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Indiana Amish Country

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The Indiana Amish and their Mennonite relations are clustered in Elkhart and Noble counties, about two and a half hours east of Chicago. To learn about their quiet and pious lives, you may need to put up with a certain amount of crowding and expense. In recent years two major tourist centers have opened that attempt to explain the Amish life-style to the curious: Amish Acres near Nappanee, and Menno-Hof in Shipshewana--or Shipshe, as it's known around here.

Amish Acres (219-773-4188) is an 80-acre farm upon which the full forces of tourism and country-kitchen excess have descended. You can tour the farm buildings, take a buggy ride, and see a live performance of Plain & Fancy, a 1955 Broadway musical about the lives of the Amish. But mainly you can buy stuff: apple butter, cheese, sausage, cider, pastries, shoofly pie mix, and all manner of crafts. There is also a good restaurant where you can have hearty farmhouse food served family style.

Menno-Hof (219-768-4117), right across Indiana Highway 5 from the mammoth Shipshewana Auction and Flea Market, is a new visitors' center in a barn that was raised by Amish builders in their traditional style. It's more of a museum than Amish Acres, with exhibits tracing the evolution of Mennonite and Amish religious beliefs and the persecution that eventually led them to the New World.

Both Amish Acres and Menno-Hof are educational, but their hustle and bustle are perhaps ill-suited to the slow-paced and traditional rhythms of Amish and Mennonite life. For a taste of that, Amish Acres can arrange an overnight stay on an Amish or Mennonite farm.

Driving along the country back roads is one way to see the real thing, tidy farms and homes, as well as the Amish in their black horse-drawn buggies (though the Mennonites retain most of the piety of the Amish, they have embraced such modern conveniences as cars and electricity). From a bicycle, though, you'll see--and smell and feel--a lot more, and you'll be going at the same speed as the horses. Endless Summer Tours (219-874-6996 or 800-345-3389) offers organized bicycle tours via the South Shore Line during the summer.

Amish food generally means meals hearty enough to fuel a long day's labor on the farm. Many local restaurants serve their food family style, so tables groan under the weight of bowls of chicken, smoked ham, potatoes, bean soup, vegetables, bread, and the ubiquitous locally made apple butter. Popular choices besides Amish Acres are the Buggy Wheel in Shipshe (219-768-4444), Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury (219-825-9471), and Berkey's Country Haus, also in Middlebury (219-825-5413).

The Crystal Valley cuts across the northern half of Elkhart and Noble counties, a gently rolling landscape of woods and farms. Especially pretty is the scenery along the Little Elkhart River. At Bonneyville Mill Park, just east of Bristol on county road 131, you can see the river's force turning the turbines of the Bonneyville Mill, as it has been doing for 156 years. After viewing the mill's original wooden machinery you can buy a sample bag of freshly ground flour or cornmeal. A couple miles down county road 8 you can stop for fresh cider at Miller's mill (marked only by a red apple-shaped sign; 219-825-2010). Normally the cider is $2 a gallon, but on Tuesday and Friday mornings it's only a quarter if you bring your own jug and apples from one of the area's several pick-your-own orchards.

Many Amish farmers sell their milk to cheese factories, because without electricity they can't install the refrigeration equipment required of milk producers by law. At the Deutsch Kase Haus, halfway between Middlebury and Shipshe on county road 250 North (219-825-9511), you can see a cheese-making operation and choose from among several dozen varieties to take home. The area is chock-full of specialty food stores selling local products ranging from popcorn to baked goods; just remember that virtually all Amish and Mennonite businesses, and many others, are closed on Sundays.

At the restored Bristol Opera House in Bristol (219-848-4116) you can see vaudeville performances during the summer and plays on some weekends the rest of the year.

Northern Indiana is dotted with bed-and-breakfast inns, from the Candlelight Inn in Warsaw to the south to the Patchwork Quilt just shy of the Michigan line. For great pastoral views, stay at Coneygar, which Mary Hankins runs in the beautiful hilly farming country northwest of Middlebury; in winter you can cross-country ski right out her front door (219-825-5707). Right next door is Loveway (219-825-5666), one of the few equestrian centers in the country for mentally and physically handicapped people.

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