Image: Whitman's childhood home
Walt Whitman Birthplace Association
It wasn't until 2001 that fans of Walt Whitman could step inside the farmhouse that witnessed the birth of America's great poet-to-be in West Hills, N.Y.
updated 8/19/2009 10:15:02 AM ET 2009-08-19T14:15:02

If it's true you can't go home again, then how about going to someone else's home? For tourists who want to visit their favorite idols' hometowns and birthplaces, America offers enough sites to last a lifetime. In some cases, devoted fans can even stand in the exact spot where their heroes came into the world.

In “James Dean Died Here,” “Led Zeppelin Crashed Here” and others, author Chris Epting has literally written the books about America's cultural touchstones. Want to know the fate of Dorothy's red slippers? Or what happened to Einstein's brain? Ask Epting. In his latest book, “The Birthplace Book: A Guide to Birth Sites of Famous People, Places, and Things,” the California resident crisscrosses America, visiting those places that birthed movie stars and presidents, heroes and villains — and even a certain international food chain that's known for its golden arches.

Why are we so fascinated with birthplaces?

“When your life — or history in general — has been influenced by something,” Epting says, “then visiting the point of origin can be an interesting way of paying homage ... There are hundreds of fascinating birthplaces related to foods, inventions, businesses, ideas — everything from the Apple computer garage, to where the internet was invented, to where the fried Twinkie was born — everything has a birthplace. And they are all part of the American experience.”

What could be more American than a world-famous celebrity? While famous hometowns and birthplaces are popular with both fervent and casual admirers, it's often fan clubs that initiate projects to protect their heroes' childhood homes. In some cases, entire towns get involved.

In Tupelo, Miss., for example, Elvis fans take the Early Years Driving Tour, which starts at the actual house where Elvis Presley was born 35 minutes after his twin brother, Jesse Garon, who had already died. The small wooden house was built by Elvis' father, grandfather and his uncle, Vester; an actual hammer used during construction still hangs inside. But Elvis' birthplace is just the beginning. The tour continues to several key sites, including Tupelo Hardware, where Elvis' mother Gladys bought him his first guitar, and the newly restored Assembly of God church, where the future King of Rock 'n' Roll first fell in love with gospel music.

After the King of Rock 'n' Roll came the King of Pop. Within hours of Michael Jackson's death in Los Angeles in June, fans had already gathered to mourn and celebrate Jackson's long, influential career. For New Yorkers, Harlem's Apollo Theater was a natural gathering spot — in 1967, the newly formed Jackson 5 won that venue's famous amateur-night competition, which helped ignite the ensemble's career.

On the other coast, Los Angeles residents gathered outside the hospital where Jackson was taken. Residents of Gary, Ind., also knew where to go: 2300 Jackson St., Michael's boyhood home. Crowds of fans continue to memorialize their hero outside the small house, which is still owned by a member of the extended Jackson family. Don't expect this modest single-floor building to remain a private residence for much longer. Gary's mayor, Rudy Clay, told reporters that 2300 Jackson St. could become the country's next Graceland.

For better or worse, a celebrity's untimely death often propels him or her to greater fame posthumously. That's certainly the case with James Dean, the archetypal live-fast-die-young movie star who died tragically in a car crash at the age of 24. Though the site of his death is marked with a monument and plaque, it's his hometown of Fairmount, Ind.,that attracts the most fans. The James Dean Trail actually starts in Marion, Ind., where a plaque marks the location of Dean's birth in 1931, then continues to sites in Fairmount that include Dean's boyhood home, his high school, even the shop where he purchased his first motorcycle. The tour finishes in an appropriate spot: Park Cemetery in East Fairmount, where Dean was laid to rest.

Image: JFK's childhood home
Courtesy National Park Service
After John F. Kennedy's assassination, Rose Kennedy returned to 83 Beals St. in Brookline, Mass., and restored the property reportedly to how she recalled it in 1917.

Though James Dean fans are known for their, well, fanaticism, lovers of Judy Garland's movies and music can be even more enthusiastic. Thanks to the adoration of these hardcore fans, Garland's hometown of Grand Rapids, Minn., now hosts the Judy Garland Museum in the house where Liza's mother-to-be spent her first four years. And what busy years they were — by the time she was three, the young performer had already taken to the stages of Itasca Mercantile and the New Grand Theater. If you're part of the Judy Garland community, plan your visit in June when the annual Judy Garland Festival is held around that date of her death, June 22.

It's not just celebrity hometowns that attract visitors. Indeed, you'll find the man memorialized at one of America's most popular birthplaces in history books, not gossip magazines. Epting describes the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln as “a big one for people.” And why's that? “Obviously because Lincoln is so beloved,” he says, and “because we all grew up learning about the log cabin birthplace.” Indeed, to commemorate Honest Abe's humble start in life, a historically accurate log cabin was built on the site of his birth on the Sinking Spring Farm in Hodgenville, Ky. The cabin sits within a neo-classical Memorial Building commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 and dedicated by President Taft in 1911.

Whether you're obsessed with a pop star or trying to understand our country's history, every state in the union has its own share of famous birthplaces. More likely than not, a simple internet search will point you in the right direction. Then, it's just a matter of getting on the road.


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