Born in Edinburgh, Scotland on July 8th, 1808, Thomas Gaff moved to America when he was three years old. One of 10 children, Thomas grew up in New Jersey and upstate New York. In Brooklyn, he met and married the widow Sarah Trueman Darling Whipple (1804-1891) in 1835. He started a distillery in Pennsylvania that was a success, but due to the Panic of 1837, the Gaffs began looking for new opportunities. He followed his brother James to Aurora, Indiana in 1843. There they built a distillery on the banks of Hogan Creek and named their company T & J.W. Gaff & Co. Distillery. They made whiskey such as the Scotch Whiskey they called “Thistle Dew.” With the success of this enterprise, Thomas expanded his business interests and decided to build a new home for his growing family.
Sarah and Thomas had six children, three of which survived to adulthood. He commissioned architect Isaiah Rodgers to design his family’s mansion, which he called Hillforest. Construction began in 1853 and in 1855 the Gaffs moved in. Living in the house were three generations of Gaffs including Thomas’ mother, Margaret, Thomas, Sarah, and three daughters, Vienna, Agnes, and Alexina. One of Thomas’ sisters might also have been living with them. Thomas hired full-time staff to look after the mansion, grounds, and stables. By the middle of the 19th century, Thomas and James’ distillery was one of the largest in the country. They also owned a brewery and made one of the first ready-made cereals in the world, “Cerealine.” Along with his son-in-law, Charles Howe, Thomas owned two plantations in Louisiana. When his daughter Vienna died in 1868, Gaff was inconsolable. Alexina wrote in a letter that he often cried out for his deceased daughter.
Thomas was one of the incorporators of Riverview Cemetery, though the Gaffs were all buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati. He was the first president of the Aurora First National Bank until his death. He invested in silver mining, railroads, and turnpike construction. He backed Aurora’s first utility company which supplied gas for lighting. He also helped form an early local property insurance company. The Gaffs owned a large number of steamboats including the Diana, Mary Pell, Eclipse, J.W. Gaff, and the Forest Queen, which served as the headquarters for General William Tecumseh Sherman in the Siege of Vicksburg during the American Civil War. Mr. Gaff helped establish and sat on the board of the first graded school in Aurora. Thomas Gaff died in Cincinnati on April 25th, 1884 at the age of 76. His funeral was held at Hillforest.