Though actor James Dean died when he was only 24, his legacy lives on—not just in his movies, but in his hometown of Fairmount, IN, where fans still gather year-round to celebrate the young star. From car shows to fans’ weekends to festivals held in his name, this small midwestern town in Grant County, IN pays tribute to the cultural icon who was known for the cool, nonconformist characters he played.
What’s particularly surprising about James Dean’s career, however, is that he only made three films in his lifetime—Rebel Without a Cause (1955), East of Eden (1955) and Giant (1956). When he died in a car crash in September 1955, he became the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and he is the only actor to ever have received two posthumous acting nominations.
Walking down Fairmount’s Main Street, it’s easy to imagine Dean growing up in the area. The town itself looks like a movie set, with many of the town’s original buildings making up the Fairmount Commercial Historic District, featuring Italianate and Romanesque Revival-style architecture built between 1884 and 1945. Everywhere you look, you can see reminders of Dean, from the water tower that features his face to the memorial park downtown, to Friends Church, where his funeral was held.
In fact, Deanophiles can walk in the actor’s footsteps by following the James Dean Landmark Trail, a self-guided tour that includes the motorcycle shop where Dean bought his first bike and his headstone in Indiana’s Park Cemetery, just a few minutes out of town. Not surprisingly, some visitors to the grave also leave their own remembrances behind, including lipstick marks and messages to the late actor.
To get a comprehensive look at Dean’s career, a stop into the James Dean Gallery is a must. This privately owned and operated museum/gallery is a tribute to all things Dean, and features information on his early life—including photos from when he attended Fairmount High School, where he first began acting—to a video featuring his films to the newspapers that announced his death to the world.
The gallery is almost overwhelming in the sheer amount of Dean portraits and collectibles on display, so plan to spend some time wandering through the different rooms. And if you want to take home something to remind you of the Rebel without a Cause, this is the place because its Rebel Rebel gift shop has one-of-a-kind Dean gifts and 1950s items, up to and including dishes, posters, clothing and more.
This spring, the gallery will be hosting a number of events where Dean fans can gather. The James Dean Fans Spring Get-together will be held May 26-28, followed by the James Dean Car Show June 24; the 25th Annual James Dean Fans Weekend July 28-30; and the James Dean Festival Sept. 21-24. Make sure to book a room early, though—the small town of 3,000 people grows 10 times its size during the September event.
One thing that you may notice while wandering around Fairmount is that James Dean isn’t the only celebrity there—the other being a chunky, sarcastic orange cat. The creator of the comic strip Garfield, Jim Davis was raised in Fairmount and graduated from Fairmount High School in 1963. His talent is celebrated in the towns of Fairmount, Marion, Gas City and Upland, IN through the Grant County Garfield Trail.
Wander into the Fairmount Library, for example, and you’ll come face to face with a five-foot high Bookworm Garfield, posed beside books written by local authors. There are 14 statues of the lasagna-loving cat throughout the trail, including one attired in James Dean clothing outside the James Dean Museum (not to be confused with the James Dean Gallery), which provides the perfect opportunity for selfies.
Food and Rest
Grant County and neighboring Marion County are home to a number of restaurants on the Indiana Foodways Trails, including Bad Dad Brewing Company, Folkies Tavern, Grains & Grill, Hostess House and Payne’s Restaurant. And make sure to stop into family-owned Ivanhoe’s Ice Cream and Sandwich Shoppe in Upland, known for its 100 different shakes and 100 different sundaes!
Grant County includes a number of chain hotels and motels, but for a truly peaceful stay, book at the Old Oak Inn in Marion, IN, a beautifully restored 1903 farmhouse surrounded by farm fields that’s only minutes from town. But plan to skip breakfast out—owner Karen is a wonderful cook, and breakfast is not only delicious but beautifully prepared.
For more information on Grant County, visit https://showmegrantcounty.com.