2020 Road Trip Photos #2: And Man Created Ben-Hur

Lew Wallace statue!

Lew Wallace was an officer in the Union Army. No grappling hooks or toppling pulleys, pretty please.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Then came 2020 A.D.

Even in an ordinary average year, sometimes you really need to get away from it all. In a year like this, escape is more important than ever if you can find yourself one — no matter how short it lasts, no matter how limited your boundaries are. Anne and I had two choices: either skip our tradition for 2020 and resign ourselves to a week-long staycation that looks and feels exactly like our typical weekend quarantines; or see how much we could accomplish within my prescribed limitations. We decided to expand on that and check out points of interest in multiple Indiana towns in assorted directions. We’d visited many towns over the years, but not all of them yet.

In addition to our usual personal rules, we had two simple additions in light of All This: don’t get killed, and don’t get others killed…

Though we couldn’t get into Crawfordsville’s special jail, we had no problem accessing their other unique attraction several blocks away. The town is home to a college campus, a number of non-franchise restaurants, and two museums found nowhere else. That’s our kind of small town.

Crawfordsville spawned a number of noteworthy contributors to society at large, either born or dwelt there in childhood — New York Times crossword master Will Shortz; playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins (Chicago); Space Shuttle astronaut Joseph P. Allen; comic strip writer Allen Saunders (Mary Worth, Steve Roper); cartoonist Bill Holman, creator of Smokey Stover; and the WWF champion known as The Ultimate Warrior. But only one Crawfordsville native has his own museum.

Lew Wallace bust!

A more modest bust of our subject.

Lew Wallace (1827-1905) began his professional life as a lawyer, but he set that aside to command a regiment in the Union army during the Civil War, eventually achieving the rank of Major General. Don’t ask how his day went in the Battle of Shiloh, but he later made a difference at the barely mentioned Battle of Monocacy, where he and 5,800 soldiers ran interference and got stomped as a stalling tactic so additional Union forces could arrive in time to thwart a Confederate attempt to capture Washington D.C.

In the years after the war, he was appointed to two military commissions, including the one that investigated the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. He was sent to serve in the Mexican Army. He was a Presidential-selected envoy to the Ottoman Empire. On the side he dabbled in inventing and had several obscure patents registered to his name. In between all that activity, President Rutherford Hayes appointed him governor of the New Mexico Territory from 1878 to 1881. His term of service occurred during the rampaging days of Billy the Kid, which means Wallace has been a recurring antagonist in numerous films about that far more famous scoundrel. To date Wallace has been played by the likes of Jason Robards, Wilford Brimley, Deep Space Nine‘s Rene Auberjonois, and The Walking Dead‘s Scott Wilson, who portrayed him in the definitive Billy the Kid biopic of our generation, Young Guns II.

Wallace also enjoyed a writing career on the side, penning several historical fiction novels, a relatively new genre at the time. During his New Mexico gig came his greatest accomplishment: the 1880 bestseller Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, about a Jewish royal who Forrest Gumps his way through the life story of Jesus, endures slavery and treachery, meets the Savior Himself, and becomes in separate moments a Christian and a hero. Most folks know the name from William Wyler’s 1959 film adaptation that starred Charlton Heston and won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Though the 3½-hour runtime is a long slog for modern viewers (especially if faith-based tales aren’t your thing), the famous chariot race scene remains an astonishing achievement in stunt work and special effects that holds up well visually, if not necessarily from an animal-kindness perspective.

Today Crawfordsville is the proud home of the Lew Wallace Study and Museum, celebrating that resident — born, lived, died, and buried there. In fact, later after lunch we visited his gravesite a mile up the road.

Lew Wallace grave!

The grave isn’t part of the museum grounds, but they gave us a handy flyer with the pertinent details.


One side name-checks his descendants sharing the space.

Ben-Hur quote!

Apropos Ben-Hur quote on the side.

But our time with Wallace began at the museum proper. The parking lot is small, but the scenery is lush with greenery and a flower garden pretty enough to merit its own chapter later.

carriage house!

The experience begins at Wallace’s carriage house, which now holds the ticket booth, gift shop, and small museum space.

The place was open for business but augmented in the Age of Coronavirus. Both employees wore masks, as did we. Relevant signage was in place. The tour began with a 1999 VHS featurette about Wallace whose only obsolete moment I caught was their total count on Ben-Hur film adaptations. The viewing area, which doubled as the small museum space, was pared down to two pairs of chairs spaced six or more feet apart. Our docent popped in the tape and fled, leaving us to ourselves.

COVID 2020!

2020 vacation mementos. Collect them all.

We perused the equally cozy gift shop, where I bought a copy of Timur Bekmambetov’s 2016 version of Ben-Hur starring Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, the Kingpin’s wife, Anjelica Huston’s nephew, Hot Jafar, and King Xerxes as Jesus. I’ve not heard great things about it, but if it demonstrates anything like the inspired lunacy of the same director’s Wanted, then…well, we’ll see. Either way, it’s my first travel souvenir of the year.

Around the viewing area/museum room stood a variety of introductory exhibits, some permanent and some rotating.

1888 Methodist Bible!

Wallace was an avowed agnostic till sometimes after finishing Ben-Hur. He owned this 1888 Bible, which includes a Methodist bonus feature in the form of a temperance pledge.

rail coupler?

One of Wallace’s patented inventions, a rail coupler modification that…look, not every inventor can be snazzy like Tesla, y’know?

Scottish Chiefs!

A vintage copy of The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, one of Wallace’s major historical-fiction influences

Governor David Wallace!

A painting of his father David Wallace, an Indiana Governor (1837-1840) whose term lowlights included the Panic of 1837 and supporting efforts in forcible Indian removal.

A short walk through the Wallace grounds provides a few more sights on the way to the main attraction where all the best stuff is. Besides the pretty flowers, I mean.

wall and gate!

A wall and gate that appear to be remnants of a previous structure that’s otherwise no longer in existence.

ex-reflecting pool!

The stones mark where Wallace once kept a reflecting pool until he had it filled in around 1902 to protect kids from falling in.

Tulip poplar stump!

This tulip poplar stump was not explained to us. We;re guessing it was prominent for reasons.

Lew Wallace Study!

Our journey ended at the Lew Wallace Study, where all the best stuff was waiting for us inside…

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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