FORT WAYNE, Ind. — How many places in the Midwest are there where you can learn about great-grandpa, gardenias, ganache, and giraffes, all within a day or two?
Well, there might be more than one, but none could be more inviting than this low-key, midsized city in northeastern Indiana, located just across the state line some 100 miles southwest of Toledo.
Perhaps the most unusual of Fort Wayne's tourist attractions is the Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library. Housed in a newly expanded facility in the middle of downtown, the center contains the largest public collection of genealogical material anywhere in the United States.
Nearly 400,000 printed volumes and 600,000 items on microfilm and microfiche are available free to hobbyists, historians, scholars, and professional genealogists. Rare military records cover every conflict from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan, and banks of computers are linked to genealogical Web sites.
Steve Myers, assistant manager of genealogy, said 100,000 people visit the center each year, and anyone who needs help can get it from trained staff members. “Within five to 10 minutes, we can have you filling in the blanks on your family tree,” he said.
And what if it turns out that Mom's mysterious Uncle Louie has a bit of a checkered past?
“That's actually better from a genealogical perspective,” Myers laughed, “because then you've got more of a paper trail to follow.”
Another top attraction here is the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo. Rated by Parents magazine as one of the Top 10 zoos in the country, all its exhibits are designed so the animals can easily be seen, and often touched, by tiny visitors.
Kids can go nose-to-nose with Bill the Lion, check out the bats above them in an Indonesian rain forest, watch kangaroos bound past on a path through the Australian Adventure, and even let giraffes eat out of their hands. (Yes, giraffes' tongues are rough, but don't worry, parents. The long-necked critters don't eat kids, just greenery.)
And speaking of greenery, there's a lush oasis full of it downtown, at the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, which has colorful seasonal exhibits in its showcase gardens. The tropical garden features a waterfall and winding stream, while the desert garden has dozens of types of cacti.
Woody the Talking Tree stands guard and visits with people outside the Discovery Corner, an area packed with storybooks and activities for young patrons.
Going to a minor league baseball game in downtown Fort Wayne is a delightful experience, a lot like watching the Mud Hens in Toledo, except fans here are even closer to the action. The cozy, year-old Parkview Field is home to the Fort Wayne TinCaps, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres and the reigning Midwest League champions.
(The team's nickname relates to the legendary Johnny Appleseed, who is said to have worn a tin cooking pot on his head. Appleseed, a local folk hero, is buried in Fort Wayne.)
Chocoholics won't want to miss the behind-the-scenes tour of artisan candy-maker DeBrand Chocolatier, which sends its products all over the world. The tour includes videos, peeks into the kitchens where the hand-made chocolates are produced, and plenty of fresh, delicious samples.
The cost of the tour is $5, but that can be applied to any purchases in the plant's candy shop. (Ganache, by the way, is a mixture of semisweet chocolate and cream.)
Lodging: There are few hotels downtown, but a good option nearby is the Holiday Inn IPFW, located about four miles away. The hotel is used as a training center by the undergraduate Hospitality Management program of nearby Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Information: 1-800-767-7752 or visitfortwayne.com