Elkhart, Indiana is a name synonymous with RV’s and widely recognized as the RV Capital of the United States, if not the world. It doesn’t take long for one to wonder if the number of RV’s actually outnumber cars. From modest pop-ups to elegant 45’ Class A motorhomes, a wide array of RV manufacturers reside in Elkhart County. RV’ers who make the pilgrimage to this area will quickly find that the area holds lots to do, see, and eat. Amongst the vast manufacturing plants with power tools and sophisticated machinery you will find one of the Midwest’s largest population of Amish where life in the gentle countryside is simplified on manicured farms. Between museums, delicious eateries, and factory tours you will be amazed how fast your day or week goes by.
The RV industry in Elkhart began with Wilbur Schult, a dynamic promoter and businessman who bought Elkhart’s Sportsman Trailer Company from Milo Miller in 1936. Schult wasted no time in promoting his product and by 1939 he was the largest manufacturer in the industry and the future of Elkhart was starting to define itself as suppliers and more manufacturers started popping up. Add major highways and railroad corridors and soon this small town was connected to nearby large metropolitan markets. By the late 1940’s, the war was over and the recreational industry was booming. Elkhart would soon be coined the “Trailer Capital of the World.”
Within Elkhart County you will find the towns of Goshen, Middlebury, Shipshewana, Wakarusa, Nappanee, and, of course, Elkhart. Chances are good if you own an RV, you are familiar with at least one of these towns as they are home to over 80 different RV manufacturers. Here’s a look at how we spent our time.
We parked the RV at Shipshewana RV Park next to our friends Linda and Rob (of My Quantum Discovery blog) and quickly realized we were in Amish country when the clippety clop of horse hooves permeated the air. Shipshewana is where the Amish community blends beautifully into the modern aspects of commerce with their delicious restaurants, cheese and meat purveyors, and furniture manufacturers.
Right next to the RV park is Shipshewana Auction and Flea Market which touts itself as being the largest outdoor flea market in the Midwest. The sprawling complex tempts shoppers who peruse miles of aisles looking for all sorts of goods. It had just closed for the seaon before we arrived so we did not get to experience it – much to Betsy’s delight and my sadness as I am a lover of flea markets and junk shops.
We wanted to learn more about the Amish culture so a visit to the Menno-Hof Center was a perfect place to start. Here you can take a guided tour through a museum with exhibits and films that interpret the faith and lifestyle of Mennonites and Amish. Your visit starts with a movie that traces the history of Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites that were part of the Anabaptist movement during the Reformation in 16th century Europe. The word “Anabaptist” means “to rebaptize” – a practice associated with a group of believers who called for baptism of adults that make a voluntary confession of faith baptism during a time when the state allowed only infant baptism. Anabaptists are Christians and the different sects have unique beliefs and ways of following God and vary quite drastically.
The Amish lead the most simple life of all Anabaptists and resist many modern conveniences like cars, radios, televisions, phones and electricity inside their homes. Amish are the most recognizable due to their modest dress - simple pants and shirts for males and dresses and bonnets for females - that emphasizes their separation from the world around them and meant to promote humility and squelch pride. The Hutterites choose communal living and they and Mennonites drive cars, use technology and dress like those around them. The museum’s exhibits and tour guide provide an interesting and factual look into the history and lives of the Anabaptist in northern Indiana. Their strong Christian beliefs and close family ties are qualities that many can relate to.
There is no shortage of good food produced by the Amish and we could not wait to get a hold of some of it. If you are looking for delicous Amish food, check out the Blue Gate Garden Restaurant and Bakery where a warm bowl of homemade noodles were swimming in a bowl of chicken soup and was the item of choice for us. Their bakery lures one with too many choices of homemade pies, cakes, breads, and other delicious items. Another great choice is Das Dutchman Essenhaus where you will be delighted to try delicious foods served family-style or buffet. We chose the buffet and enjoyed fried chicken, slow cooked meat, vegetables, chicken and noodles, and plenty of fresh baked goods.
We could not be in Amish country too long before I had to track down one of my favorite foods – a homemade soft pretzel – so we headed to the Davis Mercantile and strait to JoJo’s Pretzels. The mercantile features many stores for shopping enthusiasts but also a restored 1906 antique Dentzel Carousel that commands a look, and maybe even a ride. We strolled through the shops in the mercantile and down the nearby Harrison Street where there is a myriad of boutiques, galleries, and home furnishings shops featuring locally made items.
With over 80 RV manufactures in the area we were sure to visit some for tours. Entegra Coach was an obvious choice since we own one of their units, but we also ventrued over to Newmar (in Nappannee) and to Entegra’s parent company Jayco, Inc. (in Middlebury). These two tours set up a wonderful contrast showing how Class A motorhomes are constructed versus Jayco’s travel trailers and fifth wheels. Both are interesting tours and it is facinating to watch how these houses on wheels are put together. It gives you an appreciation as to their complexity. Many Amish work in these plants and are permitted by their bishops to use power tools. Amish men are skilled carpenters and many manufacturers pride themselves by their Amish-made cabinetry. Women also work in the plants installing decals and putting on the finishing touches. Most plants shut down around 2-3 pm so the Amish can return to home and perform the many duties required by owning a farm.
As you drive from town to town in Elkhart County one cannot help but notice the serene and beautifully manicured Amish farms. Most are just a few miles outside of town as walking, bicycling, and horse and buggy are their chosen modes of transportation. The Amish believe cars result in families being away from home and each other too often and speed up the tempo of life. Buggies, however, keep people closer to nature and each other, and therefore, closer to God. The simple and clean farms are a contrast to today’s technologically dependent society. Amish children play on swing sets and with basketballs instead of hoverboards and video games. Buggies replace Hondas. Farm work doesn’t exist solely between 9 to 5 and religion obligations and beliefs close business doors on Sundays.
Farms have cows, cows produce milk, milk produces cheese, cheese makes me smile. And the Amish make delicous cheese. In the 1950’s, Indiana introduced new standards for making Grade A milk but many Amish leaders would not allow their farmers to install the electric powered bulk tanks and cooling units that the standards required for selling milk commercially. Instead, Amish farmers compensated by accepting the technology for cheese making which has resulted in them making highly acclaimed artisnal cheeses. And boy are we glad they did!
Within eyeshot of the Shipshewana RV park, I spied Yoder’s Meat and Cheese Company which had an incredible pull on me – kind of like the one that keeps the planets in line. Here you can stock up on grain-fed local meats, 19 varieties of jerky, over 100 varieties of cheese, hickory smoked meat, plus jams, jellies, fruit butters, salsas and more were on display and ready for sampling. Still hungry for cheese, don’t miss Guggisberg Cheese Factory and their award winning colby just down the road in Middlebury. Or, for more homemade Amish goods, check out Dutch Country Market where oodles of noodles are not the only thing made fresh daily.
When you are ready for a nice long walk or bike ride head over to the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail. This 25-mile trail skirts the towns of Elkhart, Goshen, Middlebury, and Shipshewana while winding through pastoral countryiside.
Of course, no visit to the area would be complete without a stop in the RV/MH Museum and Library (click here to read about our experience in a previous post). Here you wander through various halls that walk you through the history and evolution of the RV. Let us just say that even if you do not own an RV this is still a fun and fascinating place to spend a couple of hours.
Owning an Entegra Coach brought us to this part of the country. And we are glad it has opened our eyes and minds into the lifestyle and beliefs of the Amish. We look forward to going back to Entegra in the spring for service – not just because that was such a great service experience but so we can spend more time among the Amish in Northern Indiana. And, maybe, just maybe we will be there when the flea market is open!
Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.