Things have been a little slow as of late, so the husband and I decided to do something I’ve had on my back burner for years: Drive the Elkhart County Visitor Center’s “Heritage Trail.” I had a copy of the map and 2-CD set, so why not give it a spin?
We drove from our new home in Middlebury to the Elkhart County Visitor Center (ECVC) near the tollway, and started from the beginning, driving clockwise through Elkhart, Bristol, Middlebury, Shipshewana, Goshen, Nappanee, Wakarusa, and back to Elkhart. Three hours and 95 miles later, we were back around to the beginning.
One important note—the ECVC has changed locations since this map and CD set was created! It is still near the Cracker Barrel, but in a different building, at 3421 Cassopolis Street now.
The two CDs gave very nicely detailed instructions for each turn—and there were dozens! We found it took two of us to navigate the trail, and even then, we missed a few turns. We spent about half our mental energy on this task alone! The map was less helpful than it could have been—in the towns, particularly Elkhart, a more detailed, close-up map was sorely needed to find all the many twists and turns not shown on the big map.
Much history of the area was given along the way—the businesses and industries, mainly, and famous residents. (Take note—very few of the trail’s total miles go through “Amish Country,” and most of the places that they do are in Lagrange County, not Elkhart County.)
Elkhart: Follow the CD here, not the map, and listen closely! The route goes along the St. Joseph River and gives the general history of Elkhart.
Bristol: There were six stations of the Underground Railroad around the Bristol area—who knew? The Elkhart County Historical Museum is there. It is one of many suggested stops along the trail. By stopping at these suggested places, as well as stopping for food, the entire Heritage Trail could take several days to complete, rather than three hours.
Bonneyville: The history of Bonneyville Mill (still open to tourists a few days a week) and its very colorful founder Edward Bonney are the main focus here.
Middlebury: Approaching Middlebury, the Amish are first mentioned on the CD, but few Amish farms are to be seen in this part of Middlebury. Suggested stops here include Krider Garden, Essenhaus, and Jayco (they give tours).
Lots of information about the Amish culture is given on the CD starting at this point—most of it accurate. (Exceptions I noticed included: (a) weddings are not held just after harvest time, and not only on Tuesdays and Thursdays; (b) there is some limited use of tractors by the Amish these days; and (c) half of local Amish kids are no longer in public schools—nearly all of them are in Amish one-room schools now.)
Shipshewana: This is the only heavily Amish area on the tour, and very little time is spent here. (Shipshewana is actually not in Elkhart County, but in Lagrange County.) Suggested stops for those who want to make the tour a multi-day experience include the downtown shopping district, the 50-acre Flea Market (open seasonally), and the Menno Hof museum, as well as Yoder Popcorn – south of town on this tour, but soon to move to the corner of Routes 5 and 20 in Shipshewana.
Goshen: It’s a long drive to the next town—Goshen—and some of the scenery is pretty. Much history of Goshen is given, highlighting the Old Bag Factory, a suggested stop.
Nappanee: Nappanee is the home of the former “Amish Acres,” now morphing into “The Barns at Nappanee” under new ownership. The Amish are mentioned during this part of the tour, but very few of their homes or businesses can be seen from the Heritage Trail.
Wakarusa: This is a small town north of Nappanee and south of Elkhart. It is home to a maple syrup festival in the spring, and much info is given about the maple syrup making process. It is also home to the old Wakarusa Hardware Store and the Wakarusa Dime Store, home of the jumbo jellybean—a suggested stop.
Elkhart: Driving north back into Elkhart, more information is shared about the history of the Elkhart area, including the railroads and the band instrument industry, as well as the charming story of “Curly Top,” a little girl who became famous for waving at the train as it went by.
In summary, this tour might be good for someone who is a museum/history buff, since it’s heavy on the [non-Amish] history of Elkhart County—spend three hours or three days! But for Amish culture and history, I’d stick to Lagrange County instead, particularly the Shipshewana area—and read my blog posts for places to go and things to see. Hmmmm… maybe I’ll design my own road tour!