Crawfordsville Main Street

The Ben-Hur Building, constructed by the Ben-Hur Life Insurance Association in 1913, is slated to become a hotel with apartments and first-floor commercial space. Photo by Elizabeth Granger

Indiana Main Street—Fifth in a Series

Story by Elizabeth Granger 

Downtown 2.0: The Revitalization of Hoosier Communities. Here we present Crawfordsville. With its history of hard work and civic-mindedness, it’s saving important structures for vibrant new purposes. 

CRAWFORDSVILLE – A deciduous forest, potentially arable land, water provided by a nearby creek: the perfect spot to settle. And in 1823 the only town between Terre Haute and Fort Wayne was named Crawfordsville. Before long its two primary attributions – wealth and civic-mindedness – produced a cultural haven that became known as “The Athens of Indiana.”

“There was old money that was brought here, and they were huge investors in the community,” says Sue Lucas, Crawfordsville Main Street program manager. “Those people were very intentional about what they were doing. They built a center here – of commerce, of professional services, of destination. There was a strong infrastructure of community.”

Among the menu choices at Francis & Mount is the steak frites entrée. Photo by Fred Granger

Wabash College, one of just three current male-only colleges in the United States, was founded in 1832. Early Crawfordsville residents included Lew Wallace, Civil War general and author of “Ben-Hur.” Today the city boasts of seven museums as well as artist studios and galleries. Industries include healthcare, education, manufacturing, finance, the arts, recreation, and agriculture. Crawfordsville has some 16,000 residents; Montgomery county, 38,000.

As in many cities, Crawfordsville’s downtown suffered a decline in recent decades. “The ‘70s and ‘80s were brutal for many historic downtowns,” Lucas says. “When the old Commerce Building came down, it really got the attention of the community. Concerned residents felt they needed to do something to preserve the downtown core, or this would be status quo.”

A Downtown revitalization committee was created in the 1990s. In 2002 it became a Main Street community.

Two firemen from Indianapolis’ Pike Township opened Backstep Brewery in Crawfordsville’s old Monon Hotel in 2017. Photo by Elizabeth Granger

The past 15-20 years have strengthened the downtown in several ways, each part playing a role in making the community more vibrant. The number of businesses has grown to more than 180, the area looks brighter, there’s more foot traffic.

When the library board decided to build a new library, its thought was to go south of town. But the citizenry urged it to keep the library downtown. Its new building is across the street from the original 1902 library, which was the first Carnegie library in Indiana. Renovate and reuse has become popular; that earlier library is now the Carnegie Museum of Montgomery County.

Lucas says, “All of those major components that make a strong community are within a two-block radius of downtown – municipal government, county government, library, post office, …” A former bank is now the Fusion 54 building. It brings together agencies of Montgomery County (No. 54 in Indiana’s alphabetical listing of counties), encouraging greater collaboration. It accommodates several community organizations (Chamber of Commerce, Visit Montgomery County tourism bureau, Montgomery County Leadership Academy, Main Street program) along with a co-working business incubator and Wabash College.

The General Lew Wallace Study & Museum was built in the 1890s, by Wallace, on the site where he wrote Ben-Hur. Guided tours are offered. Photo by Fred Granger

Pike Place, a pocket park at Washington and Pike streets, was dedicated this spring. Also new are Trailhead Park, walking trails, and the rehabilitation of owner-occupied housing. A former insurance building is slated to become a hotel with apartments and first-floor commercial space.

In 1993, Little Mexico opened on East Main Street. “Both my parents were transferred from Chicago to Crawfordsville to work at the Atapco factory,” says Claudia Bravo, daughter of Irma and Ignacio Bravo. “My mom would cook for lunch and take it to work, and her co-workers would ask if they could taste. They loved the way she cooked and said she should open a restaurant.”

Allen’s Country Kitchen is an “old school breakfast diner” that’s open until 7:30 p.m. It’s been an eatery since the ‘70s; Dave and Amy Allen have been owners for nine years. “When we started, there were just a handful of places you could eat lunch,” Dave Allen says. “Now there’s so much more to choose from.”

The women’s dress shop Heathcliff has been serving Montgomery County for 54 years. Photo by Fred Granger

An online reviewer says it’s “nothing fancy, but that is one of the major pluses of dining here. People sit down and talk to each other. There really are so few places left like Allen’s where you can come and see the same folks having coffee and enjoying the food with their friends.”

Downtown’s newest restaurant is Francis & Mount, opened in January in the old Francis & Mount grocery/ feed/hardware store built in 1880. Owner/chef Isaac Weliver, 33, grew up in Crawfordsville but moved to Chicago and Costa Rica to grow his culinary skills through schooling and experience. He’d always intended to return to his home town and open an upscale restaurant; last year he realized the time was right. He credits the brewery Backstep, opened in 2017 in the former Monon Hotel by two firefighters, for proving a new business can make a go of it in Crawfordsville.

Hannah Thompson’s story has similar details. Thompson, 30, didn’t grow up in Crawfordsville, but her grandparents lived here. When her parents retired, they moved to Crawfordsville. Thompson, in the meantime, got a degree in computer engineering. And then she fed her passion by going to culinary school.

Thompson showcases her culinary expertise at Maxine’s on Green, which she named for her grandmother and opened in 2016. She’ll expand with evening hours this fall. Her five-year dream is to open a steak restaurant.

Lucas says one of the community’s strengths is its caring, supportive attitude which citizens appreciate.

“The secret sauce? There’s a spirit of gratitude here,” she says.

The Marie Canine Plaza at Crawford Place was created in 2003. Photo by Fred Granger

It’s evident in the success of the Montgomery County Community Foundation. Time and time again, the request for donations is met – by not only residents but also people who live elsewhere but have fond feelings about the community. The downtown revitalization is helping to influence that spirit of generosity.

There’s a lively mix of businesses which are new and businesses which have been downtown for quite a while. The women’s dress shop Heathcliff, for example, has been at its downtown location in the former Murphy’s dime store for 54 years.

Other businesses have been in the area but have relocated to downtown. Among them are two flower shops – Milligan’s Flowers and Country Hearts & Flowers.

That “Athens of Indiana” reputation is evident in the new Athens of Indiana Arts Gallery, showcasing local artists’ creations and presenting workshops and education programs. There are also studios and galleries, and the Vanity Theatre offers live performances.

The arts scene includes Reclaimed by Grace, where Travis and Jami Harrington use wood as their canvas. “We absolutely knew this was the best spot for us to set up our future,” Jami Harrington says. “The downtown is charming – it’s full of history – there are a lot of little artsy shops and niches, eateries, a brewery.”

She says she remembers empty buildings downtown, “but now we’re pretty much at max capacity.”

Warm weather offers Lunch on the Plaza, a First Friday Concert Series, and a number of festivals. The outdoor farmers market prompted the opening of the year-round Four Seasons indoor market.

It’s time to take a look at Crawfordsville. While there, check the courthouse clock tower. For decades it was gone, removed in 1941 because of structural concerns. In 1996 several townspeople began to raise money to restore it. The new clock tower was put atop the courthouse just last year.

Crawfordsville Main Street
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