Jimmy Stewart’s legacy brings holiday cheer and more to the actor’s quaint hometown. By Kellie B Gormly
I stroll down Indiana, Pennsylvania’s Main Street, seeing its quaint 19th-century storefronts and imagining the city’s nostalgic charm during the holiday season. I envision the living Christmas tree towering more than 30 feet above Seventh Street, lit with lights as carol singers walk across a blanket of freshly fallen snow and sing, “Hear! The Herald Angels are singing.”
It’s exactly as Jimmy Stewart – actor, World War II hero and most famous son in town – put it: Indiana actually looks like it could be the fictional Bedford Falls. I half expect to see George Bailey on the sidewalk.
Along with It’s a beautiful life Inspired by places from Jimmy Stewart’s life—like his childhood home and his church—Indiana County has a reputation for being the Christmas Tree Capital of the World (although Estacada, Oregon, Indiana is fighting for the title). That makes it the perfect three-hour, 180-mile road trip for Cleveland residents in December, even after the New Year It’s a beautiful life Festival starts the season in November.
“There’s a great Christmas spirit here,” says Janie McKirgan, President and CEO of the Jimmy Stewart Museum, which opened in 1995.
The museum is the area’s biggest attraction, drawing up to 7,000 Stewart fans each year from all 50 states and countries such as England, Scotland and Mexico. Stewart, who died in 1997, has many fans, says McKirgan.
“I think what contributed to his longevity is his service in World War II and the fact that he [acted in] It’s a beautiful life. It’s such a family tradition to watch every holiday season,” says McKirgan.
Allow about three hours to tour the museum. The story stretches back to the founding of Indiana, Stewart’s childhood as the son of a hardware store owner, his film career, and his service as a distinguished World War II pilot.
But the impact of Stewart’s life goes beyond his fame: he was generous. Stewart supported many national charities including the American Red Cross and March of Dimes. He supported the fire station, where his father was a volunteer firefighter, as well as the city’s Memorial Park.
“He was as down to earth as everyone said he was,” says McKirgan. “He’s done a lot of very charitable things and just never wanted his name attached. He did it because it was the right thing to do, not because he wanted a pat on the back.”
Whenever he returned to Indiana, Stewart would greet fans and sign autographs. He once agreed to give a boutonniere to a neighbor who was attending a school dance, McKirgan says. When Stewart’s twin daughters, Judy and Kelly, went to college, their father’s advice was simple: “Always remember to be nice to people.”
During the holiday season through early January, the museum features about a dozen themed Christmas trees, such as the Hitchcock tree, Hollywood tree, and military tree. Visitors can explore an exhibition that focuses solely on this It’s a beautiful life and see the film in the museum’s theater, along with a behind-the-scenes documentary and episode of General Electric Theaterwith Stewart and Ronald Reagan.
Although there wasn’t much to see at the area’s Christmas tree farms when I visited Indiana in October – a road trip that playing Wynonna Judd’s got me in the mood for A classic Christmas – Come December and you’ll want to explore this aspect of Indiana. McKirgan recommends visiting the Mytrysak Family Tree Farm, which hosts special events including sleigh rides, hot cocoa and Santa visits.
The Jimmy Stewart statue, in front of the Indiana County Courthouse at 825 Philadelphia Street. The 9-foot statue was dedicated on Jimmy’s 75th birthday. Stewart attended the ceremony with fanfare: President Reagan ordered a military flyover of jets in his friend’s honor.
Jimmy Stewart’s childhood home stands at 104 N. Seventh Street on Vinegar Hill. Visitors can drive past the Dutch Colonial House, but please be discreet and do not knock on the door; people live there.
That It’s a beautiful life mural covers a low wall at 100 S. 6th Street. The painting shows nothing related to the film, but it is a happy landmark.
Jimmy grew up worshiping Calvary Presbyterian Church at Schulstraße 695. The Stewart family sat in the middle aisle on the right in the front. calvarychurchpa.com
Jimmy’s personal 1961 Cessna 310 aircraft was on display in the Jimmy Stewart Airport398 Airport Road, in 2020. The plane is illuminated at night. jimmystewartairport.com
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