This piece is part of a series of articles submitted to The Local Tourist through a cooperation with a 400-level travel writing class at Purdue University.
By Hannah Rollins
My dad was born and raised in Freetown, Indiana. Of course, whenever I say that, I immediately follow with “near Columbus and Seymour.” When whoever I’m talking to still looks back at me in complete confusion, I say, “It’s about an hour south of Indianapolis.”
Unless you’re a local or a John Mellencamp fan, you might not know the names of these places, much less think of them as travel destinations.
Through countless weekend road trips to southern Indiana, I’ve found these small unknown towns to be true treasures. They are the inspiration for artists, the foundation for lives and jobs, and the reminder that the simpler style of life is still alive and well.
Spencer, Indiana, in particular embodies small town community with progressive thinking. With new renovations, both in businesses and mindsets, Spencer is a must-see town.
Things to do in Spencer, Indiana
I first heard of Spencer, Indiana, after my parents raved about their trip to Juniper Art Gallery. Juniper is a one-of-a-kind gallery for people of all backgrounds, talents, and ages.
Jaime Sweany, proud owner of the gallery, has been at 46 E. Market Street for two years. Sweany lived in Spencer back in the 90s, when the town square was nothing but deteriorated buildings with boarded up windows.
“It was just so sad,” Sweany says.
Spencer measures two square miles in Owen County, about 30 minutes northwest of Bloomington, Indiana, the home of Indiana University. More than 2,200 people call Spencer home.
The most beautiful part of Spencer, though, isn’t the location at all; it’s the helpful and loving people that make up the few yet dedicated locals.
After years of desolation, the town decided it wanted to renovate the Tivoli Theatre, a block over from Juniper Art Gallery.
New organization centers, stores, coffee shops, and restaurants followed.
Today, the once desolate historic town square is flooded by bright colors and town pride.
Speaking of Pride…
The Spencer Pride Festival is the largest rural LGBTQ+ pride event in Indiana. Spencer also claims to be the smallest town with the largest LGBTQ+ pride event in the Midwest.
After such success with the festival, Spencer built a LGBTQ+ center, the community center, with a variety of resources – a rarity in rural America.
With a focus on celebration and educational opportunity, Spencer has started to make foundational progress not just physically in their historic town square, but in the mindset of rural America.
Restaurants in Spencer Indiana
Spencer has two coffee shops in the historic town square: Main Street Coffee and Spencer Coffee House.
Main Street Coffee is family owned. Both offer a variety of food and drink options, but my favorite thing about these coffee shops are the distinctive murals on their buildings.
In the mural on the side of Spencer Coffee House, the artist, Becky Hochhalter, has depicted wildlife that is native to Indiana – specifically the McCormick’s Creek area – such as a cerulean warbler, a small mouth bass, turtles, a raccoon, and a monarch butterfly.
Main Street Coffee – 1 N. Main Street & Spencer Coffee House – 3 E. Franklin Street
If you’re looking for something a little stronger, check out Civilian Brewing Corps. This local brewery’s name was inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the organization that worked to make McCormick’s Creek the first state park in Indiana. Ben Williams, who grew up in Owen County, and his wife, Kylene, started Civilian Brewing Corps in March of 2019.
Civilian Brewing Corps – 14 N. Washington Street
Civilian Brewing Corps has a constantly rotating list of locally-made classic and experimental beers on tap as well as a menu full of unique twists on comforting favorites like the Sloppy Jane and Civilian Hot Chicken.
Shopping in Spencer Indiana
Sweany credits her deeply-rooted love for art back to her parents. She displays her father’s oil paintings and mother’s sculptures in her gallery.
“They always taught me to see beauty in the little things others would normally just pass by,” says Sweany.
The display case in the picture above features some of the artwork of Sweany’s parents. To the right of the display case, some paintings by Wyatt LeGrand, my dad’s favorite local artist, are displayed.
Sweany handpicks artwork from regional artists to display in her gallery. She also sells postcards, jewelry, decorations, houseware, and other locally-made artworks to accommodate customers of all tastes and budgets.
One of my favorite artworks available for purchase are the earring holders by Barb Lund, who is from Bloomington, Indiana. Her earring holders have a unique distinctive shape and are only $30.00!
Sweany plans to organize more art classes, artist demonstrations, and live music events in the future.
Juniper Art Gallery – 46 E. Market Street
Where to Explore near Spencer Indiana
McCormick’s Creek State Park – Indiana’s First State Park
About a five-minute drive from the historic town square is McCormick’s Creek State Park.
There are over 10 miles of hiking trails of various difficulty levels in the park. There is also a pool, horseback riding, fishing, and canoeing/kayaking. Plus there is an inn along with cabins and campgrounds so you can stay overnight. Pricing for entrance fees can be found here.
Spencer, Indiana, Historic Liars Bench – On the Corner of S. Main Street and E. Franklin Street
Many small towns have a liar’s bench. A liar’s bench is dedicated to the gathering spot where old men in the town used to pass down stories and news to the young’uns. As much of folklore gets lost in translation, they are referred to as liar’s benches because who knows if the stories exchanged here ever held any truth. Either way, this is a great spot to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee or just watch the world pass by.
There is so much history, pride, culture, and love to see in Spencer, Indiana. Far away exotic trips are great, but sometimes the most beautiful places to visit are just a few hours from your hometown.