James Dean weekend is a big deal in Grant County, Indiana. The last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of September celebrates the life of the American actor with car shows and a motorcycle rally in the small country towns of Gas City, Jonesboro, and Fairmount. Marion, Indiana, is not included in this massive festival, which is interesting because it is the birthplace of the famous actor. Rooster and I decided to attend the Jonesboro River Rally this year, but we made a few modifications due to COVID-19. I wrote about this event when we attended in 2019. If you will remember, it turned into an impromptu reunion of the Road Dogs.
What is the big deal about James Dean?
The American actor, James Dean, came into the world on February 8, 1931, in the small city of Marion, Indiana. Dean’s father moved the family to California when he was young. His mother died when he was nine years old, and his father sent him to live with an aunt and uncle on their farm in Fairmount, Indiana. In high school, he played basketball and baseball. The acting bug may have got into his blood early because he became part of the debate and drama teams. He graduated from Fairmount High in 1949.
Dean went back to California, where he attended college. He entered Santa Monica College to study law, but he switched to UCLA and majored in drama. Dean was only there one semester. He dropped out of college to pursue an acting career. He struggled for a while, taking minor roles until he got the role of ‘Cal Trask’ in East of Eden. Dean also played the role of Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause and the role of Jett Rink in the movie Giant.
What happened to James Dean?
Dean died in a car crash in Cholame, California, on September 30, 1955. Park Cemetery in Fairmount, Indiana, became his final resting place. He was the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award. Dean received the Oscar for his role in Giant. After his death, James Dean became the symbol of teenage angst and rebellion.
A cult following developed around the mystique created by the deceased actor. The tombstone over his grave came up missing at least twice. Fairmount, Indiana, started holding a car show and festival every year in September around the time of his death. It morphed into such a huge event that it spread out into the neighboring small towns of Gas City and Jonesboro. Gas City’s event turned into the Ducktail Run, and Jonesboro River Rally became a large motorcycle event.
Our Friday night experience at Jonesboro River Rally
I started this blog over two weeks ago. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to finish it. Maybe it is all the negative vibes floating around in the air, causing chaos. I’m finding it hard to be creative.
Rooster and I decided to attend the Jonesboro River Rally after work on Friday. I’m not sure what band was playing, but the sound of old-time Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Louisiana folk songs flowed from the Blue Grass group playing on the stage.
The action hadn’t gone into full swing, so the streets weren’t yet crowded with people. Keeping a six-foot distance between the other bikers attending the event wasn’t an issue as we mingled in the crowd.
What we saw at the Jonesboro River Rally
Motorcycle accessories such as fenders and floorboards and mirrors spread out for shoppers to look over.
We were able to look over the merchandise the vendors brought to sell at a casual pace in the crisp autumn air.
There were back patches that reminded me of the gunslinger in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
We even saw one Trike auctioned off for charity that was a tribute to rock-n-roll. Rooster wanted to buy a ticket, but the price was steep. He would have had to fork over one-hundred dollars. We all know Rooster is a frugal man.
We didn’t stay long enough to give the Friday night activities a good evaluation. There were places we needed to go and people we needed to see. Our strategy is to experience the James Dean weekend, but at a safe distance. I don’t know if we will be able to achieve it. Social distancing has become an art form.
Saturday of James Dean Weekend
It is always nice to have a friend with an open driveway near a crowded event. Parking is always a big hassle. Rooster called our friend, Jerry Richards, on Saturday morning. If you will remember, Jerry is one of the original Road Dogs. Rooster asked if we could park in his driveway and wondered if Jerry knew of a good place to eat breakfast. Jerry lives on the backside of the fairground, where the James Dean festival is held every year,
To make a long story short, After we ran a few errands, Rooster and I rode the Indian to Fairmount, Indiana. It was a fantastic fall morning. The perfect weather and temperature for a motorcycle ride made the trip enjoyable. The farmers harvesting in the fields and the leaves turning made it clear fall arrived.
We followed Jerry to Jonesboro and ate at a restaurant there. After We found a spot outside in the open air with the Jonesboro River Rally taking place around us, we enjoyed breakfast. The omelets were overpriced due to the festival.
A rock band with white-haired performers took the stage on the corner down the street. They proved old farts still knew how to rock and roll. Rooster wanted to see the traveling bags Hudson leather offered, so we took a stroll through the crowd. Jerry would have stayed to talk all afternoon. He’s a gregarious guy who knows everyone. Rooster and I wanted to meet up with punky, so we persuaded him to leave.
Jerry led us back to his house in Fairmount. Punky and her son joined us on his front porch, where we enjoyed the best car show in the state. I don’t know why we never made it to the park to look at the old cars. It might have been a case of laziness, or simply that we had a great time catching up. Vehicles had to leave out of the back gate of the park. A steady stream of classic cars drove down Jerry’s street.
A return trip on Sunday of James Dean weekend
Rooster and I didn’t make it back to Fairmount until 3:00 on Sunday afternoon. There we other obligations for us to take care of on Sunday morning. We planned to get a look at the cars and other features while the event was less crowded. We arrived at the park just as The Spaniels song “Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight” played over the loudspeaker. Vehicles made their exodus one by one in an orderly pattern. A lump formed in my throat knowing these folks wouldn’t see on another for another year. Sunday’s events wouldn’t have been worth mentioning except it was a perfect end to the long weekend.
Bikers and car guys have a way of bending the rules. That’s why they are attracted to a movie icon like James Dean. They don’t pay much attention to the warnings about COVID-19. Tht’s why they didn’t have second thoughts about sprending a weekend mingling with one another and having a good time in the middle of a pandemic. The economy of the small towns in this area depends on revenue from James Dean Weekend. It would have been a shame if everyone stayed home out of fear. This event didn’t cause a spike of the virus in our area.
I believe everyone had their own strategy about navigating the event. Rooster and I attempted to navigate the event while reducing our risk of exposure. This made it a little less colorful than in past years, but we did have fun catching up with some old friends. Maybe next year we can do it with style without the fear of contaminaton hanging over our heads.
Who is Molly Shea?
Molly Shea is an accomplished fictional short story writer from Indiana, who writes short stories and novels about a fictional town called Tecumseh. To read more of her short stories and adventures click here.
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