By Charlene & Richard Mixa
A Postcard View of Amish Life
A horse-drawn black buggy clattering on the roadway with a bright orange traffic triangle on the back is our first greeting to northern Indiana’s Amish Country. Recently receiving accolades of a “Favorite Faith-based Destination” by the National Tour Association tour operator members, we are excited to take a deeper look at Amish life and getting to know the people behind the straw hats, bonnets, and simple clothes.
In Shipshewana, the only Indiana site listed in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, we take a fascinating journey inside the unique world of the Amish and Mennonites at the Menno-Hoff Center. Through multi-image presentations, historical environments and colorful displays, we follow a timeline from the birth of Christ to the emergence in 1525 of a group called the “Anabaptists” in a Swiss Courtyard. Going from room to room we see the persecution of the Anabaptists for their faith, their hopes of religious freedom as they sail to the New World, and their simple life in modern day Indiana. The Center clarifies the Mennonite and Amish religions, the philosophy, the customs and how the Amish balance their faith and old-world traditions in today’s world. We learn how Amish traditions developed including the married men’s chin-only beards and women’s clothing with no buttons or zippers. The Center is an amazing journey into the intriguing world of the Amish and Mennonites. Outside atop a platform we view a magnificent Quilt Garden – “COMMUNITY ROOTS”. Varietals of colorful flowers are beautifully woven into an exquisite quilt pattern.
Strolling the narrow streets of the quaint town of Shipshewana, we delight in the wonderful selection of cozy antique and country-style décor shops with a strong Amish flavor. Horse drawn buggies clatter down the lanes, with men sporting suspenders and broad-brimmed straw hats while women are clad in simple homemade dresses and modest bonnets. Over 105 Specialty Stores are found in the Downtown Area including twenty-three inviting shops in the recently rebuilt Davis Mercantile. A building of massive timbers, the Mercantile is home to accents, apparel and Amish-inspired specialty food, such as Jo Jo’s giant hot pretzels, and a variety of confectionary and baked goods. On the third floor is a charming 105 year old Dentzel Carousel with hand-crafted farm animals. A great place to shop and relax. Visiting on a Tuesday we check out the Shipshewana Flea Market touted as the Midwest’s Largest Flea Market. It’s huge! Hundreds of vendors sell everything from fresh fruit to handcrafted furniture.
Across the street from the famous Flea Market is the Millers Buggy Line Tour. Climbing aboard a black buggy driven by an Amish gentleman, we begin our tour through Amish country that ends in an Amish home for an unforgettable Thrasher Meal. Dinner is at Loretta’s! The other couple in our buggy specifically picked this tour because dinner is at Loretta’s – it’s their third visit to her home. As we clip clop in the buggy lane, our driver gladly answers our inquiries on Amish life. Did you know Amish don’t pay social security? They don’t have health insurance. They don’t use electricity or anything that directly “connects” to outside sources. Our driver explains that they pay an amount to their Amish community that is used when a member needs healthcare. Their goal is to be self-sufficient and to take care of each other in their community.
Loretta’s pristine white home on a rolling hillside is inviting. The house is Spic ’n Span! Warmly greeting us, Loretta leads us to a long table that seats up to 40 people. Just ten dining today. She smoothly brings in steaming platters of fresh-from-the-farm food. Our Thrasher Dinner is a wonderful fresh garden salad, crispy chicken, hearty roast beef, homemade noodles with chicken, fresh off-the-cob corn, creamy mashed potatoes, green beans, and rich gravy. Homemade bread, jams and spreads are delicious. The peanut butter spread is scrumptious! The finale is tantalizing homemade custard pie and luscious black raspberry pie. During the meal, Loretta and her husband graciously answer our many questions. She explains that she has a propane tank for a gas stove and refrigerator. A main objective with Amish life is to not depend on outside modern sources, such as, connecting to a gas line. They have no electricity. She uses a ringer washer and hangs her laundry on an outdoor clothesline. As the agricultural life diminishes many Amish are taking jobs with the large RV manufacturing companies in the area. They ride bicycles, drive horse-drawn buggies, or pay for rides (since they can’t have a car) to get to work. We enjoy a comfortable hearty dinner and highly recommend dinner in an Amish home as a “must do.”
A warm cozy room welcomes us at the Country Victorian Bed & Breakfast in Middlebury, just down the road from Shipshewana. Our room, the English Room, is a romantic main floor guest room which inspires peace and tranquility with its blue and white English decor. We easily settle in for the evening in the comfort of a queen size handmade Amish bed and sitting area with two comfy chairs. Our plush accommodations with wonderful rich linens, features a four season fireplace, wood floor, and the quietness of the back garden area as well as a deep one person whirlpool tub.
“Life is too short, start with dessert!” Lori, the innkeeper, greets us each morning with a scrumptious breakfast. Yes, it starts with dessert – a luscious poached pear drizzled with white and dark chocolate one morning and another morning it’s a Banana Split. Scrumptious! Actually the Banana Split is pretty healthy with a sliced banana, vanilla yogurt, sliced fresh strawberries, sprinkled with crunchy granola and topped with whipped cream and a cherry. A gourmet breakfast follows as we chat with Lori and get ideas for our day in Amish country. Having grown up in the area, Lori is a wealth of information and suggestions.
Slipping the Heritage Trail Audio Tour into our car’s CD player we begin today’s tour of Amish country. The Visitors Center’s free audio guide entertains us with colourful stories of the region’s settlement and growth as we travel the roads in Elkhart County Indiana. We begin in Middlebury at the Krider Garden, the crown jewel in the Middlebury Park system designed by Krider Nurseries for display at the 1933/34 Chicago World’s Fair. Also here is a beautiful Quilt Garden -“PUMPKINVINE.” Appropriately named for the Pumpkin Vine Trail, an 18 mile rails-to-trails project that passes through urban areas, small towns and agricultural communities. At the Dutch Country Market, we purchase jars of the delicious Amish Peanut Butter Spread and view their Quilt Garden – “HUMMINGBIRD GARDEN.”
Hundreds of Mums create an elegant carpet design at the Nappanee Center in Nappanee, Indiana. Spectacular! Today is opening day for the Fall Flower Carpet. Their Quilt Garden is still on display of “NAPPANNEE … ON TRACK” with flowers forming the train along a railroad track. In the Nappanee Center we browse through a broad collection of historical items, antiques, and profiles of the city’s native sons and daughters – from world-famous cartoonists to an Air Force One pilot. Down the street at Coppes Common we stroll through its unique shops and tour the second floor’s collection of historical furniture and appliances. We actually grew up with some of these antiques. Outside is their Quilt Garden – “CARPENTER’S SQUARE.”
Amish Acres, an eighty acre farmstead settled by Indiana’s first Amish pioneers, is a place where time stopped over a century ago that carefully preserves in the Amish, a way of life nearly forgotten. On the outskirts of Nappanee, this historic legacy of three generations farmstead is “America’s Only Old Order Amish Farm” listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Beginning with the terrific documentary film Exodus of the Amish thattraces the Amish beginnings from the Reformation to religious freedom in America and their integration into today’s modern world, yet not part of it. Our guided tour of the farmhouse, the farmyard, and the barn, takes us to the out buildings that dry food, bake bread, and smoke meat. The barnyard is alive with hens, livestock, gardens and an apple orchard. Our guide leads us through this twelve room 125 year old farm house as she shares the history of Amish society and tales of the Amish families who lived here. We see Amish clothing made without buttons or zippers. Women still use straight pins for fasteners, all well hidden.
Maple syrup, apple butter, sorghum molasses and dried fruits are produced here as they were hundreds of years ago. There are historic buildings to explore and shop. Take a horse drawn wagon that circles the farm’s pond stopping at the German one room schoolhouse and passing by the blacksmith shop, maple sugar camp, ice house, mint distillery, broom shop, weaving house and railroad crossing guard building. For a more modern treat, we go upstairs in the Restaurant Barn for the afternoon complimentary wine tasting. Sipping a delightful selection of wines from Michigan we chat with the staff about this amazing building with hand-hewn timbers. Originally raised in 1870 as a bank barn, it was reconstructed at Amish Acres in 1977.
It’s dinner time! We head downstairs ready to share some vittles. Amish Acres Restaurant is nationally famous for its Threshers Dinner. A family style hearty feast, our dinner is crunchy fried chicken, tender beef, beans, creamy mashed potatoes, tangy cole slaw, homemade noodles with beef and more. Thresher dinners originated when generations of Amish threshers would band together each harvest season to cut and thresh (separate the grain from the chaff) each other’s crop. Afterwards they all gathered at long tables for their Thresher Dinner.
Plain and Fancy is our evening entertainment. A 1955 Broadway hit musical about New York City sophisticates Dan King and Ruth Winters who travel to the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to sell a piece of property. While there, they become involved with the local villagers. One of the first depictions of an Amish community in American pop culture, the play includes a traditional barn raising and an old-fashioned country wedding. The story of the “outsiders” interaction in the Amish culture is both funny and touching. With light humor it sheds insight into the Amish ways. Amish Acres is the national home for Plain and Fancy and has over 27 consecutive years of production in its wonderful Round Barn Theatre. We leave the theatre singing “Young and Foolish.”
If you go:
Amish Acres,1600 W Market St, Nappanee, IN 46550 574.773/4188; www.amishacres.com
Amish Country Northern Indiana, 219 Caravan Drive, Elkhart, IN 46514; 800.250.4827; www.amishcountry.org
Country Victorian Bed and Breakfast, 435 South Main Street, Middlebury, IN 46540; 574.825.2568 or 574.612/3997 ; www.countryvictorian.com
Menno-Hof, 510 VAn Buren St. Shipshewana, IN 46565; 260.768.4117; www.mennohof.org
Millers Buggy Line Tours, 300 S. Van Burent St., Shipshewana, IN 46565; 260.768.4494 or Toll Free 888-44Buggy; www.buggyline.com
Nappanee Welcome Center, 302 West Market Street, Nappanee, Indiana 46550 574.773.7812; www.nappaneechamber.com/visitor-information