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.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Plenty to Eat, See, and Do in Northern Indiana’s Amish Country

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.”

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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. 

022We 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.   

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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.  190Another 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. 

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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.

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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!149

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.

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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. 

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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!


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Monday, January 11, 2016

The RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum

What RVer doesn’t have this place on their bucket list?  And for you non-RVers - don’t click away just yet as this is a fascinating place that brings the American spirit of travel to life and embodies the ultimate road trip ... and who doesn’t like a road trip?  The RV/MH (Recreational Vehicle/Manufactured Home) Hall of Fame Museum and Library (in Elkhart, Indiana) is an amazing repository of interesting history and exhibits showcasing the origins, progress, and accomplishments of the industry that transformed the RV from a glorified covered wagon to a rolling mega bus.  So whether you're an RV enthusiast or just passing through the area we recommend you give this place a look. 

Why did this roadside attraction park itself in the Hosier State?  The answer lies simply in the fact that Elkhart County is the “RV Capital of the World” with a plethora of manufacturers that produce some 84% of all RVs manufactured in the United States. 

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The Hall of Fame got its start in 1972 when the publishers of eight national trade magazines agreed to recognize industry leaders.  It took another 20 years before a building was constructed and the museum was born.  The current 100,000 square foot complex is neatly divided into multiple exhibit spaces, a Hall of Fame wall honoring those who have contributed significantly to the industry, an extensive library complete with copies and back issues of most of the RV related publications available for researchers and visitors to enjoy, and an event center that can accommodate up to 1,000 people.
 
You enter directly into the gift shop where various items may attract your attention but once the eager and friendly volunteers start telling you about the museum you will suddenly find t-shirts are not as interesting as seeing the world’s smallest Airstream or a creation called the “Automobile Telescope Apartment.”  After a quick movie, you are off to the museum's show piece aptly named "RV Founders Hall."  Here you step back in time when RVs didn’t have slide-outs and satellite dishes just beds and kerosene lamps.  Once in the hall, you begin to dutifully follow the painted serpentine road on the floor (appropriately named the “road back in time”) and get a real feeling of how it would be like to camp in some of these units of yesteryear.  With over 50 vintage RV’s to peruse set among mock campsites you will witness first-hand the evolution of the industry.

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What better specimen to start off with than the world's oldest surviving RV – a  1913 “Earl Travel Trailer” –  that has been lovingly restored to its original glory and showcases the simplicity of early trailers yet the ingenuity, like a dining table that converts to a bed and storage cabinets, both of which are still widely used features in today's smaller units.

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We loved that this is an interactive museum and you are encouraged to step inside for a first hand look to admire the creative use of space, sit in the drivers seat, marvel at the creative use of bunk beds, or admire the 1970’s paisley couch that welcomed so many families to relax in their camper.

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Founders Hall highlights all the industry's firsts like the first RV toilet, the introduction of the first microwave oven, slide outs, and other features that have transformed the industry into what it is today. Things like kitchens and toilets may seem commonplace in RVs today but they were huge inventions back in their day and played a crucial role in popularizing the industry in the 1960’s.  These inventions meant people were staying in their campers longer and traveling farther.
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This 1966 Mustang (by Westward Coach) was one of the first campers to have a "bunkhouse."
It also included bathing and toilet facilities which revolutionized the industry.
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The 1955 Ranger Tent Trailer was the first all fiberglass trailer and the first to incorporate a "slide-out." 
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The 1968 Jayco Jayhawk Tent Trailer features a crank-up roof system that was created by Lloyd Bontrager
the founder of Jayco.
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Built in 1988, the Star Streak is one of the most unusual looking RVs.  This custom all aluminum
RV was specifically designed to fit in a garage.
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GMC produced motor homes between 1973 - 1978.  This was a gas-powered motor home known for its comfortable
ride due to the use of airbags - a substantial advancement in its day.
World War II had a big impact on the RV industry forcing many manufacturers to close their doors for good.  Yet, the end of the war brought a surplus of metal which saw Airstream return to production and the birth of Spartan.  Spartan Aircraft Company (owned by J. Paul Getty) redirected their focus after the war from aircraft to housing and leisure.  The company produced the first all metal trailer and focused on spacious and lavish interiors which in the 1940’s and 50’s was considered the “Cadillac” of trailers. 

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When you think of mansions, this 1954 Spartan Imperial Mansion may not have come to mind but during
its day, this was luxury.  
The name Winnebago is synonymous with the industry and here you can peer into one of the earliest models of a Class A motor home – a 1967 Winnebago beauty and icon that introduced so many to the world of RVing.  Dubbed as “America’s first family of motor homes” these mass-produced models ranged from 16-27 feet and sold for as little as $4,000, a lot less than their competitors.  With more space, toilets, and refrigeration this RV appealed to the American family and became a popular way to take a family vacation.  Ironically, Winnebago recently released a 2015 retro model called the “Brave” that we viewed last year at an RV show.  I’d say they look pretty similar.  Note what some people call the “eyebrows” above the windshield.  
   
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After seeing vintage RVs in Founders Hall we headed over to the Go RVing exhibit hall where the latest styles make an appearance.  There is everything from pop-ups to massive 5th wheels to a remake of a vintage trailer.  Another interesting exhibit in this hall is a 1/24th-scale model of an RV assembly plant that illustrates the construction process of a fifth-wheel from axle to finished product. 

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After exploring the downstairs and museum's exhibits, make your way upstairs to glimpse the Hall of Fame wall and mingle around the Library.  The Hall of Fame honors over 300 industry pioneers and leaders with plaques that explain their accomplishments.  For example the plaque of Hal MacPherson reads "Pioneer supplier who developed the first grinder type toilet which allowed the use of toilets and holding tanks in trailers."  

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The RV/MH Founders Library is a massive repository of RV industry periodicals, manuals, photographs and is the only library dedicated entirely to the archives of the recreational vehicle and manufactured housing industries.  This is definitely a library that is really fun to poke around in. 

So next time you are traveling along I-80 in Indiana, take a break from driving and stop in the RV/MH Hall of Fame where you can go back over 100 years of RV history.  You will be amazed at how far the industry has come. 

More details, including photos and descriptions of the museum inventory, can be found online at www.rvmhhalloffame.org.