Around halfway between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, the city Marion is the seat of Grant County and has plenty of interesting stories to tell.
This is the birthplace of James Dean and Garfield creator Jim Davis, and you can follow trails in Grant County for both figures.
Marion’s golden age coincided with the Indiana gas boom from the 1880s, kickstarting the local glass industry. This period is covered in great detail at the Marion Public Library Museum, set in a fine Carnegie library building from 1902.
It was also in Marion that “Hog” became a byword for Harley Davidson motorcycles, after the winner of the 1920 Cornfield Classic race took a piglet along for his victory lap.
1. Marion Public Library Museum
For some background on Marion and Grant County check out this museum in the historic Carnegie Library (1902).
Built in the Beaux-Arts style, this building served as Marion’s public library in 1991, and opened as a museum within months of the library switching to a new building.
When we compiled this list the main exhibit was Made in Marion, charting the days of the region’s natural gas boom, which spurred incredible growth from the 1880s onwards, especially in the glass industry.
You can pore over glass made in local factories, as well as antique electrical appliances, photographs, vintage clothing, toys and a rare Crosley automobile, manufactured in Marion in 1952.
2. Matter Park
A public space that any city would be proud of, Matter Park is a short way down the Mississinewa River from downtown Marion.
A product of Marion’s boom days, this park grew up at the turn of the century and even had a zoo that stayed open until the 1970s.
After a period of decline, Matter Park has bounced back over the last 20 years or so, and has become the location for an ever-growing list of events in summer, including Cruisin’ in the Park in June and a Fourth of July celebration featuring fireworks and a concert by the Marion Philharmonic Orchestra.
Also worthy of note is the 6.3 acres of landscaping that make up the Gardens of Matter Park. A prime setting for weddings, reunions and graduations, the gardens are planted with more than 7,000 annuals and feature the award-winning Butterfly Garden, supporting monarch butterflies.
3. Grant County Courthouse
There has been a courthouse at this square in downtown Marion since 1933. The current building, completed in 1882, is the third courthouse and was initially crowned with a dome that was removed in 1960.
In 1930, the courthouse was the setting for the most infamous event in the town’s history when three black men, awaiting a hearing for murder/robbery and a rape, were pulled from the jail by a mob.
Two, Tom Shipp and Abe Smith, were lynched in the square, while a third, James Cameron (1914-2006), was spared by a woman who spoke up for him.
A shocking image of the lynching, taken by a local studio photographer, is one of the abiding images of the era, and partly inspired the song “Strange Fruit”, famously performed by Billie Holliday.
Cameron later became an activist, founding three chapters of the NAACP, and was here in 1995 to help face down a poorly-attended rally by the KKK.
4. Mississinewa 1812
During the War of 1812, the Battle of the Mississinewa was fought on the riverbank, seven miles north of today’s Marion.
This was an expedition ordered in December 1812 by William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) against Miami Indian villages, responding to attacks on Fort Harrison and Fort Wayne.
Every October there’s a remarkable reenactment on the battle site, comprising the country’s largest living history event relating to the War of 1812.
Across the weekend there’s a reenactment with American, Native American and British soldiers, with authentic uniforms and equipment.
At River Town you can check out more than 140 artisans, merchants and food purveyors, from gunsmiths to potters to master printers.
The Indiana Village and Wilderness Camp offers a rare insight into Native American life and the challenges faced by traders, trappers and voyageurs.
5. Marion’s Mississinewa Riverwalk
The most scenic way to get to Matter Park from downtown Marion is along this 2.25-mile path that starts by the Washington Street Bridge and finishes in the north at Matter Park’s pond.
Created in the 1980s, the Mississinewa Riverwalk has been designed for fitness as well as passive recreation, passing through a chain of public parks.
These all have facilities like grills, shelters, playgrounds, along with historical monuments like the Mississinewa 1812 Memorial at Willis Van Devanter Park. The Riverwalk is a multi-use path, accommodating hikers, joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers.
6. Quilters Hall of Fame
The famed quilt designer and entrepreneur Marie Webster (1859-1956) was born in Marion. The fine house, constructed in 1905, where she settled with her husband George and lived from 1909 to 1942, is now home to the Quilters Hall of Fame.
This organization, recognizing people who have made outstanding contributions to this art form, was founded in 1979.
There’s an excellent museum here with exhibits dedicated to quilts and the people who make, research and collect them.
Every July there’s a Quilt Celebration at the Webster House, with workshops, auctions, a vendor mall, lectures and the induction of a new person to the Hall of Fame.
7. Marion National Cemetery
In the southeast of the city is the peaceful resting place for more than 8,000 men and women, veterans from numerous wars over the last 160+ years.
What would become the Marion National Cemetery was established in 1889 after a petition by congressman and Civil War veteran George Washington Steele (1839-1922) for a Soldier’s Home in Grant County.
The first burial at the cemetery was Henry Smith, a Civil War veteran, in May, 1890. To date there are three Medal of Honor recipients at the Marion National Cemetery, two from the Civil War and one from the Indian Campaigns.
Historic monuments to look out for include the Remember the Maine monument (1901) and a Civil War memorial for the Minnesota 2nd Regiment (1913).
8. Marion Splash House
One of the top family water parks in Indiana is right here in Marion. Open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the Marion Splash House is a blend of fun and relaxation, with all kinds of attractions and more than 30,000 square feet of deck space.
Some of the highlights are a wave pool with the highest waves in Indiana, a lazy river, two twisting water slides and an expansive play zone for smaller kids.
For a little getaway you can rent a cabana, while there are concession stands when it comes time to refuel.
9. Hog Daze
In 1919 and 1920, Marion hosted the early motorcycle race, the Cornfield Classic. History was made in 1920 when Harley Davidson rider Ray Weishaar won the race and brought his piglet along for the victory lap.
His teammates started calling themselves the Hog Boys, and this is the origin of Harley Davidson’s being known as “hogs”.
That heritage is celebrated with a motorcycle rally at the Grant County Fairgrounds. Events include bike shows, a swap meet, a motorcycle rodeo, loud pipes competition, live music and a reboot of the Cornfield Classic.
10. James Dean Birthsite Memorial
Film buffs or fans of James Dean (1931-1955) can follow his footsteps in Grant County. Dean’s birthplace is right in downtown Marion, at the site of the Seven Gables Apartment House.
That building is long gone, but there’s a pocket park here centered on a black stone monument and labeled with a historic marker.
With benches and a lighted backdrop of cypress trees, the memorial pays tribute to the star and a career that was curtailed tragically early. This space was created in 2015 to mark the 60th anniversary of his passing.
11. Hostess House (J. Wood Wilson House)
At 723 W 4th Street is a marvellous Colonial Revival house, built in 1912 for the banker J. Wood Wilson.
Hard to miss for its impressive Ionic portico, this is one of the most famous residential projects by architect Samuel Plato (1882-1957) and cost a steep $135,000.
Plato was commissioned for several projects around Marion at this time, and was known for his progressive employment practices, helping to open building trade unions to African-American workers.
The Hostess House has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1911, and the refined setting for a restaurant, serving lunch Monday to Friday 11-2. On the second floor there’s also a shop, Peggy’s Boutique, selling all kinds of handmade gifts.
12. Indy Airstrip Attack
Marion Municipal Airport, three miles southwest of downtown, has become the venue for a prestigious side-by-side racing event and trap speed competition.
The Indy Airstrip Attack takes place on the second weekend of August, and thanks to the high grip surface has witnessed numerous world records tumble over the last decade.
The track is half a mile long, and on the Saturday there’s a number of competition classes, including sedans, AWD Unlimited and 6-Speed Unlimited.
On the Sunday the event is open to cars and motorcycles of all categories and horsepowers, whether racing head-to-head or solo.
13. Grant County Garfield Trail
Garfield creator Jim Davis was born in Marion in 1945 and grew up just south of the city in Fairmount before attending university at Ball State in Muncie.
As a way of honoring Davis and his sarcastic cartoon cat, 14 fiberglass statues of Garfield have been erected in towns across Grant County, 6 of which can be found in Marion, each with a location-specific theme.
There’s Bookworm Garfield at the Marion Public Library, College Bound Garfield at the Sweetser Switch Trail and Depot and Dr. Garfield at Marion General Hospital.
Also look out for Fit for Life Garfield standing in Matter Park Gardens, Duffer Garfield in the Arbor Trace Golf Clubhouse and Paws for Thought, on a pedestal in the Garfield Garden at Community Foundation of Grant County.
14. James Dean Gallery
Like Jim Davis, James Dean grew up in Fairmount and was laid to rest at Park Cemetery there in 1955.
To stay on the James Dean theme you can head to this superb museum founded in 1988 in an elegant Victorian home on Main Street.
The James Dean Gallery shows off the large collection of James Dean archivist, David Loehr, who started gathering Dean-related memorabilia in 1974.
As an affectionate tribute to the star, the exhibit here features thousands of pieces, including original movie posters, Dean’s personal effects, childhood photographs and high school yearbooks.
Essential here is the Kenneth Kendall Room, where you peruse the casts, drawing and paintings made by the artists who produced the sculptures of Dean for the Griffith Observatory and Fairmount’s James Dean Memorial Park.
15. Walnut Creek Golf Complex
If golf is your game you won’t want to miss this public course in the southeast of Marion, hailed as the best in Grant County.
There are actually two courses here for a combined 36 holes. Walnut Creek opened in 1970, while the Club Run Course came later in 1998.
More than any golf facility in the state, the two tracks blend with the landscape and its water, woods and hills, and feel like an escape to nature.
There’s a wide choice of tee areas so golfers of all standards can enjoy themselves, as well as a comprehensive practice facility and driving range.
Walnut Creek is praised for the friendliness of its staff and high level of maintenance, even during rainy periods.