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The Plain Truth: An Amish settlement Disney could love

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By Mary Wilds

If the briskness in her voice is any indication, the woman at Elkhart County Visitors and Convention Bureau takes no prisoners. “What dates will you be staying?” she barks at a caller requesting information. “What were you planning to do while you’re here? Do you prefer a bed and breakfast or a hotel.”

I suppose she can’t be blamed—Amish Country in Indiana is a business. The visitors’ bureau serves thousands of tourists each year who come to see the plain folk in action. The bureau also sends a veritable avalanche of brochures to those who dare to inquire about visiting the region. To say that the Amish lifestyle in Northern Indiana has fallen victim to the Walt Disney syndrome is an understatement. The plain people of Northern Indiana are as commercialized in the same spirit as Epcot Center. Dozens of flea markets, erstwhile craftspeople, buggy rides, painfully quaint shops, carefully orchestrated harvest festivals are all here for the sightseer who wants a quick taste of the Amish lifestyle.

To be fair, Disney World and Epcot Center attract millions upon millions of visitors; who can argue with success? Americans (and increasingly, the rest of the world) do like to go to places where nothing is real. One might even call it the Vacationers’ I-Need-A-Lover syndrome, named after the old John Mellencamp song which beseeches, “I need a lover who won’t drive me crazy/Someone who’ll thrill me, and then go away.”

If you’re looking for a one-day stand in Northern Indiana Amish Country, start with a little history. The religion that would evolve into Modern-day Amish (no oxymoron intended) began in Switzerland in the late seventeenth century. The faith suffered much persecution, and like many religions outside the mainstream of the day, encouraged its followers to emigrate to the New World.

The first known American Amish settlements were in Pennsylvania. The Amish began appearing in Northern Indiana in the 1840s. One of the most progressive Amish communities in the Midwest lay in the Elkhart-LaGrange counties of Indiana (the more conservative voices tended to be in Illinois). In one Elkhart church district, for example, the Amish tolerated “fancy” clothing, the holding of political office and extended education opportunities. In his book, “History of the Amish,” Steven Nolt describes a “deep difference of opinion” among nineteenth-century Indiana Amish over how much of an effort they should make to fit in with the surrounding, non-Amish communities.

The progressive Hoosier Amish spirit lasted well into the twentieth century, however. A 1988 study of the northern Indiana Old Order Amish community found that 43 percent of Amish heads of household under the age of 65 held factory jobs. And the community, like most Amish communities around the country, faced the rise of tourism unflinchingly.

Hotels in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, were offering bus tours of Amish country as early as 1946. The Amish Farm of Lancaster County, the first paid-admission Amish attraction in America, opened in 1955. Northern Indiana Amish Country got its first international notice in 1967, when a travel magazine recommended it as a vacation destination. Amish have since grown accustomed to tour buses filled with staring faces and clicking cameras (in spite of the fact that the Amish dislike to be photographed), Nolt insists. Yet the knowledge that you’re intruding on people who are actually attempting to live their lives is impetus to stick to the Disneyesque attractions.

Fortunately, there are plenty of those. You’ve got Amish Acres in Nappanee, a “heritage” (read: formerly owned by Amish) farm that offers buggy rides, soap- and broom-making demonstrations, lots of opportunities to buy things, all the Amish food you could ever want to eat, and even a place to stay on the farm.

Shipsewana’s Auction and Flea Market may be a mecca for shoppers, but it’s also located in the midst of the third-largest Amish community in the United States. Buying things is the order of the day here—antiques, quilts, furniture, collectibles, Amish dolls, kaleidoscopes, even Beanie Babies.

Riegsecker Marketplace is a tourist attraction within a tourist attraction: in the 1970s, Mel Riegsecker, son of  Amish harness-makers, turned his hobby of making horse-and-carriage miniatures into a lucrative commercial venture. He sold to Montgomery Ward, Sears and, in 1984, appropriated a vacant factory building to sell his wares. Riegsecker and his artisans create miniatures on-site and sell them, along with oak furniture, copperware, leaded glass designs and more.

There are hordes of bed-and-breakfasts, country inns and Amish lifestyle meccas in Northern Indiana Amish Country, plus an Antique auto museum in Elkhart for those who need a breather from wholesomeness. The Come & Dine Restaurant in Wakarusa boasts an on-site railroad-to-nowhere which gives visitors a mile-and-a-half ride across bridges, through tunnels and around a pond. (Sort of like the train ride at the zoo, without the animals.)

The best, most unintrusive way to see the plain people at work and play may be a bicycle trip through Amish country. Indiana, one of the few states as flat as Illinois, is ideally suited to bicycle riding, and two-wheeled transportation is less of a bother (but not much) to Amish buggy traffic.

The Elkhart County CVB (800.250.4827) has maps and information for cyclists. And if the lady who answers the phone starts asking questions, don’t be afraid to give her plenty of answers—that’s what she’s there for.

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