Discovering Fort Wayne: a Vibrant and Impactful Weekend in Summit City

A whirlwind weekend exploring things to do in Fort Wayne leads to delicious food, a dive into the city's past, and personal discovery.

A light drizzle misted the windshield. I hoped it would stay like that. Actually, I hoped the rain would stop and we’d be treated to a blue-skied day, but the weather apps forecast a cold and rainy weekend.

That dreary weather might have put a damper on our visit to Fort Wayne. Might have. Did not. Even now, after we’ve been home for a couple of weeks, I think of our whirlwind tour and see bright and cheery people, vibrant art, colorful cuisine, and intense passion for doing what you love – whatever that may be.

Located in the northeast corner of Indiana, Fort Wayne is an easy road trip from Chicago. It’s a river town, which is practically a given in the Midwest. Towns often developed because pioneers needed easy access to waterways.

Rivers were the highways of the frontier, the interstates of expansion. They provided a more economical and speedier way than mules and wagons to transfer goods from one place to another.

Fort Wayne has three.

Despite a deceivingly flat terrain, this major Midwestern city is situated on the highest point in the region at the confluence of Saint Joseph and Saint Marys Rivers. Those two combine to create the third, the Maumee River, which flows into Lake Erie. Where the three converge, it’s a short portage to the Wabash River.

In the 1830s, engineers bridged that portage with the creation of the Wabash and Erie Canal, a connection enabling travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico through Fort Wayne.

Like New York’s Erie Canal and Illinois’ I & M Canal, this new waterway made getting from one place to another a heck of a lot easier and prompted the rapid expansion of the towns along its route, especially Summit City itself.

The canal’s utility was short-lived, but the railroads that replaced it continued fueling the city’s growth. Today Fort Wayne is the second-largest city in the state.

In 2021, the National Civic League declared it an All-American City, an annual award bestowed on ten cities. It was the fourth time Fort Wayne’s made the list (1983, 1998, 2009, 2021).

It’s also an official Tree City; the National Arbor Day Foundation said so in 2021 and has for the previous thirty years.

During our visit, we discovered a spirit of resilience and optimism. People in Fort Wayne really seem to like Fort Wayne.

We quickly discovered why.

Our accommodations, attractions, and some meals were hosted by Visit Fort Wayne. We went to a few extra restaurants and breweries and covered those independently. All opinions, as always, are most assuredly my own and not influenced in the slightest by Luxardo cherries.

Discovering Things To Do in Fort Wayne

The drizzle paused and we entered a giant warehouse. You might not think a warehouse would be one of the top things to do in Fort Wayne, but this wasn’t just any warehouse. We were about to enter the Midwestern Mecca for musicians, Sweetwater Sound

Mr. TLT is a customer. He even has his own salesperson, Jeff, who answers his equipment questions: Which headphones do you recommend? Which microphone is better for audio vs. music?

As Jim said, though, every customer has their own salesperson. It’s a personal touch that makes purchasing equipment an experience. (Plus, they send a little bag of candy with every order. “Sweet,” eh?)

Sweetwater is a 44,000-square-foot bonanza for musicians and audio pros, and it all began in a VW Bus.

In the late 1970s, founder Chuck Surack brought the production to musicians when he turned his 1966 vee-dub into a mobile recording studio. There’s one on display in the entrance along with a slew of equipment and fragments of Chuck’s past, including a boy scout uniform.

Beyond that introduction is a shopping mall of sound.

According to Thad Tegtmeyer, Senior VP of Campus Operations and Artist Relations, the similarity to malls is intentional. I felt like I was back in Terre Haute’s Honey Creek Mall, but instead of Claire’s, there’s a room for acoustic guitars.

Instead of Waldenbooks (totally dating myself), musicians can tickle the ivories.

Where a mall would have a Sunglass Hut, Sweetwater shows off more than 1,100 guitar paddles. Equipment that’s normally under glass is out there for anyone to touch for themselves.

“For guitar players, this is a candy aisle,” Thad said.

There’s a room for classical instruments, and this former clarinetist’s heart fluttered at the wall of reeds. I wish I’d brought my clarinet with me; it needs re-padded and re-corked, and they’ve got a repair shop.

Need to upgrade your horn, microphone, amp, what have you? The Gear Exchange takes trade-ins. It fills up on the weekend and then clears out during the week.

If you’re hungry, there’s even a food court. Downbeat Diner has multiple windows serving entrees, homemade soups, pizza, sandwiches, and a salad bar. We ordered subs and apple pie and ate while listening to Dale Bitner perform on the Crescendo Stage.

Their food is made on-site and they’ve got their own pastry chef. Thad said the restaurant is a “really key part of our culture. It’s a critical part of who we are because we spend a lot of time together breaking bread.”

There’s a hair salon, too, in case you need a new do. They also teach. Sweetwater Academy instructs 1200 students a week. The Performance Pavilion hosts live acts each summer. 

Their recording studios are, as one would expect, state-of-the-art. Multiple studios are set up for different purposes, including mixing and live recording. There’s a Dolby Atmos studio, providing a surround sound you can normally only hear in the cinema.

It’s serious business, but this is music, so there’s a slide. Sales engineers, who work on the second floor, often skip the stairs for a more exciting descent to the cafe. It’s used. A lot. “Never have to dust it,” Thad said.

We could have spent the rest of the day browsing equipment and eating ice cream, but we needed to step into the past. 

Specifically, my family’s past.

My maiden name is Carter. It literally means someone who carted stuff. Even as a dedicated researcher, I believed I would never be able to trace my lineage on my dad’s side.

I’ve been curious, especially after Mr. TLT discovered his familial connection to Grant Goodrich, an early settler of Chicago, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, and co-founder of Northwestern University.

However, Goodrich ranks about 1,765th among US surnames. Carter is in the top 50.

Enter, the Genealogy Center.

Entrance to Fort Wayne Genealogy Center. Statue of Moody, Tearful Night on right

This completely free resource, open seven days a week, is the second-largest genealogy collection in North America. It fills 42,000 square feet of the Allen County Public Library.

If you’re keeping track, that’s only two thousand square feet smaller than Sweetwater.

There are so many records they have to use one of the largest installations of movable stacks outside the National Archives.

Genealogy Center Manager Curt B. Witcher and librarian Elizabeth Hodges showed off this playground of the past. The stacks contained family history books, including published, privately published, and loose family papers.

Curt explained they don’t test the veracity; they’re a repository for these personal records.

They’ve also got official documentation, like city directories. Curt said he’s often asked: “What is all that stuff?”

“The best, shortest answer is: yes,” he smiled.

The Genealogy Center collects any information that documents:

  • a person
  • in a place
  • at a time or time period
  • who’s doing something 

The collection grows at a rate of around 1200 – 1500 new items per month. If Sweetwater’s a candy store for musicians, then the Genealogy Center is a researcher’s buffet.

In addition to what’s in the stacks, there are also thousands of rolls of microfilm. There’s even more access to the past through their online databases. 

Empty seats at the Genealogy Center

It’s hard to know where to start, so they provide orientation videos on their site. There are PDF documents called Pathfinders that provide specific call numbers to start your research.

Even better, librarians like Elizabeth Hodges and John Beatty can help you begin your ancestry exploration, either through basic guidance or a thirty-minute consultation. 

Curt encourages everyone to take advantage of this wealth of resources. Learning the stories of your ancestors provides more than the feeling of discovery; it enables a deeper understanding of the world that came before you and that which exists today.

Our base camp for the weekend, Courtyard by Marriott, was only two blocks from the library, so we checked in for a quick spiff-up. Although the curved couch in the corner tempted me to stay in for the evening (I’m a fan of comfy hotel rooms), I headed to the hotel bar.

Hotel bars have really upped their game, and Conner’s Kitchen + Bar is a prime example. It’s chic yet casual, with plenty of craft beers on tap and a signature old fashioned made with Buffalo Trace, black walnut bitters, and house-made vanilla demerara.

It’s topped with a Luxardo cherry, because any cocktail bar worth its garnishes knows no other cherry will do.

While the menu looked inviting, we had dinner plans a few blocks away in an old brick building.

We waited for a break in the rain, then dashed past a ghost sign advertising Indiana Textile Company. Art deco neon perched above brick arches, teasing Club Soda’s atmosphere. We entered an enclosed atrium and the host sat us at a white linen-clothed table. It was now officially a date night.

Jim ordered a Yippie Chai Yay – a creamy cinnamon-based cocktail that was, surprisingly, not too sweet, and I went with the standard American Dry, made with Hendricks gin, slightly dirty, and accompanied by a trio of bleu cheese stuffed olives.

Our meal began with calamari. That’s a standard app on every steakhouse menu, but Club Soda does theirs differently. As they say, their menu is less a meal and more a journey.

Instead of rings and tentacles, they bread strips of squid steak and serve them with a tomato-basil-lemon sauce. Unlike many preparations, where all you taste is breading and sauce, you can actually tell what you’re eating. They may have ruined me for all other calamari. (Maybe not. I’m a sucker for squid.)

Calamari at Club Soda in Fort Wayne

A pear and walnut salad with arugula, friseé, fennel, and dried cranberries was a fresh and light segue to our entrees. My salmon wrapped with thinly sliced pancetta and topped with crispy sage and green peppercorn butter was rich and decadent. But because it was salmon, I decided it was healthy. I’m sticking with that.

Jim went with the pork chop. Not just any pork chop. A 14-ounce cut rubbed with cumin, grilled, and covered with roasted pistachio-lime-herb chimichurri.

Pear and Walnut Salad Club Soda
Pancetta wrapped salmon at Club Soda
Pork chop topped with pistachios

Dessert was blues and classic rock in the bar with a side of scotch and a Smoked Manhattan.

Hopping Gnome

Our first night in Fort Wayne continued with a taste of the craft beer scene at Hoppy Gnome and Gnometown Brewing. With forty different beers, they aim to have something for everyone.

While it would have been fun to test that theory, I decided to behave and stuck with a couple of tasters. I could tell you what I had, but the beers change so frequently it would just be a tease. Suffice it to say I approve.  In addition to tasting beers, you can brew your own: they’re the only BOP – Brew On Premise – in Indiana.

Gnometown Brewing

Sated and spent, we collapsed among the pillows of our king-sized bed. The next day would be a doozy.

The sun briefly broke through as we walked a couple of blocks to our first destination of the day: the old Aunt Millie’s Bakery. 

One of my favorite ways to get a feel for a place is to shop at a farmers market. Not only does it support the local economy, but you also get to meet the people who made, created, or grew the items for sale.

From October through April, the YLNI (Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana) Farmers Market fills the former bakery on Saturday mornings.

Where trucks used to load up with baked goods is now a bustling marketplace featuring everything from handmade chocolates to hot sauces that’ll blow your top off to candles that smell like Fort Wayne (and Montana, Chicago, and everywhere else Simple Nature‘s creative creator has been). 

We’d decided our breakfast would be whatever we found at the market, and that proved to be an excellent choice. We picked up an almond croissant filled with a touch of Grand Marnier (because, why wouldn’t you, said The Bread Guy himself) and asiago cheese bagels. 

We saved them for later after being distracted by the scent of baking dough. We followed our noses Snoopy-style to a corner booth advertising Chimney Cakes. This “authentic Transylvanian pastry” is made to order by wrapping dough around a tube and baking it in a rotisserie.

We chose cheddar jalapeno. Looking back, I’m quite impressed with how well we shared, because both of us wanted to eat the whole flaky, buttery, savory delight. While our chimney cake cooked, we chatted with Uncle Doc’s A Damn Fine Soda and bought a couple of bottles of Pineapple Express, “A Damn Fine Sparkling Tea” to go with our unusual breakfast.

Chimney Cakes and Damn Fine Tea

Other favorite vendors included the lovely couple at Olde Farmhouse Baked Goodies, who informed us that Sweetwater owned the building and was developing a multi-use project across the street, and Jerky Jerks.

We also chatted with TJ at Ambrosia Orchard, who gave us food recommendations. By the time we left, we knew we’d have tacos for lunch and cider with dinner.

Nate's Beef Jerky
 Olde Farmhouse Baked Goodies

We walked the few blocks to Historic Fort Wayne, munching on Nate’s era-appropriate beef jerky. The old fort is actually a new fort, built in 1976 to replicate the last fort. Downtown Fort Wayne, named for the third fort, had been home to five.

Historic Old Fort is one of the top things to do in Fort Wayne

Wait—what?

If you come across an historic fort, it’s probably not the original structure. Nor does the replica usually represent the first fort built on that site. For example, Fort Massac in southern Illinois is a replica of a 1794 structure overlooking the Ohio River, although the French built the first fortification on the site in 1757.

The French also built the first fort in what was then known as Kekionga, a Miami village, in 1722. It lasted twenty-five years before the Huron, allied with the English, destroyed it.

Not ones to give up so easily, the French built another fort in 1750. They held onto it for ten years before losing to the British, this time in the French and Indian War. The British then lost it to Native Americans in 1763 during Pontiac’s Rebellion.

In 1794, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne directed troops to build the first American military installation on the site. That fort, for whom the city would be named, had to be replaced within six years because it was so crowded.

Colonel Thomas Hunt built the new fort, and it was strong enough to withstand a siege during the War of 1812. Its survival was pivotal in protecting what was, at that time, the frontier from the Brits.

Then, finally, we come to the fort that is represented today. Chicago history buffs might see similarities to Fort Dearborn: Major John Whistler, who built the Chicago fortification in 1803 when he was still a Captain, constructed the final Fort Wayne in 1815-1816.

It was considered “the most sophisticated all-wooden fort ever built in North America.”

However, its usefulness was even shorter than that of the canal whose construction would necessitate its destruction. In the spring of 1819, the last soldiers left and the last pieces were removed in 1852.

Today, the Historic Old Fort hosts special events that relive different eras in America’s military history. Our visit coincided with a Union Civil War Garrison. Volunteers reenact the day-to-day routines of war in the 1860s, including cooking and social life. In the hospital, we learned what happened to a soldier who got shot. 

Basically: don’t get shot.

Reenactors at Old Historic Fort Wayne

Before leaving, we chatted briefly with a young lady who gave us advice for more modern times: eat at Junk Ditch. 

We tucked that in our files and left the Old Fort to find, according to TJ from the farmers market, the best tacos in town.

Mercado at The Landing in Fort Wayne

He’d directed us to Mercado, a lively Cali-Mexican restaurant in Fort Wayne’s newest dining and entertainment district. The Landing is a one-block stretch of Columbia Street.

It’s closed to vehicular traffic and open to pedestrians. The block’s historical claims to fame include the stagecoach and canal terminal, the first post office, first hotel, first newspaper, first theater, and first railway station.

Columbia Street at The Landing in Fort Wayne

Because it was Saturday, Mercado served brunch, but we could still get our fill of tacos. To drink, I tried Agua de Jamaica, a purple “refresher” of hibiscus and raspberry. Jim went with the more traditional horchata.

If we’d been in a drinking mood, they offer intriguing cocktails like the D’Jamu Swizzle, made with turmeric vodka, tamarind, lemongrass, honey, lime, and mint.

But we were there for the tacos.

The menu offered twelve options. We chose five. 

There’s the standard carne asada, which we loved, but Falafel My Homies stood out. So, too, did Broken Spanish: a simple yet flavorful combination of chicken tinga, lettuce, cotija, and crema.

We tried a couple with fried cheese, but (and I can’t believe I’m saying this), next time I’d skip it. The flavor wasn’t strong enough to justify the calories.

We also ordered the garlicky potatoes. If you get those, make everyone with you eat them, too. The name ain’t lyin’.

Mercado is eminently affordable. Most of the tacos are $3, but go up to $6 for the shrimp and lobster cake. Brunch entrees are $10 to $18.

Tacos at Mercado

Before we left, our server Bridgette gave us another restaurant recommendation: 

Junk Ditch.

It looked like Junk Ditch was in our future. But first, we needed to recover from our busy morning. 

Although the farmers market, fort, and Mercado were all within a few blocks of each other, the brief bit of sunlight had been a tease and we’d been fighting against a strong wind. I’d wanted to explore downtown’s public art and had even downloaded their Public Art Trail, but that cold was biting.

We neared the hotel, ready to take a nap (what can I say; we’re old) when I saw a museum on the corner. That’s my siren call. I crossed the street, noticed they were open until two and it was twenty after one. Jim headed back to the room and I entered the world of Catholicism.

Diocesan Museum in Fort Wayne Indiana

Since 1981, the Diocesan Museum has been telling the story of the Catholic religion. The museum is located next to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Built in 1859, the cathedral is one of the reasons Fort Wayne was often called the City of Churches.

The museum moved into the former chancery in 2019. Inside is a glittering collection of, what seems to the uninitiated, every aspect of the church’s history.

There are paintings, stained glass windows, and mother-of-pearl inset furniture. There are Bishop’s artifacts, a collection of nun dolls, and chalices. There are statues, crucifixes, robes, and Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus Regalia.

It’s a crash course in one of the world’s most influential religions.

The sheer quantity of artifacts and information caused sensory overload. I had, and have, questions, but I knew I’d never have enough time to make a dent.

Whether you practice Catholicism or are completely uninitiated, a visit to the Diocesan Museum can provide insight, and maybe a little understanding.

I opened the door and stepped back outside into the bracing wind.  Across the street, the warmth of the Botanical Conservatory beckoned, but that was on the next day’s agenda and I had another museum to see.

As I browsed maps of downtown when we arrived the day before, I noticed the Fort Wayne History Center. Farmers markets are one of my favorite ways to learn about a place; community history museums are another.

The Fort Wayne History Center occupies the former City Hall, a National Historic Landmark. Local architects Wing and Mahurin built the Richardsonian Romanesque in 1893. In Chicago, Richardson’s Glessner House and Sullivan’s Auditorium Building, inspired by Richardson, are considered things of beauty.

In Fort Wayne, not so much. Residents maligned the sandstone building, calling it the “Hapsburg Horror” after the German dynasty, and “royal” because of its $69,000 price tag.

The museum is filled with details of the area’s past. After a walk through the gift shop, exhibits begin with the glaciers that shaped the land, followed by artifacts from early inhabitants. 

The museum tells the story of the Miami, whose village of Kekionga was a thriving trading center. Timelines depict the battles between the indigenous peoples and the French, British, and Americans. One of the most prominent Americans was General Anthony Wayne himself; his actual camp bed is on display.

The collections are organized chronologically. Visitors learn the stories of the canal and the railroads and early industry is represented by a re-created blacksmith shop and foundry. Display cases highlight local inventions, like magnet wire and the television.

There’s even a display for beer: heavy German immigration meant breweries, including one established by Herman and Hubert Berghoff in 1887. Herman would later open the famous restaurant in Chicago.

Upstairs exhibits cover more of Fort Wayne’s past, and the hallways on both floors are lined with display cases. The basement is the old jail. Throughout the building there are “The Way It Was” signs depicting the rooms as they were used during the City Hall years. 

Fort Wayne History Center admission is only $6. Well worth it.

I hopped the Saint Marys River for a quick flight at Hop River Brewing Company. Visit Fort Wayne had included a list of black-owned businesses from the Fort Wayne Black Chamber of Commerce in my welcome packet.

Although there’s been an increase in recent years, black-owned breweries still make up under one percent of total United States breweries. If I see one, I’m going to support it.

Opened in 2015, Hop River is a 15-barrel microbrewery. “Micro” doesn’t mean minimal. Their beer styles ranged from an easy Kolsch to a deep Imperial Stout. They’ve also got ciders and wine slushies if beer’s not your thing. 

Hop River Brewing Company

Their food menu, especially the Southern Grilled Cheese (yum, IPA Pimento) looked inviting, but we had a date with a friend from Michigan.

As luck would have it, Amy Piper, one of my co-authors of Midwest Road Trip Adventures, happened to be in Fort Wayne the same weekend. A dedicated foodie, Amy suggested we meet for a bite at Birdie’s, the rooftop bar at The Bradley. (I will always follow Amy’s recommendations.)

If you’re a Vera Bradley fan and your ears just perked up, you’re correct: Fort Wayne’s newest hotel was co-designed by Barbara Bradley Baekgaard, co-founder of the lifestyle brand.

Birdcages lined the wall across from the entrance to the lounge, and the hall opened into a bright, airy space with bamboo chairs and a blue-tiled center bar.

We arrived as soon as they opened at 5 p.m., which was a good thing. By the time we left an hour and a half later, the place was hopping.

It was a great visit punctuated with bites of hummus and burrata. The chickpea dip came with roasted red peppers, olives, cucumbers, grapes, and grilled pita wedges. 

The burrata – oh, I do love burrata. The beautiful white ball of mozzarella, served with sourdough crisps, sat on a lovely green sage pesto, and it was topped with red pickled peppers and rings of roasted squash. My only (minor) complaint is that both dishes needed more delivery vehicles, a.k.a. pita and crisps.

For cocktails, I chose the Birthplace of the Cool, a pretty-in-pink drink of tequila blanco, grapefruit, and lime mezcal. Although the mezcal made it slightly smoky, it was still a bit sweet for my tastes. If you like sweeter cocktails, you’ll love it.

Personally, I had cocktail envy. Jim’s Gov’na General, a straight-up stirred-not-shaken blend of scotch, maraschino, and vermouth, was exactly my style. 

And in case you’re wondering, that maraschino was a Luxardo.

Theresa Goodrich and Amy Piper at Birdie's

It would have been lovely to spend the evening sampling the steak frites or the mushroom risotto, but TJ told us we needed to go to Ambrosia Orchard, so off we went.

His recommendation took us a few minutes south of town to a red barn in Hoagland, Indiana. A sign declaring “Come In. We are AWESOME.” welcomed us. I made a beeline for the shelves of goods along the wall where they sold local honey, hot sauce, cider, and gifts.

A display of earrings caught my eyes, and I ended up leaving with four pairs, including one in the shape of hops and another, Indiana. (Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier.) 

The bar and dining area is small. It’s basically a row of tables. That’s because they need room for the tanks to brew their cider and mead. There’s an upstairs seating area, but a private party had booked it for that night.

The menu is limited, but after our fancy-schmancy apps at Birdie’s and our extravagant dinner the night before, burgers suited us. I got the All-American; Jim got the Dad Bod. His came with bacon. I added it to mine.

I would have been happy just eating the bacon by itself. It was so flavorful and thick we swore it was more pork belly than bacon strip. They use local Wood Farms beef and the bread is from Zinnia, a bakery we’d seen on a few menus.

Burger with bacon at Ambrosia Orchard

I’ll admit: I’m not a huge cider fan. It’s that whole sweet drink thing. But, I enjoyed the Lupulus Rossa made with blood orange and hops and the Cerasium, a cherry cider.

Next time I’m in Fort Wayne, I’d love to return and try some of their meads, especially the Lil’ Currants. And if we go back in 2023, I’ll be able to pick my own fruit; that’s when their U-Pick will open.

Jim had the Sweet Life Honey Root Beer, and it was an intriguing – in a good way – twist on the classic soft drink.

Honey root beer at Ambrosia

Carting a piece of death by chocolate cheesecake, we headed to the hotel, sated and happy after a full, delicious, and fascinating day.

Almond Croissant

The attractions on our Sunday itinerary opened at noon, so we spent a leisurely morning in the hotel room. I relaxed on the curved couch and we shared The Bread Guy’s almond croissant before checking out and snagging an early lunch.

Part of Fort Wayne’s ubiquitous Don Hall collection of restaurants, Hall’s Prime Rib is a throw-back family-style restaurant. We could tell it had been around for a while and was a local favorite; the average age of the patrons was probably sixty, and that’s including the toddlers and babies scattered around the place. 

We’d arrived in the magic time between breakfast and lunch, so we had our pick. 

Jim went with The Big Buster, a sandwich that originated when the Original Drive-In Don Hall’s Restaurant opened in 1946.

That restaurant closed on December 31, 2021, but you can still get its signature sandwich. The triple-decker burger is topped with cheese, lettuce, and a special sauce.

I went with the breaded tenderloin sandwich. Pounded thin and twice the size of the bun, it had that downhome taste that I crave when I’m back home again in Indiana.

The coleslaw was perfect diner slaw and the German chocolate cake we took to go was what a German chocolate cake should be. 

By the time we’d paid the check, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art had opened. Part of Arts Campus Fort Wayne on Main Street, the museum features American art and displays special exhibits.

During our visit, the Art of the Skateboard filled multiple galleries. I was brought back to my teenage years when my younger brother was obsessed with skateboarding. Since he was my younger brother (if you know, you know), I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it.

This exhibit served as my introduction to a subculture rooted in surfing, and I understood my brother’s fascination a bit more.

The other exhibition featured work by a bunch of kids. Literally. The museum dedicated several rooms to the Gold and Silver Key winners of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Created by students in grades 7 through 12, these works of art were revelatory. 

Maurice R. Robinson, the founder of Scholastic Book Company, began the regional competition in 1923. According to the Fort Wayne Museum of Art:

“The goal was not to train new artists and writers but to create a safe space for student expression, free from censorship or bias.”

That lack of censorship and bias was powerful, allowing these students to fully express their artistic visions. Themes emerged: inclusion, self-awareness, and a sense of isolation stuck out to me. Considering what these youths have experienced in the last two years, those weren’t surprising.

What was surprising, and I realized even then that it shouldn’t have been, was the complexity and immense talent displayed.

In particular, Madeline Pawlak’s Words Leave Scars, captured the devastation caused by cruelty and displayed an ability to give emotions voice through art. I noticed it because a young woman stood by the photo while her mother took her picture.

After offering congratulations to the person I assumed was the Silver Key award winner, Lydia told me she was the woman in the photo, which had been taken by her older sister. The contrast of the smiling, happy teenager with the black and white subject was stark.

Lydia Pawlak
Lydia Pawlak with her sister Madeline’s award-winning photograph. I received permission to share this photo.

Not all the art is intense; some pieces are more lighthearted, like Dancing with the Scarecrow by Sarah Liu and Green Eyed Goddess by Gabrielle Dumoulin.

While the exhibit closed in early April, you can see all the works on the museum’s website. The museum displays the winners every year. The receptionist told us that she’d entered it herself when she was a teenager.

Permanent exhibits at the museum include a display of American Brilliant Cut Glass and Martin Blank’s Repose in Amber, one of the largest hot-sculpted landscapes in the world.

Repose in Amber

Our last Fort Wayne attraction was the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory. Named for Helen Foellinger, publisher of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel and co-founder of the conservatory, and Frank Freimann, late president of Magnavox, the conservatory is a downtown oasis.

Comprised of three greenhouses as well as outdoor gardens, the botanical gardens bring exotic plants to Indiana. The Desert Garden recreates the Sonoran, the Tropical House is a lush environment with palm trees and a waterfall, and the Showcase Garden changes seasonally.

Sonoran Desert in Fort Wayne
Tropical House at the Botanical Conservatory
Display in the Showcase Garden

You can take some green home with you from the Conservatory Shop. If you’re thirsty, pop into Conjure Coffee for a cuppa and a pastry. They’re a local cafe with three locations. If you crave some when you get home, they’ll ship to you and they offer subscriptions.

We had two more stops to make before heading back home. The first was a return visit to the Genealogy Center. Armed with the call numbers Elizabeth had provided, I made my way into the stacks.

I checked the index of the first book, Our Land: a History of Lyon County Kansas, and found my great-great-great-great grandfather’s name, John Carter. I turned to the pages listed and there he was; he’d built the first house in Plymouth.

Even though Elizabeth had given me a map, I still felt the thrill of discovery.

Next week we’re driving to Colorado. It’s a trip that’s been planned for months because I’m speaking at the Denver Travel & Adventure Show.

Now that trip will have even more personal significance; we’ll be stopping at Plymouth and visiting the grave of an ancestor, a connection made in Fort Wayne.

How did Elizabeth know that John Carter is one of my John Carters? (There are three in my direct ancestry.) Because Elizabeth discovered that I’m descended from Irish Quakers. And Quakers – SQUEEE! – record everything. 

She pointed me to other mentions of my family from their days in North Carolina, and even more resources from Dublin, Ireland.

What about my mother’s side of the family? Another researcher tackled it and came across a mystery, which I’m attempting to unravel. Stay tuned, because I’ll be writing a series of articles about this exploration into my past.

I could have stayed in those stacks for days, but we had one more place.

Junk Ditch Brewing Company.

Since we were still slightly full from lunch and Junk Ditch was still serving brunch, we couldn’t get the full experience, but it was a worthy stop nonetheless. Jim had a flaky croissant with cheese and a cherry jam that was obviously made in-house, as were the rich sausage patties we ordered to share.

After a weekend of indulgences, I tried to be good by getting the chickpea salad. It had all sorts of healthy things, like cucumbers, red peppers, dill, parsley, pickled carrots, and shallot.

Tossed with a truffle yuza vinaigrette and topped with feta, I ate the entire thing and washed it down with a taster of Andy Pants. (I may or may not have ordered the cream ale because of the name alone.)

Our experience was a tease, but since I’ve already said multiple times I need to return to Fort Wayne, I’ll plan ahead for dinner.

When we entered the brewery, pops of blue had peeked through what had been constant clouds. By the time we exited, the sun was shining. We climbed the hill to overlook the ditch for which the restaurant was named. Turned our faces to the sun. Got back in the car and followed the Lincoln Highway home.

Fort Wayne left its mark. I’ll be back, to research more about my own past and to learn more about the city’s present. And I know that no matter what the weather is, I’ll be warm and sunny on the inside.

3-day Fort Wayne Itinerary

Did our discovery weekend sound like fun? Here’s the full 3-day Fort Wayne itinerary.

Day 1

  • Sweetwater Sound
  • The Genealogy Center
  • Club Soda
  • The Hoppy Gnome

Day 2

  • YLNI Farmers Market
  • Historic Fort Wayne
  • Mercado
  • Diocesan Museum
  • Fort Wayne History Center
  • Hop River Brewing Company
  • Birdie’s
  • Ambrosia Orchard

Day 3

  • Hall’s Prime Rib
  • Fort Wayne Art Museum
  • Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory
  • Junk Ditch Brewing Company

Our Fort Wayne Accommodations

We stayed at the Courtyard Fort Wayne Downtown at Grand Wayne Convention Center. It’s a great location; across from the convention center and in between Parkview Field and Embassy Theatre.

The rooms are comfortable, and as I mentioned, I loved that curved couch. I also liked that the desk was on wheels so I could roll it in front of the window.

Climate control was perfect. Hotel rooms, even though they usually have their own thermostats, are often too hot or too cold. This one was just right.

The service was also great. I saw one young man several times throughout the weekend and every time he had a smile (under his mask) and a friendly conversation. Thanks, Bonny, for making us feel welcome!

Check rates and read reviews of the Courtyard Fort Wayne Downtown.

More Things to do in Fort Wayne

We barely scratched the surface of things to do in Fort Wayne. Here are even more fun attractions, including lots of outdoor activities:

  • Science Central. Hands-on science fun no matter what age you are.
  • Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. One of the top ten children’s zoos in the country. Open seasonally. Highlights include African Journey, Australian Adventure, and Indonesian Rain Forest.
  • Parkview Field. Catch a minor league baseball game with the Fort Wayne TinCaps.
  • Embassy Theatre. Watch a show at the former vaudeville theater.
  • Fort Wayne Firefighters’ Museum. Most of the artifacts in this museum were actually used by the Fort Wayne Fire Department.
  • Promenade Park. Opened in 2019, this park straddles Saint Marys River and features playgrounds, a bandshell, and the Parkview Tree Canopy Trail.
  • Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. Arena and expo center hosting major events.
  • Public Art Trail. Fort Wayne’s bursting with murals, sculptures, and other public art.
  • Lakeside Park. 23.8-acre park featuring a lagoon, a pavilion, and rose gardens.