Some 45 miles northwest of Indianapolis, the seat of Montgomery County is an attractive city on Sugar Creek, with 200 years of history.
Many interesting figures have hailed from Crawfordsville, like Lew Wallace, a Civil War major general, politician, ambassador and the author of Ben Hur. You can visit his home in the upscale Elston Grove area and take a tour of the study that he designed for himself.
In the same neighborhood is the museum for the Montgomery County Historical Society, housed in the immaculately preserved residence for Henry S. Lane, prominent in national public affairs before, during and after the Civil War.
In the 1880s Crawfordsville became the first city in the world to have a rotary jail. This novel way of incarcerating people was also incredibly cruel, and the facility downtown is the last to be kept in working order.
1. General Lew Wallace Study & Museum
It would take a long time to list the many achievements of polymath Lew Wallace (1827-1905).
In short, he was a decorated Major General in decisive Union victories at Donelson, Shiloh, and Monocacy, he was a military judge in the trials of the LIncoln Conspirators, he served as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and he wrote the bestselling novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880).
Wallace first moved to Crawfordsville at the age of nine, and returned here after retiring from the army. In the Elston Grove area you can visit the grand study he designed for himself and that was built in 1895.
On a guided tour you’ll find out more about this extraordinary figure, and see a wealth of memorabilia relating to Wallace’s career as a writer, scholar, general, state senator, lawyer and diplomat.
2. Lane Place Antebellum Mansion
The elegant Elston Grove neighborhood is also the home of the Montgomery County Historical Society. This is in the palatial Henry S. Lane House, built in the Greek Revival style in the 1840s.
Lane (1811-1881) was a United States Representative, Senator, and the 13th Governor of Indiana. He built his ornate house on this four acre property after marrying Joanna Lane, who was the daughter of Major Isaac Compton Elston, a major figure in early Crawfordsville.
The mansion was later passed onto their niece, who donated it to the historical society in the early 1930s.
There has been a museum here ever since, and this is special because almost all the decoration and fittings are either original to the house or belonged to the Elstons.
This goes for the smallest details, like a silk hat hanging in the hall, worn by Lane to Abraham Lincoln’s funeral in 1865.
3. Rotary Jail Museum
Something unique to Crawfordsville is its rotary jail, a round cell block behind the old Sheriff’s Residence, sitting on a turntable operated by a hand crank.
This rotates like a carousel, making only one cell accessible at any time. Only 18 were ever built, all in the Midwest, and Crawfordsville was the site of the very first, in 1882.
This is also the only rotary jail that still turns, and served as a jail for almost a century up to 1973.
The rotary jail concept never caught on, because it was both inhumane and vulnerable to interference from inmates. You can come to see this intriguing piece of 19th-century engineering in action, and find out about some of the people jailed here.
4. Carnegie Museum of Montgomery County
When the Carnegie Library opened in Crawfordsville in 1902 it became the first Carnegie Library in Indiana.
This was the setting for Crawfordsville’s main public library building until as recently as 2005, and after it moved to new premises across the street the solemn Carnegie Library building became a museum for the county.
With free admission, this attraction has compelling, interactive exhibits covering the art, history and culture of Montgomery County.
You’ll get to know famous local residents, discover the county’s industrial development and pore over a ton of local memorabilia for sports, pop culture, business, the military and much more.
Among the many interesting things to see are preserved neon signs from downtown businesses, an historic voting machine and a telephone switchboard.
5. Downtown Crawfordsville
Crawfordville’s central business district is preserved as a national historic district, with more than 100 contributing buildings.
As well as the Montgomery County Courthouse (1876), make sure to see the Otto Schlemmer Building (1857) just around the corner at 129-131 N. Green St..
This handsome Renaissance Revival commercial building was renovated later in the century and has an unusual gallery on the second floor.
Along with many lovely pieces of architecture, downtown Crawfordsville buzzes with activity for its plentiful local businesses.
As well as a farmers’ market on Saturday mornings (spring through fall), there’s an international lineup of eateries for every palate, as well as shops for antiques, jewelry, gifts, home design and flowers.
The Montgomery County Visitors Bureau, based right here, has an up-to-date map with all the things you can see and do in the heart of Crawfordsville.
6. Shades State Park
There’s extremely pretty scenery at this state park on Sugar Creek, about 15 minutes southwest of Crawfordsville.
A resort in the late 19th century, Shades State Park is loved for its sheer sandstone cliffs, harking back to when this was a seabed hundreds of millions of years ago.
You can go on rugged hikes through these ravines, which offer blissful shade during the summer. Some of the trails are challenging, requiring you to scale ladders, walk stream beds and negotiate boulders and logs.
It’s easy to see why the park is a popular location for canoe and kayak trips on Sugar Creek, and the local company, Sugar Valley Canoe Trips has a number of packages to choose from.
7. Sugar Creek Trail
Starting at the back of Crawfordsville High School in the southwest of the city is a 4.5-mile shared use path leading you out into the wooded countryside to the west.
After guiding you through a hilly section at the start, the Sugar Creek Trail joins a stretch of the former Big Four (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis) Railway corridor at the Animal Welfare League building.
Here the trail even preserves a piece of the railway itself, dating back to 1853. As you leave Crawfordsville behind you’ll travel through dense woodlands, before crossing Sugar Creek on the old Nucor Bridge.
At the time of writing, the trail ended just north of this point in a quiet wooded area.
8. Elston Grove Walking Tour
That genteel neighborhood east of downtown has been home to many of Montgomery County’s most prominent citizens for almost 190 years.
The story of Elston Grove begins with War of 1812 and Black Hawk War veteran, Major Isaac Compton Elston (1794-1867) who played an important part in bringing the railroad to Crawfordsville.
As a financier in the 1830s he made his home east of the town plat in a densely wooded grove on what is now Pine Street. As the century progressed, many of his heirs and their spouses lived nearby.
The Historic District today features 138 mostly residential buildings, with marvellous examples of Italianate, Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles.
There’s so much to see that the Montgomery County Visitors Bureau has made a brochure for a self-guided tour with almost 50 stops, covering 1.5 miles and taking about two hours.
9. Milligan Park
There’s a lot to do at this public park in the southeast of Crawfordsville.
On 40 acres, Milligan Park has a 22-hole disc golf course, horseshoe pits, a skate park, newly updated playground equipment for wee ones, trails, picnic shelters and the Welliever Softball Field and Baldwin Baseball Field.
Memorial Day Weekend through early August you can also head to Milligan Park for the city’s outdoor pool, which has gotten even better in the last few years with the addition of a splash pad that stays open through September.
10. Cabbages & Kings Antiques Mall
With 120 vendor booths on 3 1/2 floors, this antiques center is large enough that a pop-in can turn into several hours of browsing.
The mall is more than 20,000 square feet, packed with treasures like furniture, textiles, ceramics, lighting, books, clothing, vintage signs, historic home appliances, collectibles, toys, tools, sports equipment and much more than we can list here.
The stock is updated regularly and you’ll need to go slow to see everything, so allow plenty of time.
11. Indiana Zipline Tours
On the way to Shades State Park from Crawfordsville is a wonderful, eco-friendly canopy tour in unblemished nature and completely free from road noise.
Set in the treetops, this high ropes course features numerous suspended platforms connected by scenic walks, a swinging bridge and no fewer than eight zip lines, letting you soar like a bird over the forest floor. These zip lines range in length from 150 feet to 2,000 feet, which is the longest in Indiana.
You’ll wear safe, specialized gear and will be accompanied by friendly and knowledgeable guides who will talk you through the Brakehawk systems that lets you control your speed on the zip lines.
12. Sugar Creek Nature Park
Tucked into a river bend just northwest of downtown Crawfordsville is an unexpected pocket of nature, just over 60 acres in size.
The Sugar Creek Nature Park is the result of a 16-year collaboration between the city, community schools and a long list of local businesses and organizations.
There’s an easy walking loop, three quarters of a mile long, for a restorative walk in the shade of the sycamores by Sugar Creek.
After working up an appetite you can pause for lunch at one of several covered picnic areas placed at short intervals along the path.
13. Crawfordsville Golf Course
Bordering Milligan Park is Crawfordsville’s 18-hole municipal golf course in 132 acres of peaceful parkland.
As you would want from a muni, the course is very reasonably priced, but also has a quality that might catch you by surprise.
That has a lot to do with a program of improvements over the last decade. Awaiting you now is a tricky course with well-kept greens, a fun layout and some holes on the back nine that would be worthy of any country club.
If you want to work on your game there’s a driving range with ten hitting stations, as well as a brand new putting green.
14. Montgomery County Visitors & Convention Bureau
One of a few local organizations based in the four-store Elston Building facing the courthouse, is the local visitors bureau.
So as you make your way around the downtown area you could drop in to see how to get the best out of the town and county.
The staff here will inform you of attractions off the beaten track, upcoming events and help you book lodging, or organize unforgettable outdoor activities on Sugar Creek for example.
You can grab an armful of maps and brochures, including those for themed walking tours in Crawfordsville for prominent women, architecture and the trees of the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum and Lane Place.
15. Crawfordsville Strawberry Festival
The biggest event of the year in Montgomery County is a three-day celebration of strawberries in June.
This takes place in the refined surrounds of Lane Place and blends together food, arts & crafts and fun and entertainment for all ages.
For one weekend at least, the Crawfordsville Strawberry Festival intends to revive the spirit of previous times when the pace of life was slower and families could relax together.
On the agenda are athletic events (softball, tennis, 5k run, tennis scramble), car and tractor shows, numerous food and craft booths and a children’s area with pony rides, a bounce house, face painting and much more.