Whether it always feels that way in America’s heartland, or the fact that a sheriff is handing out chocolate chip cookies at the airport, Fort Wayne is the kind of place you immediately feel at home. I don’t actually have family ties to this friendly town, but I suspect their amazing genealogy research center will soon find ties to all humankind.
Fort Wayne is built on Family
Fort Wayne is Indiana’s second largest city, and what they offer in family attractions for an affordable Midwest getaway is second to none.
The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo has won several “Best Zoo” awards because of its appeal to all ages. The 400 acres are delightfully contoured into natural animal habitats divided into Africa, Australia and Indonesia zones, with winding paths, dozens of interactive learn-and-rest stops, cafes and add-on experiences such as a log flume ride, the tiny Z.O.O. RR train, Sky Safari ride, and the country’s first-ever endangered species carousel. After 52 years, it is easy to understand why locals rush to visit during its brief April to October open season.
Science Central is another place to exhaust kids, an old General Electric power plant with brightly painted turbines and how-things-work exhibits. Did you know that Fort Wayne’s amateur baseball team (now the award-winning Minor League’s TinCaps) played the first night game against an Illinois team back in in 1883 because General Electric was able to power stadium lights?
The Fort Wayne Museum of Art and nearby cultural centers will interest tweens and teens, as will the classic Embassy Theatre, a restored movie palace that hosts live shows, concerts and Broadway touring companies at a fraction of the cost of most cities. Be sure to head up to the rooftop lounge for a view of the city’s small town skyline.
Fort Wayne Outdoors in Summer
Weekly concerts and outdoor festivals culminate in the Johnny Appleseed Festival each September, in the park named after the local folk hero. Nearby, Fort Wayne Outfitters enables families to rent a kayak, standup paddleboard, bikes, Segways and take a canal or duck boat tour on Fort Wayne’s tranquil waterways.
The Botanical Conservatory is ideally sized for preschoolers, who will love its mole tunnel between the tropical and desert plant greenhouses. A talking tree welcomes visitors to the reading lounge to peruse some books together.
Family-Friendly Dining and Good Eats
Since Fort Wayne is all about family life, there are a lot of kid-friendly dining options. You can have an entertaining hibachi meal at Takaoka, where the chef juggles knives and lights food on fire, while the wait staff breaks out into song. The three branches of Casa, a popular Italian grill restaurant, serve a variety of pastas and baked lasagna the kids will love.
Teens will get into the Hoppy Gnome, where locals practice their beer brewing skills under the tutelage of a beermaster. They serve great appetizers and casual food in addition to their own craft beers, and if you brew up a batch they will arrange to mail you a six-pack about three weeks later.
Family Run Businesses where Family Comes First
Another thing that makes Fort Wayne feel family-friendly is the number of successful businesses that are family run.
In addition 10 restaurants in town, the Don Hall family runs a catering business, the Hall Creative Bakery with an extraordinary array of exotic decorative party and wedding cakes, the music-themed Don Hall’s Guesthouse, and a local outfitter that rents bikes and boats.
Vera Bradley, known for an ever-expanding empire of brightly colored print fabric handbags, luggage and more (now made in China) began in Fort Wayne. Her annual outlet sale in mid April is a five-day girls getaway attended by more than 50,000 people, and it spurs other local businesses to run sales too.
Interested in a look at American manufacturing today? The family-run Italian baby goods company, Peg Perego, makes ride-on toys that go on sale each April and, on a free factory tour with the kids, you can meet Nicolas Perego, grandson of the founder.
At Sweetwater, the world’s largest online musical gear shop, tour the Google style shop and distribution warehouse and watch amplifiers and cables go by on the conveyor belt.
Family Ties are Real
I felt most at home at Fort Wayne’s Allen County Public Library, where I met the team from the Genealogy Center, the world’s second largest collection of resources, primary research, and subscription databases after the Mormon Church.
The ACPL staff and volunteers are very enthusiastic about their mission. They offer a half-hour of preliminary research to any visitor at no charge and the Fort Wayne tourism office can help you find an affordable place to stay. (The ACPL staff will solve a personal genealogical quandary for $25 per hour if you cannot come in person.)
At our visit, volunteers roamed the computer tables to peruse hand drawn family trees and offer nuggets of wisdom. Stacks full of family histories and regional population studies run down the length of the library, next to long tables filled with amateur historians who come on bus tours.
My mother cried when I told her I discovered that my grandfather was actually named Isidore, not Irving, as we thought. “I never understood why my aunts called him Izzie,” she recalled.
Irving was not, however, from Fort Wayne. But if you’re lucky — and you stay long enough — you’re sure to unearth long lost or newly found relatives in this family-friendly heart of the heartland.
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