the town does have several points of interest and unexpected charm. And they're all free, or nearly so--free not only of admission charges but also of hovering official guides and other tourists.
The Tippecanoe County Courthouse--Lafayette is the county seat--is one example. It was completed around 1885 in a wonderfully rococo mixture of styles and is currently undergoing renovation (323 Columbia St.; open 8 to 4:30 on weekdays, closed noon to 1 PM; 317-423-9343). There are also several beautiful old mansions from the same era. Yet I prefer some of the less officially celebrated aspects of the town. Like the railroad--not streetcar--line that runs right down the middle of Fifth Street. Or the Woman's Clinic (2400 Ferry St.), with its six ineluctably breastlike domes, each with a salmon rimmed skylight nipple.
More conventional, but still worth visiting, is Columbian Park, located on Park Avenue between South and Main (open noon to 9 PM Tuesday through Sunday, 317-447-9351). A miniature railroad winds among picnic areas and around a bunch of kiddie carnival rides, including a mini roller coaster. There's also a giant slide and a "moon walk" (basically an enclosed area of inflated rubber on which it's hard to walk and fun to fall down). Each has a small fee, but there's also a big, free playground that includes some long or bumpy or twisty slides. (The rides open after Memorial Day.)
The Columbian Park Zoo ain't much by big-city standards, but it's very pleasant, with its Sika deer, domestic turkeys, peafowl, Sicilian donkeys, what look to be llamas, and a few other captives.
The park doesn't have much scenic beauty (nor does anyplace else in the city). For that you have to go out of town a bit, over by Wildcat Creek. On the other side of I-65, on County Road 400E between Route 25 and Route 26, you can find the Clegg Botanic Gardens, a privately funded 14 acres of gullied woodland with intersecting trails that wind through myriad labeled trees, shrubs, and flowers: creeping Charlie, Michigan trillium, trout maple, Solomon's seal, shagbark hickory, "Chinquapin Oak. Sawtooth leaves. Acorns were a favorite food of passenger pigeons." There's a small parking lot across the road, and the gardens are open free to everyone except unaccompanied children, who aren't allowed, every day from 10 AM to sunset. There are no rest rooms and no picnicking (317-423-1325).
You can look down on Wildcat Creek--it's really as big as what are in some places called rivers--from one of the hillocks in the Clegg Gardens, but to see it up close go back south on County Road 400E, turn left on Eisenhower Road, and proceed a couple of miles to Wildcat Park, which is charming and pretty and where you can picnic.
Actually, bringing your own repast to Wildcat Park is probably one of your best eating bets in the Lafayette area, which is not noted for its culinary delights, unless your tastes run to fast-food chains. In Lafayette proper, the longstanding favorites among residents are the Biltz Landmark, a steak house (2401 Sagamore Pkwy, really the U.S. 52 bypass, 317-742-0088), and Morris Bryant, a smorgasbord (1800 Sagamore Pkwy, 317-463-2531).Both are guaranteed to fill you up with food that's just about what you'd expect. I'd rather recommend a couple of places back in West Lafayette: the Parthenon (135 S. Chauncey St., in the little mall off State Street at the top of the hill, 317-743-6778) is set up like a cafeteria-style gyros joint, but features many of the traditional (and usual) Greek dishes, including dolmas better than any I've had on Halsted Street. Just down the block (120 Northwestern Ave., 317-743-5220) is the Blue Cafe, the area's one and only coffeehouse, a good place to get away from the red brick atmosphere of Purdue and its dorms, frats, college bars, and Taco Bells. The cafe features the usual array of refrigerated pastries and espresso/cappuccino variations, along with one I hadn't seen--"ristrato," which the waitress describes as a double espresso. Double in size or strength? In size, she says--it's a double shot. But it's cheaper ($1) than the espresso ($1.25). She shrugs. "I didn't make the list." Of course I order ristrato, and it's good as well as cheap.
Historically, the Lafayette area is best known as the site of the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, which took place a bit north of the present city near a little town called Battle Ground, which has the inevitable museum. Prior to that battle two Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh, a warrior, and his twin Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, had formed a confederacy of tribes based on the principle of nonintercourse with whites aside from trade, hoping by this means to stop the dissolution of the Indian peoples and the loss of their lands. In 1811, while Tecumseh was gone, William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory, brought 1,100 soldiers up the Wabash valley against Tecumseh's village, near where Tippecanoe Creek joins the Wabash River. The Indians, led by the Prophet, were defeated by Harrison's troops, and Tecumseh's village was destroyed. Tecumseh joined the British in the War of 1812 and was killed during it. Harrison parlayed his victory into a successful run for the U.S. presidency 30 years later.
A few years ago Tippecanoe County built the Tippecanoe County Amphitheater for the sole purpose of staging a weekly reenactment of this battle. The show didn't prove popular enough, and now the county is looking for other acts to book. With a modicum of stealth, you can walk in and take a look at it (4449 Route 43, just off Prophets Rock Road; you can also call for a tour, 317-463-2211): 1,500 seats, backed by a large fake-log structure built to look like a fort--with towers housing extensive lighting and sound equipment--that faces an earthen stage featuring a small fake house and a very ugly cement-block shed. Facing the road is an extensive parking lot.
A little farther northeast on Prophets Rock Road is the feature that gives the road its name: "Prophet's Rock, where the prophet sat and sang to encourage the Indians in the battle of November 7, 1811. Erected 1929 by the General de Lafayette Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution." So reads the inscription on a three-foot-high stone standing next to a tiny parking lot right off the road. Above it is an eroding hillside, out of which a rock juts; the position of many trees, their roots exposed, looks increasingly precarious. A heavy storm seems to have come through recently, shearing off the tops of many trees and felling another. The debris surrounds and almost covers the DAR's dedication stone. Despite the fact that the place is neither guarded nor tended, there's no trash or graffiti. Standing on top of the rock where the Prophet must have stood, you can see the Wabash valley--fields, woodlands, the river in the distance. If you try to imagine what it must have been like back when the native Americans fought unsuccessfully for their survival, you have to wonder in what spirit the DAR dedicated this memorial. A monument to the victory of the European settlers or a memorial to their defeated foe?