“Ain’t that America”

Fairmount, IN - Source: en.wikipedia.org

Those immortal song lyrics come from Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee and fellow Hoosier John Mellencamp’s classic rock tune entitled “Pink Houses.” On my return trip to Michigan from Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon, I decided to follow the road less traveled and was fortunate enough to visit one very proud small town for an hour or so and take in some of the local history and culture.

Most small towns cannot claim a legendary icon as their native son or daughter. Charming Fairmount, Indiana, set amid a patchwork quilt of rural farms and with an population of approximately 3,000, has been the home to two of them, James Dean and Jim Davis.

image

Source: rottentomatoes.com

James Dean had one of those magnetic personalities that has kept him recognizable and in the public spotlight even 57 years after his tragic death at the age of 24.  He was born, raised, attended high school, and was later buried in Fairmount.  James Dean was the epitome of “cool”  and the local tourism and economic development agencies have successfully used the theme of “cool” to promote Fairmount and surrounding Grant County as the birthplace of cool.

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Source: thegarfieldshow-diary.com

Jim Davis, the creator and cartoonist of the Garfield comic strip was raised in Fairmount as well. The local history museum highlights both men’s hometown years, as well as their fame.

A separate museum/gallery is dedicated specifically to James Dean and there is a tour guide/map of the famous sights related to his life and death.

But Fairmount is so much more that its two famous sons. It is one of the best remaining examples I have found of a “traditional small town” in the Midwest.  Proud citizens, tidy homes and farms, a compact and reasonably healthy main street business district, and a sense of long-term strength and stability, even in these difficult economic times, combine to make Fairmount quite special. The fact that it has not been overrun by rampant sprawl is also endearing.

Fairmount Main Street - Source: flickr.com

While not totally bypassed by the Interstate Highway system, Fairmount is situated five miles west of I-69, exit 54 between Indianapolis and Marion. As it turns out, the town’s distance from the expressway has been a blessing in disguise for Fairmount. You don’t find a monotonous  string of highway commercial establishments along State Route 26 leading either direction out of town, like you can in so many nameless places that are in close proximity to an exit. Instead, in Fairmount you find a closely-knit community that has virtually seen no commercial sprawl. This  makes Fairmount, Indiana refreshingly unique from a rural and small town planning perspective and very, very special. Other small towns that want to preserve their identity and integrity should consider looking to Fairmount for guidance. Whether is was sheer luck or perseverance does not matter, the fact is  Fairmount stands out from the crowd. Hopefully, the residents realize their good fortune and strive to maintain the town’s charm and innocence. It would be a terribly sad thing to lose in our throw-away society.

Next time you are wandering through Indiana or other states of the American Midwest, consider taking the road less traveled. You may just stumble across a “cool” small town like Fairmount, Indiana of your very own.

UPDATE: Today (Feb. 8th) would have been James Dean’s 81st birthday. Happy Birthday, James. 

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18 thoughts on ““Ain’t that America”

  1. Megan McClure says:

    I would drive through Fairmount every time I would go to or come home from Ball State. I’m also a HUGE James Dean fan. It is a really cute town.

  2. K Niverson says:

    I was born in Farimount and have spent most of my life here. I have always considered our town to be a rare and valuable treasure. It is so nice to know others appreciate it too. I will share your thoughts with some of our local leaders who work hard to maintain the very qualities you lauded.

  3. There are reasons for cities and towns to be compact. Everything is more convenient. It is easier to go to work and accomplish other daily activities without using a car for every trip. Infrastructure costs are lower because infrastructure is less extensive and there are more taxpayers per mile of road, sewer line, etc.

    Unfortunately, there are many forces working against compact cities and towns. Subsidies for sprawl include the mortgage interest tax deduction and overly-extensive transportation and water systems, Another force in favor of sprawl is real estate speculation. Some owners of prime sites hold out for more money than these sites are worth today (thinking they’d be silly to rent or sell at current prices when the market is likely to go up in the future). Thus, prime sites become very expensive and force developers to seek cheaper, but more remote sites instead.

    There are remedies for sprawl. Reform of the mortgage interest deduction would be an important federal action. At the state and local level, some jurisdictions are transforming their property tax into a value capture user fee. They accomplish this by reducing the tax rate on building values while increasing the tax rate on land values. This takes some of the profit out of land speculation and helps keep land prices affordable. At the same time, lower taxes on building values make it cheaper to construct, improve and maintain buildings. This is good for both residents and businesses. Finally, the higher tax on land values makes it more expensive to keep prime sites in the center of town vacant or underutilzed. By focusing development on these high-value sites, development pressure can be reduced in outlying areas that are more appropriate for agriculture, conservation and recreation.

    For more information, see http://www.justeconomicsllc.com

  4. Justine Smiley says:

    So nice to read this on what would have been James Dean’s birthday. Long live Fairmount and all who pass through (and those who stay)!

  5. Jackie Homrighous-Johnson says:

    I was raised in Fairmount in the 50s & 60s. After having been gone for 25 plus years, I returned for a few days to find the town pretty much the same. A couple of the schools are gone & one close to being gone, are the biggest changes I see. My grandpa’s shop is still standing but not in use at all. I’m sad to hear they are wanting to take down the high school where James Dean & Jim Davis both attended. I was in the Thespians (Drama) Club & acted on the very same stage Dean acted on when he was going there (Fairmount High School). I love that old building & if I had the $$ I would rehab it myself. At least the part where the stage & auditorium are. All that aside, Fairmount is still a quaint little town I grew up in & darn proud of it.

  6. Mark Kinnaman says:

    I have lived in Fairmount for 10 years. I came because of James Dean, but stayed for the people. I sell T-shirts that say “Life is Better in Fairmount”. It is so true. I love this little town and am looking to spending the rest of my life here. Come and visit, you will be so glad that you did.

  7. My sister Wenda Heater Clement two brothers Eldon Heater and Richard Heater graduated from Fairmount High School. My bdaughter Theda K Smalley Langford and two of my sons Terry and Jerry Smalley graduated from the High School and son Rex Smalley graduated from the new High School Named Madison Grant My two brothers played Basketball the years that James Dean played We have a farm west of Fairmount that My husband Harold Smalley lived on and was homesteaded by his grandfather. Our Son Jerry Smalley also lives on the farm. Thank you for sharing your visit to Fairmount Harriet Heater Smalley

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