It’s a Wonderful Life in Indiana, PA
Oct 31, 2017 05:16PM
By Vanessa Orr
The joy of seeing Santa
I’m not quite sure how I found myself marching in the middle of a parade, but when you’re in Indiana County, PA, during the Christmas season, I guess sometimes the holiday spirit just sweeps you away.
A little over an hour northeast of Pittsburgh, Indiana has a lot of Christmas cred: not only is it known as the Christmas Tree Capital of the World, but it is also the hometown of Jimmy Stewart, also known as the beloved George Bailey in the Christmas Classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.
If you loved the movie, you’re going to be in heaven when you visit the town, where First Commonwealth Bank hosts the It’s a Wonderful Life Festival over five consecutive weekends, starting Nov. 18. Indiana is also home to the Jimmy Stewart Museum, which covers the actor’s life from his boyhood in Pennsylvania, to his service in the Army Air Corps (where he flew 20 missions over enemy territory) to his roles in movies such as Harvey, The Philadelphia Story, Vertigo, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
When you first enter the museum, which is centrally located on Philadelphia Street right down from the life-sized Jimmy Stewart statue in front of the courthouse, you can watch a 25-minute movie about the making of It’s a Wonderful Life, narrated by Tom Bosley. I loved learning that despite the fact that the entire movie was filmed in California during a record-breaking heatwave, it won a special effects Oscar for creating artificial snow—using a mixture of plastic, soap and water and cornflakes that made it impossible to record dialog because of the crunching.
Speaking of sound effects, make sure to push the button that changes the traffic light on Philadelphia Street—it’s a total hoot to hear Jimmy Stewart giving you walking directions.
The downtown area still looks much the same as in Stewart’s day, especially when it’s all decorated for the holiday festivities, which will take place from Nov. 17 to Dec. 17. The annual Lucy Donnelly Holiday Festival and Parade on Nov. 17 is a throwback to small-town fun—in addition to marching bands and dance troupes, last year’s parade included a convoy of gaily festooned John Deere tractors, Scottish bagpipers, martial arts classes, horses, dogs, and even Santa peeking out of a Porta-John.
The parade is followed by the official Christmas tree lighting at IRMC Park, with Santa himself at the controls. But have no fear if you want your own tree—Indiana County has a number of tree farms where you can pick up a pre-cut tree or cut your own. I visited Fleming’s Christmas Tree Farm while I was in town, and while I didn’t take their horse-drawn wagon up to the top of the hill to pick out my own tree, I did manage to snag a lot of cool holiday gifts in their large (and very popular!) holiday store.
Another stop that you’ll want to make if you’re in town on a weekend during the five-week celebration includes the Holiday Wheels and Thrills display at the Indiana Mall. I got a chance to see it last year when it was at the university museum, and though I’ve never been much of a model train enthusiast, I was blown away by how many different displays they had and the knowledge of the train builders.
While there are many things to do during the holidays in Indiana, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t visit at other times of year as well. If you’re into architecture and history, make sure to visit the Silas M. Clark House, also known as Clark Memorial Hall and History House, and Calvary Presbyterian Church of Indiana.
The Clark House is a 19th-century Victorian mansion that still features period furnishings—I was particularly fascinated by the framed “hair wreath” on the wall. And the church is just stunning; built in 1904, the octagonal sanctuary is dominated by an art glass dome that is 28 feet in diameter. Worshippers are surrounded by numerous art glass windows designed in the Arts and Crafts style that focus on biblical themes; one can easily imagine young Jimmy Stewart staring at these same works of art while attending church here with his family.
If you’re into hiking, Indiana County has a wealth of trails, ranging from the 10-mile Hoodlebug Trail that runs from Indiana to Blacklick along an abandoned branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad, to the 36-mile Ghost Town Trail, named after the abandoned mining towns along its route. The Eliza Furnace in Vintondale, one of the state’s best preserved iron furnaces, is part of an interpretive exhibit along this trail.
For a look at all there is to do in Indiana County, go to www.VisitIndianaCountyPA.org.
For a list of all of the holiday activities with times and places, visit www.WonderfulLifeFestival.com.