Living history in Switzerland County: the legacy of ‘The Hay King’


More than a century has passed since the death of one of Switzerland County’s most famous entrepreneurs, Ulysses P. Schenck, the legendary 19th century riverboat magnate known as the “Hay King.”

Born on May 16th, 1811 in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland, Ulysses P. Schenck (often referred to as U. P. Schenck) arrived in America at the age of six with his family and two other Swiss families — including the Thiebauds and their eight-year-old daughter, Justine. Traveling by Conestoga wagon and keelboat, the new immigrants landed near Indian Creek and took up residence along the water.

As related in Carolyn Danner Beach’s local history, Turn to the River, U.P. Schenck, loved the Ohio and he loved business. His father, Jean J. P. Schenck, “Allowed young Ulysses to keep any money he made regardless of how much the family could use it,” wrote Danner Beach. “It was his way of training his children to deal with both people and money.”

The training was apparently successful. Ulysses established himself in business, using the money he had saved working for his father, and soon afterwards he proposed to his childhood sweetheart, Justine Thiebaud, the little girl two-years his senior with whom he had crossed the Atlantic. On September 30th, 1830 they were married in the Bethal Baptist Church.

After the economic panic of 1837, Ulysses P. Schenck’s business concerns began to expand rapidly. He bought up a number of properties throughout Switzerland County from landowners who had lost their savings in the financial downturn. Between 1837 and 1844, he and Justine lived and worked in the “mammoth” Schenck Store at the corner of Ferry and Pike streets, and from that center U.P. Schenck sold everything from patent medicines to furniture.

“His sense of business,” noted Carolyn Danner Beach, “gave him the ‘Midas touch’ that seemed to turn whatever he touched into profit.”

He bought produce from local farmers and began shipping it south and west on flatboats. In the mid 1840s, he invested in steamboats, and soon he owned and operated more boats than anyone else in the region. Making use of the newly developed Mormon Hay Press, he was able to compress bulky amounts of hay into 300 to 400 pound bales for transport by riverboat.


Even though he earned the name “Hay King” from his shipping interests, U.P. Schenck invested in a broad array of financial enterprises and soon became the wealthiest man in Switzerland County. His obituary of November 16, 1884 summarized some of his accomplishments: “He has bought and sold more land than any other man in Switzerland County, has built more houses, sold more general merchandise, loaned more money, invested more money in manufacturing, banking, and turnpike roads.”

In spite of being the most prosperous man in the area, U.P. Schenck “did not change his habits in the least,” stated the obituary. He was a “quiet, modest, unassuming man. He was even tempered, and avoided controversies and disputes…. Although wealthy (estimated at one million) he was plain and simple in his life, very temperate and regular in his habits.”


The influence of Ulysses P. Schenck is still strong today in Switzerland County. The astute millionaire’s “mammoth” store, continues open for business on the corner of Ferry and Pike Streets, owned and operated by the Danners since 1897. The First National Bank, a few buildings away, is still a center of commerce. The Switzerland Baptist Church, its cost half covered by generous donations from Mr. Schenck, attests to his devotion and civic mindedness, and the residence he built for his family more than 160 years ago still stands, fully restored, on Market Street.

In an article written for the Indianapolis Star about the historical homes of Vevay, Journalist Henry Wood described the exterior of the mansion:

“The front of the house has a small portico of stone, while the rear, overlooking the broad Ohio, is a veranda with pillars that stand the full height of the house. The back of the home, more pretentious than the front, awed the travelers who sailed the Ohio during the river’s palmier days as a busy traffic artery.”

U.P. Schenck’s granddaughter, Corrine Schenck Dahman, spent much of her early life in that Market Street mansion, and her memories describe not only a home from the past but the residence of Lisa and Jerry Fisher — the current owners of U.P. Schenck’s house.

Corrine Schenck Dahman recalled that “members of our family usually watched the boat landings from between the white pillars of grandfather’s veranda, in the shade of the purple wisteria which grandmother had planted…. With its trunk now grown as thick as a man’s arm, it had climbed to the high ceiling of the second story where it shaded the whole southwestern end of the porch, its blossoms hanging in purple festoons.”

The yard, so fondly remembered by granddaughter Corinne Schenck Dahman, still bears some small resemblance to her recollections. The front walkway, said the granddaughter, “led from the wrought-iron gate to the front door where it divided into two paths, one going around each side of the house,” and Lisa Fisher pointed out that the wrought-iron gate that stands in front of the house along Market Street is the “original.”

The rest of the landscaping has changed through the years. In the 19th century it combined the results of Justine Thiebaud Schenck’s love for beauty with a country practicality. A grape arbor “extended the full length of the basement porch and far beyond at each end like wings,” said her granddaughter. At the west end of the arbor was a cold frame in which Justine wintered over some of her flowers. Other tender plants were carried in tubs into the cellar.

Corinne remembered that flowers were important in her grandmother’s daily ritual. “The old French ladies vied with one another in getting the rarest flowers,” she said, recalling how her grandmother would often accompany her husband on trips to Cincinnati where she searched for plants while U.P. Schenck took care of business.

The result was a collection of “oleanders and creamy magnolias of the sunny South…lilacs, snowballs and syringas of the North, along with lilies, roses and geraniums of every kind,” wrote Corinne Schenck Dahman.

The 21st century landscaping is currently handled by Lydia’s Landscapes of Worthville, Kentucky, and includes holly, peonies, iris, hosta, Solomon’s seal, day lilies, hydrangeas, and coneflowers, accented with stately arbor vitae.


The interior of the mansion is remarkably similar to the setting in which Corinne Schenck Dahman played as a young girl. In fact she would probably even recognize the furniture and books.

The Fishers felt fortunate to be able to buy the home as the Schenck family had left it.

“We bought this house with everything in it. It’s a treasure of Schenck history. The house had all the original bookcases and the schoolbooks of the Schenck kids from the 19th century.”

Sixteen-foot ceilings create a dramatic setting for the antiques and woodwork that grace the Schenck-Fisher home, all professionally refinished and restored. The exceptional care taken in restoration is shown even in the attic.

“When they redid the roof,” said Lisa Fisher, “they laid insulation on the outside of the roofing boards so that from the inside the original boarding and beams would be visible.”

A hall tree from the U.P. Schenck’s private riverboat quarters stands inside the entrance to the house; and in the parlor Lisa Fisher has the Schenck’s original mahogany Model A Steinway Grand, made in 1894 in Hamburg Germany and shipped to Cincinnati, she discovered in her research.

A magnificent circular staircase, beautifully reconditioned and refinished, leads to the upper floors. It is reputedly the work of the well-known architect, Francis Costigan, and it cost $1,500 in the 1840s. Corrine Schenck Dahman called that circular staircase, “the stairway, extending in one long spiral from the first floor to the attic where it looked into a skylight,” one of the glories of the mansion.

The walls currently surrounding the staircase reveal the care taken in redoing the wallpaper.

“Kim Young, who lives in Crittenden, did the wallpapers and faux paintings,” said Lisa Fisher.

Fireplaces are prominent in many of the rooms. “There are 12 in all,” Mrs. Fisher said.

Many of the fireplaces still keep their original mantels and tile fascia, and tiles that were not salvageable were replaced with appropriate matching ones. Corrine Schenck Dahman would most certainly recognize them; they were the part of the setting for winter Sunday afternoons with her grandparents “by the grate fire in the living room, which was always bright and cheerful, afternoons in which “the whistles of the steamboats making their landings, the chug of their engines, and the swish of their paddle wheels were the only sounds that broke the Sabbath stillness.”


Through the voices of Corrine Schenck Dahman, Carolyn Danner Beach, Lisa Fisher and the Schenck archives that exist in Vevay, the riverboat period in the history of Switzerland County remains alive and easily encountered by the local resident or tourist. In the next installment, some of those same voices tell the story of the Benjamin Franklin Schenck house, one of Switzerland County’s most famous landmarks.