More than 20,000 Amish live in Elkhart and Lagrange Counties in northern Indiana, making this one of the largest Amish communities in the country. A visit here gives insights into one of America’s most intriguing religious traditions.
In northern Indiana, you can go beyond brief glimpses of buggies and bonnets to gain a deeper understanding of the distinctive faith and tight bonds of family and community that are the foundation of Amish lives.
To give you an idea of the contrasts between the larger world and that of the Amish, here are some news items from The Budget, a publication I picked up on my trip to Indiana (it serves the Amish-Mennonite communities throughout North and South America):
Middlebury, Indiana: Stephen Yoder was walking with a walking boot Sunday in church on account of an accident at the sawmill, spraining his ankle pretty badly.
Wroxeter, Ontario: We took our lunch along to church on Sunday, and after the service we went to Mount Forest to the home our friends, Eldon and Lena Frey, for an afternoon of singing. They have a large kitchen, and it was full of enthusiastic singers. We sang for several hours. It was so much fun it was hard to stop.
Hillsboro, Ohio: Saturday was the day that the wicked rooster attacked grandson, Myron, 7. He had a red candy stick in his mouth and the rooster jumped on it and broke it in half. The second time around he jumped for his head and got him in the neck. They will now have rooster soup!
The Amish, of course, are not immune to tragedies more wicked than roosters. Recall the terrible shootings that happened in 2006 at an Amish school house in Pennsylvania, for example. At the same time, many of us who live in the non-Amish world look at these tight-knit communities with a kind of wistfulness. Would I like to give up driving a car? Would I be happier as a farmer’s wife, raising a half-dozen children and growing a big vegetable garden? Probably not. But part of me thinks it would not be such a bad alternative, especially in weeks when the news from the outside world is grim.
So let me tell you a little about what you can do and see if you visit northern Indiana, for even if we can’t join the Amish, we can still learn from them.
The best place to begin a tour is at Menno-Hof, an information center in the small town of Shipshewana. Built in 1986 by Amish and Mennonite carpenters, the barn-shaped Menno-Hof takes its name from Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonite movement, and Hof, the German word for farmstead. The building uses exhibits, historical tableaux and audiovisual presentations to give a comprehensive overview of Amish and Mennonite history and traditions.
Menno-Hof was built in part because of the thousands of visitors who come to town for the Shipshewana Flea Market. The Midwest’s largest flea market is held twice a week from May through October. Over the years so many people at the market asked questions about the lives and customs of the Amish in the area that this information center was proposed. In 1986 hundreds of volunteers helped with a massive barn-raising and the non-profit center has been educating visitors ever since.
Menno-Hof’s exhibits describe how the Amish and Mennonites trace their origins to the Anabaptist reform movement that began in Switzerland in 1525. Church members wished to return to the simplicity of the earliest years of Christianity. They believed that adults should freely choose baptism as part of a profession of faith and not be baptized as infants. (Anabaptist means “re-baptizer,” a term given to those who chose to be baptized as adults.)
The early Anabaptists also refused to serve in the military or swear oaths, and they believed in the (then radical) notion of separation of church and state. Despite their commitment to peace and simplicity, the Anabaptists were violently persecuted by both Catholic and Protestant authorities.
Eventually the movement split into three main groups. The Hutterites immigrated first to Russia and then to the upper Midwest and Montana. The smallest of the three groups, they own all property in common but allow the use of most modern conveniences. The second group, the Mennonites, developed a spirituality and way of life based on strong community ties and a commitment to peace-making and service to others.
The final group, the Amish, split from the Mennonites in 1693 because they felt that the church had become too worldly. They reject the use of many modern conveniences, dress very plainly, and have firm boundaries in their interactions with the outside world.
Menno-Hof has a number of experiential exhibits that bring to life the history of these groups, including a re-creation of a dungeon in which early Anabaptists were imprisoned for their faith and a 17th-century ship like those that brought members of the movement to America.
One of its most memorable exhibits is the Tornado Theater, which gives a vivid sense for what it’s like to go through a tornado and describes the Mennonite relief efforts that often follow such natural disasters. These practical and hard-working people are often among the first to respond to tragedies and typically remain long after other volunteer groups have left.
From Shipshewana you can explore the surrounding rural countryside and the charming small towns of this region. A free Heritage Trail audio tour CD with directional cues will take you on a circular loop through the area. Just pop it into your car stereo and listen to interesting stories and historical tidbits as you drive (contact the Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau for a copy).
The Heritage Trail will take you through the towns of Goshen (more here on Goshen), Elkhart, Bristol, Middlebury, Wakarusa and Nappanee. You’ll wind through the heart of the Amish communities, passing fast-trotting horses pulling black buggies and Amish children riding bicycles home from school. If you’re wondering which farms and homes are Amish-owned, just look to see whether there are electrical lines running to the farmstead.
This area also has many Amish-owned shops where you can visit with the clerks to learn more about life in this old-fashioned corner of the world. Shop for fresh baked goods and farm-raised produce at local markets and visit one of the many home-based workshops that make heirloom quality furniture. Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury includes an inn, shops, bakery and a restaurant that serves family-style meals. And Amish Acres, while not Amish-owned, offers tours of a former Old Order Amish farm, craft demonstrations, wagon rides, a restaurant, and musical theater.
On the Heritage Tour, be sure to visit some of the quilt gardens that bloom in the region during the summer months. Planned by master gardeners and maintained as free attractions, these are super-sized versions of traditional quilt squares. The gardens provide another example of how Amish-Mennonite traditions influence the larger culture in northern Indiana.
For tourism information, contact the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
You can learn more about the region through these links:
- The “Fancy Amish” of Northern Indiana
- Learning From the Mennonites (Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College)
- The town of Goshen (the heart of Amish Country in northern Indiana)
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.