The 36th James Dean Festival-Kustoms galore!

For the past 36 years, the annual James Dean celebration event in Fairmount, Indiana, has consisted of a massive car show, a street festival and the focal point-celebration of James Dean’s life, and death. To say that Fairmount has a favorite son would be akin to saying California is the mecca of the movie star.

For those not up on James Dean history, it may be surprising to learn James Dean actually lived in California shortly after his birth. James Byron Dean was born February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana – a town 15 miles north of Fairmount (and they too, celebrated his life in September by unveiling a new memorial at his birthplace), but he went to elementary school in Fairmont, graduated high school there in 1949, and moved back to California where he would die in a two-car crash on September 30, 1955 in Cholame, California, just three short years after he became a celebrated Hollywood actor.

Not only was James Dean born here, but Garfield's creator lived here as well

Not only was James Dean born and raised here, but Garfield, the Cat’s creator, Jim Davis, lived here as well.

When Dean was just a baby, his father moved the family to Santa Monica, California. Late 1938, Dean’s mother was suddenly struck with acute stomach pains and died of cancer. Unable to care for his son, his father sent him to live with his sister, Ortense and her husband, Marcus Winslow, on a farm just outside small-town Fairmount.

After graduation from high school he went to live with his father and step-mother. He enrolled at UCLA, majoring in drama, and was selected from a group of 350 potential actors to portray Malcolm in Macbeth. He attended acting classes in James Whitmore’s workshop and dropped out of UCLA in January 1951 to pursue a full-time acting career.

To car people, the annual James Dean Festival weekend means a huge car show. Not only are there kustoms of all kinds, which most owners identify with Dean’s’49 Mercury in his second movie, “Rebel Without a Cause,” but perfectly restored classics, hot rods and street rods, too. Fifties vehicles make up the majority of the vehicles that attend, but ’40s and ’60s are present and welcomed, too.

Typical of the James Dean Festival, a slightly kustom '54 Chevy and a more radical Chevy.

The car show takes place on the Play Acres Park and ball fields although the downtown area of Fairmount, just a few blocks from the park and featured a street fair, complete with carnival-type rides, several blocks of street vendors, food, and nearly every kind of Dean knick-knack available. The street stage featured live music all weekend and the ever popular James Dean look-a-like Contest. Needless to say the weekend was full, how could anyone could be bored?

Walking the festival and car show, it’s the perfect time to visit the Fairmount Historical Museum-everything from James Dean’s baby clothes to memorabilia from his three blockbuster movies are displayed, including “East of Eden,” his first movie, “Rebel Without a Cause,”  the second film and “Giant,” his last.

An overall view of the Play Acres Park at Fairmont, Indiana, home of the yearly James Dean Festival. The park encompasses several acres.

An overall view of the Play Acres Park at Fairmount, Indiana, home of the yearly James Dean Festival. The park encompasses several acres.

However, if boredom sets in, there are actually two James Dean celebrations, although the event in nearby Gas City doesn’t have all the glitz and glitter of the Fairmount show, it still plays host to over 2500 vehicles. The town stages its annual Ducktail Run in its huge park, complete with shade trees, a pond, lanes for cruising the venue and “Jeff’s Junk Yard,” a swap meet featuring over 400 vendors.

In the past there was only one car show, but disagreements among organizers resulted in the show being divided even though both are held the same weekend. The best part of two shows is that, combined, there were well over 4000 cars to view that weekend. Car shows of that size are usually held in large cities, not towns with a population of a mere 10,434 (Gas City’s population is 6,093). Fortunately, Marion, 15 miles north of Fairmount, is a larger city (29,948 population) with plenty of motels and restaurants for the thousands of show-goers.

Just one of the cruisers winding their way around the Play Acres Park in Fairmont

Just one of the cruisers wending their way around the Play Acres Park in Fairmount, Indiana.

The closeness of Gas City means traveling a mere five miles, perhaps venture through the other small town, Jonesboro, only two miles from Fairmount. That same weekend, Jonesboro was hosting the Red River Motorcycle Rally where several hundred bikers took over Main Street alongside vendors and food stands. Unlike many western states, small towns in the Midwest are close together; these four towns are within a 15-mile radius of each other.

This year, displayed near the entrance of the Fairmount celebration, was a replica of the Porsche Spyder Dean drove to his death. Painstakingly crafted to mimic the original “Little Bastard,” the car had a constant stream of people viewing and photographing it.

This Merc greeted fans at the entrance to Play Acres Park-.it wasn't far from the Merc Corall.

This Candy Red Mercury greeted fans at the entrance to Play Acres Park. The entrance wasn’t far from the celebrated Merc Corral.

As an aside, Dean got into racing cars as his acting career took off. On that fateful day in 1955, he was scheduled to compete at a racing event in Salinas, California. Rolf Wütherich, the German Porsche factory mechanic that maintained Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder, encouraged him to drive the car from Los Angeles to Salinas to break it in. Rolf occupied the Porsche’s passenger’s seat.

The majority of kustoms that attend the James Dean Festival adhere to the 50s kustom look, whitewalls, skirts and a tail-dragger stance.

Following in a second car, was stunt coordinator Bill Hickman and a magazine photographer Sanford Roth. At 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, north of Los Angeles, Dean was ticketed for speeding. So too, was Hickman.

As the group traveled U.S. Route 466, at approximately 5:15 p.m., a 1950 Ford Tudor sped through the controlled intersection of Routes 46 and 41. Dean, running about 85 mph at the time was unable to stop, slammed into the driver’s side of the Ford and glanced off, did two or three cartwheels and landed in a gully beside the shoulder of the road, northwest of the junction. Wutherich was thrown from the Porsche and Dean was trapped in the car. The driver of the Ford, Donald Turnupseed, sustained minor injuries. The accident was witnessed by passers-by that stopped to help.

The author standing alongside one of the street signs in the Park

The author standing alongside one of the street signs in the park with a great variety of vehicles in the background.

A woman with nursing experience attended to Dean and detected a weak pulse, but he’d sustained fatal injuries, including a broken neck and his death appeared to have been near instantaneous.

Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 6:20 p.m. Wutherich survived with a broken jaw and serious hip and femur injuries that required immediate surgery at the same hospital. Dean was later returned to Fairmount and laid to rest in the Winslow family plot in the city’s Park Cemetery, a short distance from the farm on which he grew up.

James Dean not only loved auto racing, but his love of motorcycles transcends time. The James Dean Festival featured a new exhibit of early Triumphs, Indians, and Harleys. Also featured was a book release by author Lee Raskin, entitled  James Dean: On the Road to Salinas, a very detailed account of Dean’s final days.

Deans’ hometown, like him, is timeless, it seldom changes. The population of Fairmount swells  to 20,000-30,000 people on that weekend. Thousands of Dean fans flock to the festival to show off their classic cars or to search for rare Dean memorabilia. There’s something wonderful about a small-town festival that still draws thousands of visitors to celebrate its hometown hero.

Small towns never seem to change, although this year, the high school Dean graduated from was being torn down, its antiquated brick and mortar outlived its usefulness. One more piece of Dean history gone.

The high school James Dean attended, sadly being torn down to make way for a new school...out with the old, in with the new!

The high school James Dean attended being torn down. Like anything else, it’s out with the old, in with the new!

Dean’s most popular film, “Rebel Without a Cause” was a film that would prove to be hugely popular among teenagers. It has been cited as an accurate 1940’s representation of teenage angst. Dean starred as Jim Stark and teen actors Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and Dennis Hopper co-starred.

One of the longer kustoms at the festival-a 54 Lincoln that is long and low.

One of the longer kustoms at the festival-a ‘gorgeous 1954 Lincoln owned by Debb and Rob Butler has the stance of a true kustom should- low.

Like any car show/rod run or event involving many different kinds of cars, there are going to be awards. Both the Fairmount and Ducktail events have an interesting way cars are judged. In Fairmount, cars are judged all three days of the event.

The ‘Top 20’ are judged Friday and Saturday from noon to about 4 p.m.. There is an area on the ball fields that accommodates many cars, those that want their car judged must park there. A team of judges look over each car and jot their thoughts on a clipboard.

The Merc Corral where Mercurys of all years got preferred parking right at the front of the festival.

The Merc Corral, located near the main entrance of the show is for Mercurys only, and several awards are given for that portion of the show.

The Sunday show awards encompass the total amount of cars on the grounds. A team walks through the show and picks their favorites.

A couple of Mercury kustoms, undoubtedly the most popular kustom around.

At the Gas City event, you must drive your car to the drive-thru judging area at the north end of the city park. Simply drive in, park, open the doors, hood and trunk and several judges, with clipboards in hand, look over your car. Gas City judges are not super critical of rock chips and no one crawls under the car to see if it’s spotless – once the car is released, cruising around the city park can be resumed or head to the swap meet. The judges compare notes and if the car is done nicely, it’ll probably win an award at the 2 p.m. Sunday presentation.

If it had whitewalls, hubcaps, and fender skirts, it usually qualified as a kustom.

Next September 22-25, 2016 will be the 37th Annual Festival and the actor’s legacy lives on, even 60 years after his passing.  If you’re into Dean history, memorabilia, simply want to view over 4000 cars at both shows or enter your car, make motel reservations now.

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About the author

Roger Jetter

Roger’s interests in cars started at 14 with a ’40 Ford pick-up until he bought his first ’57 Chevy at age 16. That car is featured in the first two books he’s written about the 1960’s and growing up in the Midwest. He’s authored several more books as well and has built several cars over the years that have received major coverage in magazines and won plenty of awards. His current build is a 1948 Cadillac Sedanet, although his current 'driver' is a '55 Cadillac Coupe DeVille.
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