Published May/June 2006

Follow the heritage trail in Elkhart county that takes a slow lane
to historic Amish communities.
By Kathie Sutin

It’s nice to know that when life’s frenetic speed becomes overwhelming, there are a few places left that move at a calmer pace. Here we can retreat, slow down and experience the simple pleasures of life.

One of those places is Amish Country in northern Indiana, a hidden gem near the Michigan border.

This little slice of the Midwest, filled with scenic back roads traversing picturesque countryside, moves at a pace that’s soothing to the soul and restorative to the spirit.

Just hearing the clip-clop, clip-clop of the simple Amish buggies seems to bring the pulse rate down and lower the blood pressure.

The Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau has established the Heritage Trail, a 90-mile route that meanders over the back roads and through the small towns and countryside of the region. Trail maps are available at the visitors center in Elkhart and at many local hotels and bed and breakfasts. A Heritage Trail CD audio tour that explains points along the route with interesting facts and compelling narrative also is available.

The trail begins at the Elkhart Visitors Center, but motorists can join in at any point along the route.

A step back in time

Northern Indiana is home to the third-largest concentration of Old Order Amish in the country; larger communities are in Pennsylvania and Ohio. An estimated 20,000 Amish live in Elkhart and LaGrange counties. The towns of Shipshewana and Nappanee are known for their Amish hospitality and attractions.

The ways of the Amish are a throwback to yesteryear and a simpler time. They live much as they did in the 19th century, shunning what they call the “English” world. Religion is the focus of their lives, and ties to family and community are strong.

The Amish also shun conveniences most Americans take for granted. While the Amish sometimes ride in cars, they don’t own them and prefer to travel by horse and buggy. They don’t have electricity in their homes, although they may use electrical equipment in employment in the “English” world.

And while they don’t have telephones in their homes, a familiar site near many homes is the “phone shack,” or booth where Amish families share a phone and receive and make calls.

The disparity in the use of modern conveniences among the Amish may seem puzzling, but they don’t bring modern conveniences into the home because these would intrude on family life and disrupt relationships.

Their simple approach to life is reflected in Amish dress. Men wear solid color shirts, black pants, suspenders and broad-brimmed hats. Women wear prayer caps and modest dresses with long sleeves and aprons fastened with straight pins or snaps. They do not wear jewelry or other adornments.

Because of religious beliefs, the Amish do not want to be photographed, and tourists are asked to respect that fact.

The Amish and their brethren, the Mennonites, grew out of the religious reformation in Germany and Switzerland during the 16th century. They es-poused the separation of church and state and were persecuted as heretics by both.

Originally followers of Menno Simons, the followers of Joseph Amman broke away from the Mennonites. Amman’s followers were later called “Amish.”

Seeking religious freedom, members of both sects began leaving Europe for the New World in the 1700s, settling in Pennsylvania and later Ohio. In the 1800s, some Amish moved westward settling in the areas of the Midwest.

Quaint towns

Even in the 21st century, the Amish live close to the land, farming with horses rather than tractors. With the population sometimes exceeding available land, some Amish men have become skilled woodworkers turning out beautiful handcrafted furniture, cabinetry and other items. Amish women are known for the delicious pies and other baked goods they often sell by the side of the road.

Part of the charm to Amish Country is cruising the back roads and finding signs near farmhouses indicating the owners welcome you to stop and look at their wares.

Quaint family-owned and operated shops, where even the little ones have jobs, sell homemade noodles, cheeses, jams and jellies and other items.

On the eastern edge of the Heritage Trail, visitors find tiny Shipshewana, home of one of the country’s largest flea markets (open May through October).

The town is filled with charming shops and restaurants serving made-from-scratch Amish-style meals. The new, spacious Davis Mercantile opened last year following a fire that destroyed the 1891 structure a couple of years earlier.

In Shipshewana, 90 specialty shops beckon with items. A popular stop is JoJo’s pretzels where queues can stretch into the lobby for these delicious goodies.

Nearby on South Van Buren is Menno-Hof, an interpretive center where visitors can learn about Amish life.

Nappanee, the southernmost Amish town on the trail, is home to Amish Acres, located on West Market Street, and listed in The National Register of Historic Places. Guided tours of 18 restored and historical buildings offer a window into life on an Amish farm.

Amish Acres is known for its “Threshers Dinner,” a hearty meal of Amish favorites, and performances at the Round Barn Theatre. Visitors can stay at the AAA three diamond Inn at Amish Acres.

Long after you leave, images of northern Indiana remain in your mind.

Kathie Sutin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

Above: Religion is the focus of life in an Amish family. Ties to family and community are strong. Elkhart County CVB photo

Below: A hearty Threshers Dinner at Amish Acres. Amish Acres photo

Above: An Amish country furniture craftsman creates a piece that may become an heirloom. Elkhart County CVB photo

Before You Go
For more information, contact Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-860-5957, www.amishcountry.org.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

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