FAIRMOUNT — As it has every fall for the past 38 years, a small town on the Grant County border honored a local icon who died well before his prime. And not even the driving rain could keep throngs of people from joining in the celebration.
The rain slightly cut down attendance on the final day of the James Dean Festival on Sunday, but hundreds still walked the streets of Fairmount, visiting vendors, eating and enjoying carnival rides. Event volunteers estimated at least a few thousand visitors came to town for this year’s festival, a drastic change of pace for the normally quiet town of about 3,000.
But vendors and organizers actually appreciated the cooler, rainy weather on Sunday. After three days of excellent weather and serving hundreds of visitors, the quiet wind-down was a welcome reprieve.
The festival is organized yearly by the Fairmount Historical Museum as a celebration of Dean’s life, and usually finishes around Sept. 30, the day the teenage film icon was killed in a car crash in 1955 at the age of 24. The event has transformed into an opportunity for vendors and a family event for festival-goers, but fans of Dean, who grew up in Fairmount, still come to celebrate the man.
“I came my first time last year, and I was so enamored by it, I had to come back,” said Linda Cowgill of Fort Wayne. “The museum is great, too. It’s an awesome little town. I’ve come here many times, and each time, I learn something new about (Dean) that I didn’t know before.”
Even visitors with no real interest in Dean found the festival enjoyable.
“I’m not familiar with his stuff, I’ve never even seen one of his movies,” said Barbara Stammen of Kokomo. “But this is very interesting, and the town is very nice. The people are very friendly.”
Dave Loehr, owner of the James Dean Gallery located just north of the downtown event on Main Street, said he still meets Dean fans from around the world year after year. The gallery celebrated its 25th year in business earlier in September, and Loehr said events like the festival help keep his business alive.
“It brings a lot of revenue to the city, and the townspeople are all really proud of James Dean. He’s a nationally known icon, recognized around the world,” Loehr said. “It’s just kind of a neat thing that he came from this little Midwest town.”
Loehr grew up in Massachusetts and worked in New York City for a number of years. But he was eventually drawn to Fairmount because of his attachment to Dean, which ultimately led him to open the gallery. He said business can be slow, especially during the winter. The gallery really only sees about four good months during the summer and closes strong with the festival. But Loehr can’t imagine making a living any other way.
“The festival really helps. It packs the town. A lot of them stay down at the carnival, so we really never get jammed, but we get a steady flow of traffic,” he said. “It doesn’t pay very well, but I love what I do. It’s kind of like providing a public service.”
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