Downtown 2.0: The revitalization of Hoosier communities. Here we present Peru, long known for its Cole Porter and circus ties and now adding new opportunities through a robust rebirth.
Story by Elizabeth Granger
Location: Miami County
About: A spirit of gratitude, lively mix of businesses, and a vision for the future is making downtown a go-to destination for travelers and business owners.
PERU – Not so many years ago watercolorist Sarah Luginbill struck up a conversation with abstract artist Diane Lehman about their work situations. Luginbill was looking for a different studio in which to work. So was Lehman.
Turns out two additional artists, oil painter Jill Brandush and calligrapher/ pastel artist Tana Bondar, were, too.
Fast forward to the fall of 2017. Together, the four artists opened Gallery 15 & Studios – at 15 E. Main – in a former music store. They work individually but collectively critique, encourage and celebrate each other. They display and sell their works, and they spotlight a guest artist each month. Visitors are invited to watch them work.
“We have found the real value is in the partnership,” Brandush says. “We gather and we critique and we talk about art. All of us have grown.”
She continued, “I drive half an hour to get here because of this town. Peru loves its artists, they love its musicians – they embrace the idea of the arts in Peru.”
That goes back to the town’s circus heritage as well as theater. “We used to have five live theaters here,” says Vicki Draper, who returned to her hometown after a career in Washington, D.C., and has chaired a number of recent Peru festivals.
And now, after years of decline, the town is experiencing an upswing in excitement matched by an upswing in new businesses.
“Community leaders have visions that are bigger than their own personal businesses,” Luginbill says. “They see the community working together.”
That vision is shared by a number of new businesses which have chosen to open their doors in Peru within the past decade. It’s found at the Miami County Artisan Gallery, which offers studio space to a large number of local artists working in not only oils, watercolors and wood but also chocolates. In fact, Redmon Chocolates uses cocoa beans from all over the world in their award-winning chocolates. Owner/artist Marlene Compton says it’s pushed by “the forward thinking of ‘let’s build.’”
At City Wineworks, Peru’s newest brewery and winery, owners Jason and Desiree McKeever concur. So do Sandra Tossou at Dreams to Reality Cakes, Fred Stadtler at So Good Chocolates, and Conny Woodruff at Conny’s Little German Breadshop, three other new businesses.
The culinary scene in Peru draws locals and visitors alike. Club 14 owner Denise Yater has a strong history with the town, and has become known not just for the restaurant’s friendly atmosphere, but also for her thin crust pizzas and slow-roasted ribs that are prepared daily. Just down the street is Smitty McMusselman’s Pub & Grub, opened by Sara Musselman in 2014 in a century-old building. And at 6th Street Coffee Company, owner Kreig Adkins serves up coffee that’s custom roasted daily, and flavored by hand.
It didn’t happen by chance. The Miami County Economic Development Authority and Rediscover Downtown Peru have been instrumental in growing optimism in this community of 11,000 residents (with a total of 36,000 in Miami County). Peru’s location
– about an hour from Indianapolis, Lafayette, South Bend or Fort Wayne – means residents can combine their love of small town living with big city amenities.
“People see opportunity here where they didn’t before,” says Steve Dobbs, president of Rediscover Downtown Peru, local name for the Main Street program. It’s tied to the town’s 2015 façade program which renovated downtown storefronts, and to city/ developer partnerships in rehabbing old buildings. “Smaller projects happened, and then bigger projects happened. The response is overwhelming.”
That excitement comes from the mix of newcomers, returnees and longtime residents. It’s seen in Second Saturdays, a themed event each month on the Courthouse Square. “We want everyone to come and see what we’ve got,” Dobbs says. And they are; statistics show a growing attendance.
The new is clearly building upon the mainstays. This is Cole Porter’s hometown; the Cole Porter Festival is an annual event in June. This is “the circus capital of the world”; the Circus City Festival is held each July. And in late November, Peru will usher in its inaugural Christkindlmarkt.
Porter’s home is now an inn featuring three suites – the “Night & Day” suite on the first floor and the Cole Porter and “Anything Goes” suites on the second, reached by a stairway painted with piano keys on the steps.
“A lot of people come here because it’s on their bucket list,” says Jill Ash, who owns the Cole Porter Inn with her husband, Marlin.
Porter’s favorite fudge is again available in town. It was created by Louis and Gretchen Arnold in the early 1900s in their candy shop named Arnold’s. Porter enjoyed it not only when he was home in Peru but he also had it shipped to his homes in New York, Los Angeles and Paris – lots of it – for his extravagant parties. The recipe had been all but forgotten when Fred and Amy Stadtler and her brother Rick Ploss opened So Good Candies in 2016 and began making the fudge again. They’ve also brought back the Gold Brick candy bar, chocolate bark, and creams, using recipes the Arnolds used which were found “in a little black notebook, handwritten in pencil.”
Items from Porter’s New York City apartment are in the Miami County Museum in Peru. So, too, is his 1955 Cadillac, which was in the film “The Godfather.”
Here is the entire county’s history, from Miami Indians to storefronts depicting a Peru of the early 1900s to the heyday of the American circus. A huge gun collection attracts firearms aficionados, and some come looking for the “oddities” that include a two-headed calf and a child’s dress from the Trail of Tears.
Local circus history fills the third floor of the county museum, but the Circus City Center devotes its entire building – its entire being – to the circus. Its museum, open year-round, tells the story of Peru’s circus history since the late 1800s when circuses over-wintered near here. The highlight of the year is the circus festival in July, when about 200 county youngsters ages 7-21, amateurs who have been practicing since February, put on 10 performances during an eight- day festival. Several have gone on to perform with professional circus venues.
“The flying trapeze is our big pull, or the high wire,” says Tim Bessignano, museum vice president. “Flying through the air – that’s big stuff, like being king of the hill. It’s got a lot of clout.”
He says “the festival is the granddaddy of them all – it’s what pulls it all together.”
That downtown enthusiasm is blanketing the entire county. There’s growing interest in the Nickel Plate Trail, Miami Reservoir State Recreation Area at Mississinewa Lake, and Grissom Air Museum.
The Nickel Plate Trail, along the path of the former Nickel Plate Railroad, was born 20 years ago. Its 40 miles from Kokomo to Rochester offer hiking, biking and non-motorized possibilities – including cross country skiing in the winter – along a wide mostly-paved pathway. Two popular 5K and 10/15K walks/runs are in the fall: the Cole Porter Classic in October and the Thanksgiving Day Trot n’ Gobble.
Additional outdoor activities keep the Miami State Recreation Area at Mississinewa Lake busy year-round. With more than 460 campsites as well as cabins, along with one of the state DNR’s largest beaches, it’s a popular place.
Grissom Air Museum focuses on telling the history of the former Grissom Air Force base with rotating exhibits inside and two dozen aircraft outside. The museum is a huge
draw for tourists, and was named as Indiana’s second best museum in the state by the Indiana Office of Tourism Development.
Before or after your visit to the air museum, stop by the Red Rocket Bar and Grill next door which is open for lunch and dinner. The restaurant is located in the same building as Milestone Event Center, a 4,000-square-foot events center which has hosted more than 100 weddings and special events.
“This town is like home to everybody,” says Jason McKeever of City Wineworks. “There’s so much that happens here that gets support from the community, from people that are here. They show up – they show up to the festivals, they show up to the chili cook-offs, they show up to Second Saturdays, …. This town is very welcoming.” rediscoverdowntownperu.com
Miami County Tourism
13 E. Main St.
Peru, IN 46970