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.
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.
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.
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.