Spotlighting special towns across the country, Good Towns is about the character, the history, the people and the unique things that make a town a special place.
The road into central Indiana toward the small town of Frankfort is surrounded by a patchwork of fibrous cornstalks and blankets of bushy soybeans – the state’s largest cash crops. For miles, there seems to be little else here than the occasional interruption of a factory building.
But closer to downtown Frankfort, in this town of 16,000, a larger curiosity rises in the distance – a massive domed-top basketball arena. Indiana is the home of Hoosier mania, and it’s no surprise that the state boasts some of the largest high school basketball gymnasiums in the world. Frankfort High School’s Case Arena is among them. However, with only 5,509 seats (a third of the city’s population), it’s toward the bottom of the list.
The arena is named for Everett Case, Frankfort’s men’s basketball coach from 1922 to 1942. Case won 14 regional tournaments and four state championships. He later became coach of North Carolina State, where in 1947, he was credited for starting the net-cutting trend after big wins.
When Case Arena was built in 1963, it was the envy of gyms for miles around, recalls John Milholland, perhaps the biggest collector of Frankfort memorabilia.
“I was coaching in northern Indiana and would drive through Frankfort on the way home. I remember telling my wife, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if I could coach in that gym.’ Little did I know the next year I would be coaching right there in that gym.” From 1967 to 1985, Milholland led the Frankfort Hot Dogs to nine sectional and two regional championships. In 2000, he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
The arena was such a big deal that in 1994, Paramount Pictures shot parts of the movie Blue Chips there. Milholland, who had become the high school’s principal by then, had the pleasure of rubbing elbows with some of the movie’s stars, like actor Nick Nolte and basketball greats Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. And he has the bling to prove it – signed basketballs, Blue Chips T-shirts, old newspaper articles, and photos.
He also has a healthy stash of Hot Dog memorabilia.
The fierce-looking dachshund has been Frankfort High School’s mascot since the 1960s, and has garnered plenty of attention in its own right. In 2009, ESPN named Frankfort Hot Dogs the state’s best nickname, eking out ahead of the Jimtown Jimmies and the Speedway Sparkplugs.
Also, each summer for the past 24 years, the city honors its hot dog heritage by hosting a weekend-long Hot Dog Festival in the courthouse square downtown. Festivities include dachshund racing, a hot dog eating contest, and a 5K Bun Run to “get your buns moving and relish the day.”
Frankfort’s Front Porch
Downtown Frankfort bends around the historic Clinton County Courthouse, an imposing limestone building with elaborate statuary and a central clock tower. The building dates back to 1882-1884, and still serves as the county courthouse. The square is lined with boutiques, restaurants and shops, like Blake Pullen’s one-chair Clubhouse Barbershop.
Nearby in the heart of downtown is Nickel Plate Flats, a $7 million upscale apartment building. The 73-unit facility opened in June and is already halfway filled, mostly with people who commute to Frankfort from other cities.
The project was championed by Mayor Chris McBarnes, who ran for office seven years ago on the promise to improve quality of life in his hometown by investing in its downtown. What made McBarnes’ election even more newsworthy: He became the youngest mayor in the state at age 23. He campaigned as a senior at Butler University recruiting fraternity brothers to help knock on doors.
Other recent additions include a branch of Ivy Tech Community College to a previously dilapidated area of downtown, and the renovation of Old Frankfort Stone High School, affectionately called Old Stoney. The 1892-era former high school building houses the mayor’s office and the Clinton County Historical Society and Museum.
The city has also started a $5.2 million downtown greenspace project, called Prairie Creek Park. The park will offer retail space, an event lawn and screen wall, and splash pad for kids. It is expected to be finished in time for the 2019 Hot Dog Festival.
Elsewhere, PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division announced it was investing $159 million and adding 50 new jobs to its Frankfort factory, and First Wing Jet Center reported it would open state-of-the-art hanger facilities at the Frankfort/Clinton County Municipal Airport to accommodate large corporate jets.
If downtown is the front porch of Frankfort, the countryside is the backyard.
Autumn Overbay’s children chase chickens and baby goats across their pasture as Overbay whistles for her horses, Bracket and Hawk. This is Highland Heights Farm, where she packs fresh greens, herbs, honey and free-range poultry and eggs in harvest baskets for customers in neighboring towns. She also provides an Equine Assisted Learning program, an experimental learning approach using horses that promotes the development of life skills.
North of town, Kim Dunn’s Retreat in the Country is a well-kept secret in Frankfort, advertised only by word of mouth. Dunn is a Certified Natural Health Professional who opened the wellness center to offer both daytime visitors and overnight guests a place to relax and learn about health and wellness. Sessions often begin with nutritional microscopy, a non-medical analysis of the body’s “biological terrain.”
Other services include therapeutic and magnetic massages, a far-infrared sauna, ionic foot detox bath, emotion coding and Reiki, to name a few.
Up in the Air
Despite its small size, Frankfort offers some out-of-this-world entertainment. Skydive Indianapolis is based at the Clinton County Municipal Airport in Frankfort, and offers tandem jumps and a 12-jump Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) program for those who want to skydive solo.
Spaceport Indiana, also located at the airport, is part of the new Space Exploration System created to push America into the future of space research and exploration. The organization offers camps and curriculum for adults and children that explain various aspects of space exploration from how to become a drone pilot through its Unmanned Air Systems Program to how to grow food in space.
Closer to earth is the Prairie Grass Observatory, located at Frankfort’s Camp Cullom nestled in one of the largest stands of native prairie grass in the state. The Wabash Valley Astronomical Society in nearby Lafayette provides technical assistance with the collection of high-powered telescopes (including the fourth largest in the state), the giant pair of binoculars, and the hydrogen-alpha filter for solar viewing, which were paid for over the years through donations and grants.
The observatory, which opened in 2001, holds regular public viewing events for free where stargazers can see the International Space Station and other satellites, planets, stars and asteroids. It’s also the site of the Indiana Family Star Party, one of the largest star parties in the Midwest.
Astronomy hobbyist and Prairie Grass Observatory Trustee Andrew Schilling hopes the observatory sparks interest in children. “We were raised in the space race,” he says. “We need to get children excited about space like we were.”