Valparaiso, Indiana, is a small city with some nice surprises. It’s located just an hour southeast of Chicago in Porter County. I grew up in Valpo, went to high school in Chesterton, and hated both at the time. There was rarely anything to do and the town square was often dead, but there’s been a revival of late and many great restaurants have opened their doors.
Valpo’s town square is centered around the Porter County Courthouse. Around it are many historic buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, filled with nice shops and great restaurants. Many of the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.
On the southeast corner of the square is the Porter County Museum. It’s housed in the old county jail and sheriff’s house. The sheriff’s house was a private residence built in 1860 and the jail was added in 1871. It’s been a museum since 1975. The museum will move to the old city hall on the south end of the square in the near future. It’s open Friday through Sunday from 1pm to 4pm. Admission is free.
It’s got some interesting exhibits about the natural history of the area, including actual mastodon bones dug up in Porter County, and various historical artifacts.
One of the most intriguing exhibits is a room dedicated to Broncho John Sullivan, who was originally a Native American scout in the West. He later joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show as a stuntman and eventually started his own show. Sullivan settled in Valpo and donated his entire collection to the Porter County Museum.
Next door to the museum is the Memorial Opera House. It was built in 1893 and has had a colorful history. William Jennings Bryan spoke here in 1896, John Philip Sousa led a concert here in 1898, and the Marx Brothers performed here in 1919. Beulah Bondi, the woman who played the mother of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and two other films, was from Valpo and started her acting career at the Opera House at the age of seven. Visit the official website for a calendar of events.
To the west of the square is a small park with a band shell used during the town’s Popcorn Festival, held annually the first Saturday after Labor Day since 1979. The festival is one of the best in the state, offering several events, a parade, contests, booths with crafts and food, and live music throughout the day. Urschel Pavilion across the street hosts ice skating in the winter.
On the north end of the park is a statue of Orville Redenbacher, the popcorn magnate who was based in Valpo with his business partner, Charlie Bowman. A small plaque on a brick column tells their story.
A block east of the square on Michigan Ave. is a huge mural on a brick wall with some comedic scenes and local humor. It’s fun to walk by.
Valparaiso University, founded in 1859, is a private Lutheran university. It’s famous for its law school, which has been called a “poor man’s Harvard”. A dubious point in its history was in 1923, when the Ku Klux Klan made an offer to buy the school and expand it. Fortunately, they were outbid by the Lutheran Church.
VU has an excellent art museum, the Brauer Museum of Art, which has over 2,500 pieces in its collection. Works include pieces by Andy Warhol, Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe. It’s open daily except Mondays and admission is free.
The Chapel of the Resurrection, built in 1959, is the largest chapel on a college campus in the country. It features a 94 foot high stained glass window and a huge pipe organ. It has a capacity of about 2,000. Concerts and commencement ceremonies are held there in addition to religious services.
Valparaiso University’s Crusaders have also built a solid reputation in the college basketball world with several successful seasons. One of the most unforgettable buzzer-beaters in NCAA Tournament history occurred in 1998, when Bryce Drew hit a miracle shot to send Valpo into the 2nd round. The Crusaders play at the Athletics Recreation Center. Check the official website for schedules and to learn about other sports.
The Valparaiso Fire Museum is outside of the city center but worth a quick look. It has artifacts dating back to firefighting in the 1700s and historic fire wagons. Admission is free and it’s open Tuesday to Thursday from 9am to 4pm.
Hoosier Bat Company, which makes baseball bats for many major and minor league players, is also in Valpo. Tours of the factory are provided with advance notice. Contact them for more info.