Our Most Livable Small Towns: Lebanon
Call the Boone County seat the north side’s north side: an alternative to Carmel’s congestion and Zionsville’s clubby quotient.
This article is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s July 2016 Small Towns package. For more on these cozy small towns, click here.
You may recall Lebanon from its 2015 mayoral election, when the far-north town made national news by electing 26-year-old Republican Matt Gentry. (This was no fluke—he got 65 percent of the vote.) It’s too soon to cast judgment on Indiana’s most visible Millennial-run city, but early returns are strong. Homeprices are mirroring the trend throughout Boone County: up. The Big Four Trail that already connects Lebanon to Thorntown is being expanded. And the revitalized downtown square, in disrepair for years, is springing back to life with a diversified mix of cafes, salvage outlets, pizzerias, a leather shop, a talent studio, candy stores, and specialty shops. “There were tumbleweeds downtown four years ago,” says Joe LePage, who works for the city in redevelopment, among other areas. “It’s nice to see these cool, niche-y things doing well.”
The nexus is the Fig Tree Cafe, an old storefront with plentiful patio seating and lively owners in Bethany and Levi Deaton. In addition to notable coffee and a mighty chicken-pesto sandwich, Fig Tree has become a home for gatherings and festivals—the cafe expected 400 for Halloween last year and drew 2,000. Not far away, there’s Saint Adrian Meats & Sausage, run by Ryan West, a Purdue grad and former state ag lobbyist whose standard line is a good one: “I saw enough sausage made at the State House that I figured I’d try the real thing.” West takes orders that range from two strips of bacon to giant cuts of 28-day dry-aged steak. The animals are local, the dirty work is done in Lafayette, and the meat is shipped straight back.
Elsewhere, Boone County Jail Distillery is converting the town’s old lockup into a hangout. Periwinkle’s Soda Pop Candy Shop beckons children across from a gleaming library. The long-running newspaper, The Reporter, sits in a low-slung brick building on the corner, looking satisfyingly serious and aged. And a main draw on the square isn’t a bar, but a board-game store called Friendly City Games, co-owned by Preston Myers, a 33-year-old who has already served on the city council. Myers attracts dozens to game nights. “Lebanon’s gonna pop,” he says. “It’s got the benefits of the suburbs, but not the press of the suburbs. A lot of city people think it’s farther than Timbuktu, but 20 years ago they’d have said the same thing about Zionsville: ‘Where?’” He can get from the store to his Victory Field seats in 30 minutes flat.
Why did you go back to Lebanon?
We wanted the small-town feel for the kids, but we also wanted diversity. Our kids were in Zionsville schools, and those are fantastic. But we realized that our kids weren’t learning a lot about economic diversity. My husband is a teacher, so public schools are important to us.
How’s your commute?
At first, my friends at Lilly were like, “How is it living in Chicago?” But it’s so much easier to get to work than it was from 146th Street. I can do it in 35 or 40 minutes. Plus, I travel a lot, and it’s super easy to get to the airport.
What’s your impression of the town’s direction?
It used to be vital because people here needed to split the difference between Lafayette and Indy. Now it’s vital because it’s a great place to live. We have a great golf course, with a social membership of about $150 a month, and even if you golf, it’s $250 a month. Everyone’s welcome—it’s not a white-men-only kind of club. I was a member before my husband. And when I said I was moving to Lebanon, all the executives at Lilly were like, “Oh, the Bijou!” We have the best French restaurant in the city.
How does that small-town feel translate in terms of parenting?
After we moved to Lebanon, within a couple of months I could text six people to say, “I’m in a bind, can somebody pick up my kid?” and I’d get six yeses. The Pixie Playhouse is one of the best-value preschools I have ever seen, anywhere. We’re a stone’s throw to the high school and the Little League fields. In Carmel, if your kids forget their shoes or cleats, it’s a disaster. And everybody in town knows my kids—they can’t get away with anything! When you’re a working mom, that’s important.
What’s the best-kept secret in town?
We have the best BMV! Seriously, people come over to use our BMV.
If you’re willing to put in some restoration work, you can find historic homes with more than 3,000 square feet near downtown in the $150,000 range (though you may need to add $60K to $70K in updates). Be prepared to pounce, though. “I’ve never seen the market this hot,” says Jerry Alexander, a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway and Lebanon resident since 1975.
Check It Out
If officials have their way, Boone County’s Big Four Trail will extend another 40 miles, to Lafayette and Indianapolis … Get the hot-fudge chocolate flurry at old-time Ice Cream Paradise, or “ICP” to locals, located next to a playground where kids can climb away while chocolate drips all over your hands.
Teams of firefighters, police officers, ER nurses, and church groups bring the heat during the Battle of the BBQ to benefit the Boone County Cancer Society. Between volunteering and eating, it seems like half the town pitches in to help locals afford meds, prosthetics, and more. $10, August 13 at Lebanon Memorial Park
Evenings at Hedgehog Music Showcase
Unless you’re into Little League, there are livelier places than downtown Arcadia, about 10 miles north of Noblesville—which is why the Hedgehog Music Showcase is such a pleasing curiosity. On pretty nights, jaw-dropping guitar work spills out of the open doors and into the quiet street. The lineup mixes bluegrass, jazz guitarists, swing singers, and Nashville disciples, unaccompanied by ambient bottle-clinking. That’s right, there’s no bar, just Cokes and homemade cookies. “When people eat and drink, they talk,” owner Bob Foster says. “The music’s always in the background. I didn’t want that.” The audience doesn’t mind, especially since Foster, a gypsy-jazz guitarist, compensates by hosting such folks as blues/Tin Pan Alley godfather Leon Redbone; Loren and Mark, an electric-fingered classical/country guitar duo; and a dozen or so Grammy winners. “I believe your most talented musicians aren’t the ones who are at the top tier, or even the second tier,” he says. But they might be the ones playing the Hedgehog tier. 101 W. Main St., 984-3560, hedgehogmusicshowcase.com