There is a small town in central Indiana that has great ties to one of the biggest names and the biggest tragedies of Hollywood’s golden age. James Dean spent most of his childhood in Vermont, Indiana – first in the city as a young child and then just out of town on the farm of his aunts and uncles, Marcus and Ortense Winslow, after his mother’s death.
Born in the neighboring city of Marion, Dean’s family moved to Vermont shortly after his birth. He lived there until the age of five, when his family moved to Santa Monica, California. After his mother died at the age of 29, Dean was brought back to Fairmount to live on Winslow Farm. He was 9 at the time and lived there until he graduated from Vermont High School in 1949. The farmhouse still exists, but it is a private residence where a relative of Dean resides.
Dean was an athlete and actor in his days at Fairmount High, and immediately after graduating, he returned to California, where he attended Santa Monica City College and later UCLA as a theater major, performing in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”.
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His first acting gig was in a Pepsi-Cola commercial, and he soon started getting small parts in Hollywood movies. In 1952 he moved to New York and appeared in about 30 live television plays and made his Broadway debut in the play “See the Jaguar”.
While starring in his second Broadway play, he was tapped to play the lead role of Cal Trask in John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden. Later that year he starred in his iconic role as Jim Stark in “Rebel Without a Cause”. His last film, released posthumously, was Edna Ferber’s “Giant” with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.
Dean was killed in a car crash in California at the age of 24. The handsome young pioneer man who draws tens of thousands of visitors to Fairmount every year to see the sites that played an important role in his life and to pay the money has been seen as his simple and humble gravestone in a cemetery right down the road from the farm where he spent his teenage years. Dean received two posthumous Academy Award nominations.
Today in Fairmount, I’ve visited nearly all of the sites that are part of the James Dean Trail. A list of sites can be found along the route showmegrantcounty.com. I also picked up a memorial map at the James Dean Gallery which differed slightly and provided a little background on Dean’s life. There are about a dozen sites to visit in Vermont and a couple more in nearby Marion – the memorial to the site of James Dean’s birth and his mother’s grave.
If you’re planning a day in Fairmount to follow the James Dean Trail, I recommend making the James Dean Gallery your first stop – although you may pass others on your way into town. Here you’ll see David Lehrer’s private collection that includes rooms filled with souvenirs, a gift shop, a small theater showing about 20 minutes of footage from Dean’s television appearance playing in an episode, and a collectibles room.
Located in a large historic house built for a local doctor in 1903, the gallery is open daily from 9am to 6pm all year round and there is a friendly and knowledgeable staff who can answer any questions you may have and fill in your information about the big annual event in Medina – A festival honoring a religion held in late September at the time of his death on 30 September. It includes a massive car show, a street fair, bands playing 1950s music, a James Dean-style competition and more. By starting with the James Dean Gallery, you can get background on Dean’s career and life and learn more about the area before you hit the road.
From there, you can see his childhood home, the church he attended as a child, the location of his old high school, the motorcycle shop where he bought his first cycle, the church where his funeral was held, and his burial ground. There is a bust on display on Main Street which is the California Twin, made by artist Kenneth Kendall. The local park houses the actual stage removed from the old Fairmount High School prior to demolition where Dean was performing. Next to it is a municipal water tower on which a picture of religion is painted.
I had a great two days in the area (shared a lot of history and good food) and will be sharing more in an upcoming column.