Published: Sept/Oct 2003

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Remembering a rebel
James Dean’s hometown in Indiana celebrates its favorite son

James Dean
Marion/Grant County CVB photo
By Ruth Chin

For many young men growing up in the 1950s, Jimmy Dean was the epitome of cool.

Dean is a Hollywood legend, even though he made only three movies–“East of Eden,” “Rebel without a Cause” and “Giant”–all within 16-months. But those movies left an indelible memory of his talent among his many fans, and helped to create an American cultural icon.

Part of the Dean mystique is his early death. A fatal automobile accident in Salinas, Calif., killed Dean. He was 24, and driving to enter his Porsche Spyder in a car race.

But in his hometown of Fairmount, Ind., Dean is immortalized and celebrated. Fairmount is six miles west of Interstate 69 on state Route 26 in Grant County. One wouldn’t know there was such a town if it weren’t for several large billboards located along highway I-69 advertising Fairmount as the Hometown of James Dean.

“The signs draw our visitors to come,” said Phil Zeigler, a volunteer at the Fairmount Historical Museum.

Where cool was born

James Byron Dean was born on Feb. 8, 1931 to Winton and Mildred Wilson Dean in Marion, the county seat of Grant County, in the Seven Gables apartment house at the corner of Fourth and McClure streets. A stone plaque and star now marks where the apartment house once stood.

With their baby son, the Deans moved to Fairmount, where Winton Dean worked as a dental technician. Five years later, they moved to California, where Mildred Dean died. Young James, 9, was returned to Fairmount to live with his uncle Marcus and aunt Ortense Winslow on the family farm. Their son, Mark Winslow, donated personal items and artifacts belonging to his famous cousin to the Fairmount Historical Museum.

Dean was an average student who played basketball, participated in track, was a member of the debate team and had parts in school plays. Adeline Nall, his drama teacher at Fairmount High School, encouraged him with acting in school plays. During graduation ceremonies in 1949, he received the dramatic, art and athletic awards. The school now stands empty and deteriorating with windows knocked out by vandals.

“The northeast side windows where Jimmy Dean’s drama classes were held, are ironically still intact,” said Zeigler.

Bill Beck, who owns an antique shop on North Main Street, remembers Dean well as a school chum.

“He was good at sports and could ride his motorcycle on one wheel. When he came home one time from Hollywood, he liked the hat I was wearing and took it off my head and walked off with it. I never saw it again,” Beck said. A photo of Dean wearing Beck’s hat is proudly displayed in the antique shop.

The car run at Playacres Park (above) is an important part to the annual James Dean Festival in Fairmount. James Dean Memorial Gallery (below) features David Loehr’s collection of memorabilia. /Ruth Chin photos
Remembering a legend

Fairmount’s memorable homespun tales about Dean are circulated at its annual three-day James Dean Festival, this year on Sept. 26–28. This quiet town with a population of about 3,000 explodes with 30,000 visitors during the festival’s weekend.

Visitors can catch the free shuttle at specified street corners to be transported to various activity sites, including the school, museums, town center and the James Dean Run car show at Playacres Park that features more than 2,500 antique, classic and custom autos and trucks.

Other activities include a James Dean Look-a-like competition, a dance contest and parade. Dean’s high school classmates will also gather for a school reunion. A development agreement for the restoration of Fairmount High School has been executed by Historic Properties Group of California.

Tours at the Historical Museum are held to see the largest collection of Dean memorabilia, including his motorcycle.

“Visitors from 20 countries came last year,” said Gale Hikade, president of the Fairmount Historical Museum. He proudly showed memorabilia items to Lorna Millany from Ireland who was visiting her hometown friend, Collette Hoff and her son, Conor, who now live in Indianapolis.

The James Dean Festival is held in conjunction with the anniversary of the actor’s death, but Fairmount also celebrates his birthday. The Historical Museum shows a free Dean movie at the Town Hall on the Saturday nearest to the date of his birthday. Cake and punch are served after the show to guests who gather to talk about Dean and the movie. Next year, “Rebel without a Cause” will be shown.

Other Dean-related attractions are open throughout the year. On north Main Street is the James Dean Memorial Gallery, a large restored Victorian house filled with memorabilia collected since 1974 by David Loehr. The collection includes some rare artwork that Dean made in doodles, watercolors and oil paintings. Movie posters in more than 20 languages illustrate the impact of Dean’s work. Hundreds of photographs, books, clothing worn by Dean in films, souvenir plates, and mugs round out the collection, which is scheduled to move to nearby Gas City to a larger facility next February.

Other famous former residents

Fairmount also boasts of other celebrities, including Jim Davis, who created the cartoon strip, “Garfield,” 25 years ago. Davis, who now resides in Muncie, and Garfield will be the grand marshals of the James Dean Festival parade.

Ruth Chin is a contributor from Muncie, Ind.

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