WHY GO: Jimmy Stewart and Punxsutawney Phil are just the beginning in Punxsutawney and Indiana PA region.
Also known as an Abolitionist stronghold, and for its Christmas Trees, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and, interestingly, its “Salt Wells,” this region has plenty to recommend it.
In 1910, after coal companies had denuded the land, entrepreneurs discovered that evergreen trees were the only flora that could thrive in these conditions. They planted thousands of them, then opened up for business. Subsequently, Indiana PA region became the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World.”
These days, though, most visitors to this Western PA region visit not so much for Holiday Trees, but for recreation (rails to trails), education (IUP, which counts the founder of YouTube among its illustrious graduates), libation (breweries and distilleries), and celebration (Groundhog Day). Herewith the Getaway Maven’s reasons to visit and stay in Indiana PA and Punxsutawney.
What to Do in Punxsutawney and Indiana PA
TOUR: Punxsutawney PA
Just outside of Indiana County – a bit closer to I-80 – this little town of 5,500 more than quadruples in population every February 2nd when resident rodent, Punxsutawney Phil, announces (in language only a select few can decipher) whether or not he’s seen his shadow, auguring Spring or another 6 weeks of Winter.
So important is this “Seer of Seer’s,” Phil’s forecast is recorded in the Congressional Records and the Library of Congress. Groundhog Day is based on the German Candlemas tradition, which used a hedgehog for the same Spring prophesy, right at the midpoint between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox.
In fact, the event is so important here, Feb. 2nd is a school holiday. First celebrated in Punxsutawney in 1886, Groundhog Day has since become a National spectacle. Especially after the release of the movie starring Bill Murray in 1993.
The “Inner Circle”
Though anyone can join the Groundhog Club (for a fee), there are only 15 top-hat wearing men in the “Inner Circle.” These chosen few understand groundhog lingo, and assert that the current Phil is the same Phil as first popped out of his burrow in the 1880’s.
Phil has lived to the ripe old age of 150 years by virtue of a special “Elixir of Life.” Administered every second Saturday after Labor Day, this drink expands his life by 7 more years.
Only two members of the Inner Circle can handle Phil (licensed through the USDA). And they must do so with falconer’s (chain mail) gloves, as Phil is a feisty bugger with sharp woodchuck teeth.
How to Meet Phil
You can see Phil, and his “wife,” Phyllis, in their glass-enclosed burrow on most days. If a journalist is in town and a handler is on hand, you may be lucky enough to see him outside his lair. (Photo is of Inner Circle Groundhog Handler, A.J. Dereume – the “Rainmaker”).
There are more photos and artifacts at the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Headquarters, which also serves as a small museum. Those who can’t get enough of the famous woodchuck can purchase Phil paraphernalia at a store a few doors down.
Afterwards, head uphill about 2 miles from town to Gobbler’s Knob, where the famous and oft filmed stage is set for Phil’s pronouncement.
Although Groundhog Day, the movie, wasn’t shot here, Bill Murray wanted to get a good sense of what went on, procedurally, with real, boots on ground research. He hid in the crowd and walked up to the stage only after the festivities were over, so as not to detract from the event. His humble approach earned him a lot of good will from locals.
If you show up in Punxsutawney on February 2nd, you’ll find no ads, no corporate sponsors, nothing to pollute this pure as the driven snow American holiday. However, you will have to deal with the 30,000 to 40,000 people who come annually to see/hear the Groundhog’s prediction.
VISIT: Jimmy Stewart Museum, Indiana PA
Anyone who’s ever felt a jolt of emotion while watching the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life will want to visit this one museum devoted to hometown hero, and all around swell guy, Jimmy Stewart.
It figures that the Jimmy Stewart Museum, opened in 1995, shares space with the town Library. After all, humble Stewart himself didn’t want a museum devoted to just him and his movie career. He wished instead to focus on his family, the town, and his military service during WWII.
Personal Side of Jimmy Stewart
To that end, these series of exhibits, on the 4th floor of the library are filled with early pictures of Stewart with his family in his house on “Vinegar Hill.” (The house still stands – and you can actually sit on the porch for a photo op).
See his childhood bed and a diorama from the local Stewart-family-owned hardware store. Imported from California – the door to the home he shared with beloved wife Gloria (who he married when she was 40) in Beverly Hills, artifacts from his Los Angeles Office, and his personal booth from Chasen’s restaurant.
And naturally, there are posters and stories from each of his 85 movies. In case you forget, Stewart starred in blockbusters from the 1934 Art Trouble, to Harvey, Philadelphia Story, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and of course, It’s A Wonderful Life.
It’s interesting to note that It’s A Wonderful Life was a flop at the box office in 1947, when post-war America was rebuilding and had no taste for a main character bent on committing suicide.
But the film found renewed life on television decades later, when it ran during the Christmas Season as a message of compassion and redemption. In later life, asked which movie was his favorite, Stewart answered unequivocally: It’s A Wonderful Life, by far.
Born in 1908, Stewart died in 1997, leaving a legacy of kindness and decency. Open Mon-Sat 10-4, Sun 12-4, $8.
WALK: All over downtown Indiana
The Crosswalk message on the corners of 9th and 7th Streets is Jimmy Stewart as depicted by Rich Little. Look across Philadelphia St. to a set of stairs. That’s “Vinegar Hill” – and if you climb up, and veer left, you’ll be on the front steps of Stewart’s boyhood home.
VISIT: Underground Railroad History Center, Blairsville
Located in the 1917 Second Baptist Church, this low-tech, hands on, much-researched one room exhibit illuminates the plight of the enslaved. But it also highlights the gumption of freedom seekers and those who helped them along the way.
Blairsville was a canal town in Indiana County PA. Part of the water-highway to Pittsburgh it was a logical stop on the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, Blairsville Abolitionist, Alexander Moorhead, Jr., wrote the names of Underground Railroad “Conductors,” stops, and incidents specific to his hometown.
Such documentation makes these displays all the more poignant. There’s a table set with one week’s worth of slave rations. Another exhibit, “The Day in the Life of an Enslaved Child,” depicts the backbreaking chores that kids as young as 5 would be forced to do. One object, a child-size yoke used to pull heavy plows, provides dreadful evidence of humans used like chattel.
To indicate just how anti-slavery this town was, Blairsville’s Fugitive Slave Rescue of 1858 is still celebrated today. In defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act, that made mandatory the return of freedom seekers from free states, Blairsville locals formed a mob to rescue a fugitive named Richard Newman.
Newman had been living in Blairsville for six years with UGRR conductor, Lewis Johnson. Found by a bounty hunter, Newman’s life was in danger until the town rose up and drove the slave tracker away. Open by appointment only. Contact Marna Conrad, guide and historian, for personal tours; firstname.lastname@example.org, 724-541-2344.
VISIT: Rebecca B. Hadden Museum at 1830 Stone House, Saltsburg
Originally a Canal and then railroad stop between Philly and Pittsburgh, Saltsburg once bustled with industry. Yes, this dusty glass case museum holds the requisite local stuff – coal mining artifacts, Native American arrowheads, and pictures of floods. But it also contains a rare portrait of Jimmy Stewart, painted by his sister.
Perhaps the most fascinating exhibits are about Saltsburg’s namesake – derived from the “salt wells” that provided the United States with much of its domestic salt.
Beginning in 1813, drillers discovered salt deposits 300 feet below ground. Flooded with water, brine was pumped to the surface, and evaporated. The resulting high quality salt was in great demand.
In fact, this valley was the country’s 3rd largest salt producer, with over 21 Salt Works within 2 miles.
The sticky substance was crude oil, first sold by Sam Kier for medicinal purposes. He called his cure-all, “Petroleum.”
Kier went on to develop an economical way to make kerosene. And, finding a better use for crude, he established the first oil refinery in Pittsburgh in 1853. Open Wed 10-2, Sun. 1-5, $2.
KAYAK: Saltsburg Canoe and Kayak Rental, Saltsburg
Rent your kayak for as little as $28 from this quirky spot, located in the historic George Altman Mill. At the confluence where Loyalhanna Creek meets the Conemaugh to form the Kiskiminetas River, it’s right across the street from the Stone House Museum.
TOUR/TASTE/DRINK: Disobedient Spirits, Homer City
Who are disobedient spirits? Gandhi, Ben Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela to start.
What are disobedient spirits? The vodka, whiskey, brandy, and gins that drip from backroom distillers in this wonderful craft cocktail, beer and wine, pool and game hall.
Drawing crowds to this small town between Blairsville and Indiana PA on the Hoodlebug Bike Trail, Disobedient Spirits also offers Yoga, Painting classes, Darts, Jenga, and other tavern games. Play, paint, and ummmm your heart out with a crafted drink in hand. Jumpin’ June Bug – a blend of House Vodka, Watermelon Orange Liquor and Lime Juice – is a personal favorite.
Though you can find Disobedient Spirits in local bars and restaurants, belly up to the cool poured concrete epoxy-resin bar to sip them at the source. Open Wed, Thurs 4-9, Fri, Sat 4-10. Check website for programming and tavern games availability.
TASTE/EAT: Levity Brewing Co, Indiana
Levity is just what it sounds like: “serious beer for the light of heart.” Levity is the brainchild of three light-hearted hometown guys who came to the conclusion that “Indiana PA needed a brewery.” Luke McKelvy, Jay Herman, and Erich Walls commandeered an old window factory, and created a local sensation.
All kinds of folks of every age from all over enjoy Spel Czech (Pilsner), Korrie and Her Wheat (American Hefeweizen), It’s Hoplicated, Hoodlebug Brown (American Brown Ale), Haze Frehley (Vermont IPA) among many others (soft drinks for the kids).
Hungry folks will appreciate “Levity Dogs,” soft pretzels, pulled pork nachos, and more bites. Crammed on a midweek night, this is a very happening spot.
BICYCLE: Three bike trails in Indiana County
The 36-mile Ghost Town Trail, 10-mile Hoodlebug Trail, and the 2-mile Blairsville Riverfront Trail. Most are also open for walking and cross-country skiing.
SHOP: Artists Hand Gallery and Espresso Bar, Indiana
Exactly as it sounds – a cool coffee bar surrounded by of oodles of unique hand-made arts and crafts.
Restaurants in Indiana County PA
EAT: Nap’s Cucina Mia and Josephine’s Pizzeria, Indiana
Owned by the same family, these side-by-side restaurants are equally great, though differ in cuisine. Nap’s, named for Napoleon Patti, began as a “shot and beer bar,” open 24 hours a day.
In 1992, daughter Mary Joe turned it into a fresh pasta restaurant. Then, her son, Nick Karas upscaled it further, offering steak and fish. It’s now one of the top restaurants in Indiana PA.
Nick branched out next door. He named his own Neapolitan wood-fired Pizza joint after his Grandmother, Josephine. Josephine’s interior was literally built around the Italian-made wood-fired oven, which came on a barge to the USA, and then on a truck to this western PA town.
EAT: Benjamin’s, Indiana
This iconic Indiana PA restaurant occupies a large Victorian home. As such, it’s endowed with cozy, homespun charm. Benjamin’s features fine food, and a great summer patio. It just keeps getting larger and larger. It’s been a hit with locals and parents picking up or dropping their students off at IUP for years.
EAT: Market Street Pastries, Blairsville
This adorable, bright lunch spot dishes out a lot more than sweets. Try the homemade soups and sandwiches. Everything is fresh, tasty, and excellent.
ICE CREAM: Scoops, Blairsville
This doo-wop shop has Penn State Creamery Ice Cream on its side. And man, is it fantastic. I’d place it among the Northeast US’s top ice cream shops.
Where to Stay in Indiana PA
STAY: Hilton Garden Inn, Indiana
It’s rare that the Mavens recommend a chain hotel. But in this case, Hilton is the best place in town. Plus, it’s conveniently located next to the Convention Center on the IUP campus.
Brand new, rooms are bright and clean. The lobby is pretty and modern, and the in-lobby restaurant serves up good food from an open kitchen. There’s also a Craft Cocktail Bar that bustles at night, an indoor pool, and an outdoor fire pit.