Where Cool Went to School: James Dean’s Hoosier Hometown

Every star once had a stomping ground. For diehard fans, a celebrity’s hometown can serve as a cultural mecca: John Wayne’s Winterset, Iowa; Jimmy Stewart’s Indiana, Pennsylvania; Jack Nicholson’s Neptune City, New Jersey. Instead of vacationing to tropical beaches or national parks, some opt for celebrity tourism, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the places that shaped their favorite stars.

A small town in central Indiana was the birthplace of the late method actor and cultural icon James Dean. He was a homegrown Hoosier, and the folks in Fairmount, Indiana aren’t forgetting him any time soon.

fairmount water tower

Fairmount is a town of about 3,000 people and one stoplight. It is surrounded by fields of corn extending for miles in every direction. James Dean grew up just outside town in a farmhouse with his aunt and uncle. “Where Cool Went to School” banners line the town’s main drag, but the school Dean attended is no more. The old Fairmount High School was torn down a few years ago and now sits as a pile of rubble in the middle of town. The stage on which a teenage Dean performed in plays like Goon With the Wind was saved by the Fairmount Lions Club to be turned into a community performance space.

Although Fairmount is decidedly remote, it lays claim to an inordinate number of creative types, including Garfield-creator Jim Davis, author Mary Jane Ward, and painter Olive Rush. Most of the celebrity tourism is on account of James Dean, though. Starting at the James Dean Gallery on Main Street, a visitor can get a rundown of the whole James Dean trail: the bronze bust in the center of town, Carter’s motorcycle shop, the Winslow farm, and Park Cemetery. The whole town, it seems, exists as a kind of shrine to the short life of its unruly son.

Every September, Fairmount attracts “Deaners” from around the world for the James Dean Festival. This year, 30,000-50,000 of them gathered in the Indiana community for film screenings, car shows, and a James Dean look-alike contest. According to one of Dean’s biggest fans, the winner of the contest “had blond hair like Jimmy, and he adopted some of his mannerisms. But there’s only one James Dean.”

Marcus Winslow, Jr. and Pam Crawford in a 1949 Ford
Marcus Winslow, Jr. and Pam Crawford in a 1949 Ford

Pam Crawford, of Little Rock, Arkansas, is the president of the James Dean Remembered Fan Club. She travels to Fairmount at least once a year for the festival. She was only 7 when Dean was killed in a car accident near Salinas, California, in 1955, but Crawford said she was familiar with the actor because her older cousin had wallpapered her room in Dean pictures. For Crawford, “It was over before it began.”

After Dean’s death, there were rumors that he was actually still alive, driving across the country. Crawford said she and her friend were determined to catch him on his way through Little Rock, so they stood by the highway after school with a sign that said, “JAMES DEAN STOP.” Before seeing East of Eden or Rebel Without a Cause, Crawford had already fallen in love with the brooding blond.

Other Deaners, like Phil Zeigler, have purchased houses in Fairmount after visiting. They find the small-town charm of Fairmount to be authentic and almost frozen in time — descriptions that also fit the man who brought them together.

The James Dean Gallery is the home base of all things Dean in Fairmount. The small museum houses memorabilia from Dean’s childhood and acting career. There are old pages of homework, letter jackets, yearbooks, and the young artist’s watercolor paintings on display with ‘50s radio hits like “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” playing overhead. Further into the gallery, the scope of Dean’s work and fame comes into focus, with posters of Øst for Paradis (East of Eden) and Gigante (Giant), shelves of Dean cologne and soap, and a portion of the white picket fence from Rebel Without a Cause.

Sitting just north of town is the Winslow farm, Dean’s childhood home after his mother’s death. The property is now occupied by Marcus Winslow, Jr., James Dean’s cousin, who was 12 years old when Dean died. The farm is still in operation, with cows roaming the rolling hills adjacent to several giant, clean white barns. Inside there are tractors as well as shiny vintage automobiles. A 1949 Ford in the collection was used by Dean on trips back to the farm from New York or Hollywood, according to Winslow. Winslow remembers a teenage Dean, and he recalls his transition to acting, from a Pepsi commercial to Hill Number One, an Easter television special, to Giant, the epic Texas drama directed by George Stevens. “He could kind of pull people’s feelings right into him. He spoke for them,” Winslow says.

James Dean-branded soaps and perfumes

Back Creek Friends Church, near the farm, is an old Quaker church where Dean’s funeral took place. Since 1980, Deaners have gathered there every year on September 30 for a memorial service. They read poems, letters, and sing original songs inspired by their love of James Dean. Phil Zeigler has long been in charge of the service, and he recalls celebrity appearances from Martin Sheen, Liz Sheridan, and Maxwell Caulfield. Anyone is allowed to speak at the yearly service, but there are three rules, according to Zeigler: “No politics, no advertisements, and no religion.”

A former attendee became a sort of celebrity to the Deaners: Nicky Bazooka. Before his death in 2014, the mysterious Nicky Bazooka arrived each year to the Dean memorial service on a motorcycle, leading the procession from the church to Dean’s grave at Park Cemetery. Afterwards, he rode off on his motorcycle and disappeared for another year.

Nicky Bazooka died in 2014, but another motorcyclist, Ivan Ivans, continues his tradition. He leads the Deaners with a strand of 1,000 colorful paper cranes folded by a Japanese Dean fan.

Russell Aaronson has lived in Dean’s old New York apartment (19 West 68th Street) for more than 45 years. He speaks to his fellow Deaners about the soul of James Dean as timeless and ever-present. “There is a little of James Dean in all of us,” he says. It is a popular sentiment. Most of the Deaners believe Dean’s style and appeal is evergreen, and it is true that many of the memorial service’s attendees are too young to have existed during his life.

the grave of James Byron Dean

Regardless of how anyone becomes a serious James Dean fan, the overarching Deaner opinion is that a visit to Fairmount enriches the adoration. Fairmount exudes the quiet, nostalgic feel of small towns that many in this country believe is disappearing. Unlike other cities and towns around it (Anderson, Marion, Muncie), Fairmount doesn’t seem
to have taken an economic nosedive with the slow deindustrialization of the last half-century. The brick roads and boutique shops reflect a town that Dean once walked through. Now it’s a place for his admirers to have a community of their own.

“The first time I came here, I told my dad ‘I’ve got to go to Fairmount, Indiana to pay homage to Jimmy’s grave,’” says Pam Crawford, “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re 30 years old, and you’re still sitting on the side of the road waiting for James Dean!’”

Deaners might often receive reactions like this from people who don’t understand the lasting hype surrounding their Jimmy, but there is at least one town where everyone gets it.