Making Metamora memories

Take a walk in the past lane

By CJ Woodring

Metamora, home to about 250 residents, is roughly 70 miles southeast of Indianapolis. Platted in 1838, the unincorporated town once was a stop along the Whitewater Canal, which continues to define and shape the community.

Throughout the years, Metamora emerged as a major tourist destination for history buffs, artists, musicians and visitors seeking a relaxed vibe and nostalgic walk. Whatever your reason for visiting, your timing will be spot-on: The town and long-running Canal Days festival are experiencing a Metamora metamorphosis, if you will.

Although much has changed since the railroad replaced the canal, ambience has not. The Whitewater Canal, a town centerpiece, remains a viable, valuable attraction.

The canal, along with the Metamora Grist Mill, operates under the umbrella of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites Corp. Jay Dishman, now in his 30th year as historic site manager, oversees daily, year-round operations.   

Along with administrative duties and employee supervision, Dishman ensures canal water is running and the two-story, water-powered grist mill is working. On occasion, he serves as miller for the current structure, which replaced an earlier mill sometime before 1900. The current grist mill continues to grind corn meal and flour available for purchase.

The most recent site project, completed this spring, focused on reconstruction of the Duck Creek Aqueduct, which carries canal water over Duck Creek.

“This was the largest alteration on the aqueduct for the past dozen or so years,” Dishman says. “Among other things, it involved an application that extends the life of the wood, which we’d like to get at least two more decades out of.”

Originally constructed in 1843 and the only wood aqueduct still in service in the United States, the 75-foot structure was partially destroyed by a flood in 1846. Rebuilt shortly thereafter, it was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1992 and a National Historic Landmark in 2014.

Canal Days Autumn Festival

Any season in Indiana yields plenty of adventures; one of those adventures is the Metamora Canal Days Autumn Festival, held the first full October weekend. Now in its 50th year, this year’s event is slated for Oct. 5 to 7.

First held in September 1969, Canal Days Autumn Festival initially was celebrated for just two days. An extension to three days helped ease traffic during busy and crowded weekends, which last year drew more than 120,000 visitors.

The annual event is Historic Metamora’s primary source of income, derived from sales of art, antiques and quality handcrafts booths set up along the canal, across from the mill and in Tow Path Park. While these Canal Days vendors are juried, goods sold throughout town include flea market items, carnival food, plants, natural food products and more. Hence, the festival is promoted as offering “something for everybody.”

Local business owners, many of them natives, roll out the welcome mat at restaurants, retail stores and overnight accommodations.

Innkeeper Cassie Garrett will be one of the Metamora residents welcoming guests. She was 5 when her family moved to Metamora. As a child, she began accompanying her mother to work in the 1880 building Garrett and husband Nate now operate as The Farmhouse, a bed-and-breakfast.

“The house has a long-running history as a bed-and-breakfast, and my mother worked for a former owner. So I spent quite a bit of time there,” she says.

After more than a decade out of state, Garrett returned to Metamora in 2015, working alongside her husband to refurbish the iconic building. Operating year-round, the inn also features a restaurant open to the public. It’s a comfortable home for the couple and their daughters, Sophia and Savannah, soon to be joined by daughter Scarlett, due in October.

Cassie Garrett says when she left, the town was thriving, drawing tourists from throughout the region. By the time she returned, “a lot of shops had closed down. Things I’d remembered were gone. So it was kind of a risk. But I had such good, fond memories of what it had been and knew it could rebound.”

The couple’s faith wasn’t misplaced: The inn draws guests from beyond the tri-state area, also hosting nationwide visitors seeking off-the-beaten-path eateries. “We’re steadily seeing a lot of artists coming for the festival,” Garrett says. “There are less and less empty buildings and an increase in original, handmade items. We’re definitely on an upswing.”

Exploring Metamora

Metamora’s star attractions include a half-hour canal excursion on the horse-drawn, 75-foot canal boat, and a visit to the mill. Visitors also hop aboard a horse-drawn carriage, the perfect way to explore this historic town.

Other fun sights include the canal boat horse stable; historic Odd Fellows Hall, home to the Metamora Museum of Oddities/The Dark Shadow; and Metamora Gem Mine & Luna’s Garden Gift Shop, where families pan for fossils and semi-precious gems.

Metamora Performing Arts features a variety of musicians — Bluegrass Night is held at the Opry Barn the third Saturday of the month — selling out for nearly every performance.

Visitors can set out on a 2.6-mile hiking and biking trail along the historic Whitewater Canal or visit privately owned Salt Creek Ranch, one mile west of Metamora in Laurel. The venue offers horseback riding, canoeing, camping and cabin rental.

Whitewater State Park, in nearby Liberty, showcases 200-acre Whitewater Lake, a fun family getaway offering recreational opportunities and camping.

Shop, eat and stay

Dozens of businesses line downtown streets in Metamora and adjacent Duck Creek Crossing. Most are closed mid-December through mid-April. A majority of retail owners maintain full-time jobs elsewhere, also working long weekend and night hours to provide quality merchandise.

Eclectic shops include The Wood Shack for handcrafted wood items; Words and Images/The Train Place, which combines the owners’ love for books and railroad memorabilia; and Mr. Fudge’s Confectionery, a Metamora landmark for more than 40 years.

In nearby Duck Creek Crossing, businesses are housed in relocated historic structures. Among them is Buttons ’n’ Bows, where owners Jenny Moster and Jackie Beneker hold down the fort, assisted by Moster’s sister-in-law, Mary Moster.

The women set up shop in 1986, purveying merchandise that showcases miniature items for display in shadow and printer’s boxes. Frogs and turtles are the biggest sellers, Jenny Moster says, adding that a children’s area features tiny unbreakable items, perfect for little hands.

Moster notes that new businesses continue to open, replacing those that have left. This spring, eight new shops opened downtown, along with three in Duck Creek Crossing.

“Our business has gone steadily upward in the last two to three years, and we get to meet so many wonderful people who are just here to have a good time,” she says.

Although small in size, Metamora is large on good taste, including good-tasting food. Try Scooty’s Grill for barbecued ribs; The Smelly Gourmet European Coffee Bar and Gift Shop, which offers the adjoining luxury Banes Suite; Gold Diggers Family Diner, a themed restaurant where patrons dine in a gold mine; and Grannie’s Cookie Jars and Ice Cream Parlor, where customers enjoy homemade cones and view a collection of more than 2,600 cookie jars.

Spending the night? Along with The Farmhouse, consider the Grapevine Inn, Robin’s Nest, Cat and the Fiddle and the 1850s Metamora Inn. Fifteen minutes from town, Dreams End Log Cabin Vacation Rentals, a year-round Connersville getaway, offers five cozy cabins that can accommodate up to 10 people.

According to Jay Dishman, the future of Metamora and the Canal Days Autumn Festival appears rosy. “The town continues to grow, and we have some new ideas coming up for the mill site,” he says. “Hopefully, we’re educating folks, and they can also shop to their hearts’ content. We’re looking up.”

Moster echoes the sentiment. “The historic atmosphere remains,” she says, “and Metamora is still a wonderful and fun place to visit. Older people might remember what is was, but the younger ones are thinking of what it can be.”