Probably best known by tourists for its Amish population (and their homemade goodies), Elkhart County was organized by the Indiana State Legislature in 1830. The county is large and there’s quite a bit for the heritage tourist to see and do. I suggest beginning your journey at the excellent visitor’s centerin Elkhart. There you can pick up a CD to take a self-guided driving tour of the “Heritage Trail,” which showcases many of the county’s highlights.
The St. Joseph and Elkhart Rivers meet in the city of Elkhart.
Located at the confluence of the St. Joseph and Elkhart rivers, the city of Elkhart was first platted by Dr. Havilah Beardsley in 1831. His home is now a museum that just recently opened to the public for tours. Elkhart eventually became known as the “Band Instrument Capital of the World,” after the Conn Band Instrument Company started making instruments in 1875. Some fun facts: the company produced the first cornet and saxophone in the United States and the first sousaphone in the world. Who knew? Elkhart is also home to the effervescent antacid, Alka-Seltzer, which was introduced by Miles Laboratories in 1931. Today, Elkhart is probably better known for its production of RVs and mobile homes.
Havilah Beardsley’s nephew, Albert, worked for Miles Laboratories as the company’s general manager beginning in 1890. The mansion he and his wife built in 1908, Ruthmere, was designed by E. Hill Turnock, an architect who studied under William LeBron Jenney in Chicago and worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. You can visit Ruthmere April through December.
Ruthmere Mansion’s restoration began in 1969 and was supervised by Albert Beardsley’s newphew, Robert. In 1978 in was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Located in the center of Elkhart County, Goshen and Elkhart initially competed to be named the county seat. Goshen emerged victorious in 1831 and is therefore home to the impressive county courthouse. Built shortly after the Civil War in 1870 by Chicago architects J. H. Barrows and George O. Garnsey, a 1904 renovation resulted in the central domed tower and wings.
The Elkhart County Courthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The following year, a large portion of the town was listed as the Goshen Historic District.
Goshen boasts an impressive downtown commercial district with beautiful, Victorian-era buildings. Shops, restaurants, and a theater line Main Street, (a.k.a. the Lincoln Highway). Goshen was named after the New York hometown of Oliver Crane, who sold Goshen’s first lots in 1831. Industry sprung up in the area around the hydraulic canal and its dam on the Elkhart River, which was completed in 1866. While downtown, be sure to check out the Art Deco police booth at the corner of Main and Lincoln. Built in the era of John Dillinger, the plaque on the booth reads “Erected 1939 to protect the Maple City from gangsters who might travel along this, the old transcontinental Lincoln Highway.”
Historic commercial buildings line Main Street in downtown Goshen.
Three Goshen houses were featured in Wilbur Peat’s 1962 classic, Indiana Houses of the Nineteenth Century, all of which are still standing. The Rowell-Champion House at 101 N. Third Street is an 1847 example of the Greek Revival style; the Dale-Zook House at 114 S. Fifth Street is an 1890 example of the Queen Anne style; and the 1859 Hess-Penn House at 2309 S. Main Street is a unique example of the Italianate style, featuring an impressive cross-barrel vaulted roof (the Hess-Penn House is one of my personal favorites in Indiana). All are worth a drive-by.
The 1847 Rowell-Champion House in Goshen is an excellent example of the Greek Revival style in Indiana.
The town of Bristol is located in the north-central portion of Elkhart County, along the St. Joseph River and near the confluence of the Little Elkhart River. It was first platted in 1834 and grew with flour, wool, and saw mill operations along the river. Visitors to Bristol can enjoy small shops and eateries, or take in a show at the 129-year-old Bristol Opera House.
Downtown Bristol on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Visitors can also see the state’s oldest, continuously operating grist mill at the nearby Bonneyville Mill County Park. The c.1837 mill is open to the public during warm months and visitors can purchase fresh, stone-ground flour as a practical souvenir. During the winter, the park offers cross-country skiing and sledding hills.
The knowledgeable staff at Bonneyville Mill County Park are happy to explain the different types of grains and corns milled, as well as their uses.
The first settlers of Middlebury, located in the northeastern portion of Elkhart County, arrived from Middlebury, Vermont in 1832. Middlebury is full of small-town charm having a Main Street lined with family-owned businesses. At the Amish-operated Dutch Country Market, visitors can watch the Lehman family make noodles and purchase a bag as a souvenir. Middlebury is also home to Das Dutchman Essenhaus, Indiana’s largest restaurant (having 1,100 seats) that is also a bakery and inn, complete with gift shops and horse-drawn carriage rides. They are known for their family-style dining and 30 pie varieties.
Another charming small town is Wakarusa, located in western Elkhart County. Initially platted in 1854, an 1899 fire destroyed half of the town’s commercial district. For this reason, many of the commercial buildings date to the turn of the twentieth century. If you have a chance, be sure to stop into Wakarusa Hardware. Housed in the 1904 E.J. Swartz Building, the store boasts a wall of 1,000 drawers accessed by a rolling wood ladder. At the nearby Wakarusa Dime Store, you can pick out some “world famous jumbo jelly beans” in a variety of flavors.
A number of downtown commercial buildings in Wakarusa feature pressed-metal facades like these.
If you’re interested in seeing Amish families going about their day-to-day tasks, Nappanee is the place to stop. Driving into town, you’ll likely pass Amish horse-drawn buggies or individuals on bicycle. Take care while driving in the area, especially when approaching curves or hills. Also, keep in mind that it is against Amish beliefs to be photographed, so please be respectful. For more on etiquette with the Amish, click here.
Nappanee, located along the St. Lawrence Continental Divide (approximately Market Street), was platted in 1874 by those wishing to profit from its close proximity to the new northern route of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. By 1880, the town had a population of 700 and had become a market center for nearby farmers. Onions, corn, hemp, and mint were major products shipped from Nappanee. The area was also heavily forested and wood-related industries flourished, including furniture making. Furniture, especially that crafted by the Amish and other locals, remains a popular product of the area. Nappanee is also known for its six hometown cartoonists, including Merrill Blosser, whose Freckles and His Friends cartoon ran from 1915 to 1973.
The Nappanee Eastside Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 and is full of historic, single-family residences. Strolling the streets of the neighborhood you’ll find a variety of architectural styles: Italianate, Queen Anne, Free Classic, Prairie, Craftsman, and Tudor, Colonial, and Mediterranean Revivals.
Downtown Nappanee bustles with activity on a summer Saturday afternoon.
Just west of Nappanee is another tourist destination—Amish Acres. Centered around the National Register-listed Stahly-Nissley-Kuhns Amish farmstead, the complex is part living history museum, entertainment venue, restaurant, inn, and shopping destination. Amish Acres began in 1968 when the Kuhns farm was purchased at auction and restored the following year. Additional buildings were added to the complex over the years, including historic buildings moved to the site and newly-constructed structures. In 1988, Amish Acres became the only Old Order Amish farm listed in the National Register.
The Round Barn Theater at Amish Acres. The barn was built in 1911 in Marshall County, dismantled, and reconstructed here in 1992. Its production of Plain and Fancy, a musical contrasting the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with a New York City couple, has been performed here for 25 years.
Still Have Time?
Consider a visit to nearby Shipshewana. The town boasts about 150 retail shops and one of the nation’s largest flea markets, drawing a half million visitors each year.
|From Indianapolis, Elkhart County is about a 3-hour drive. There are a variety routes to get there, but my favorite involves the more scenic route through Wabash. Take I-69 north to SR 37. Continue north on SR 37 approximately 25 miles to SR 13. Continue to follow SR 13 north until you reach SR 15 in downtown Wabash. Take SR 15 north through Warsaw and into central Elkhart County and Goshen. Click here for directions.|
Lodging option abound in Elkhart County. For a full listing, click here.
Country Victorian Bed and Breakfast; 435 S. Main Street, Middlebury, Indiana 46540; 800.262.7829; rates from $79+ per night.
The bed and breakfast is a c.1894 Free Classic house built for the J.F. Nusbaum family. The house has five guest rooms with private baths, Wi-fi, and cable.
Homespun Country Inn; 302 N. Main Street, Nappanee, Indiana 46550; 800.311.2996; rates from $83 per night.
The bed and breakfast is in a 1902 Free Classic House. The house has five guest rooms with private baths, Wi-fi, and cable.
Rose Lane Farm; 66537 County Road 11, Goshen, Indiana 46526; 574.535.4315; rates from $69+ per night.
This bed and breakfast is in a country farmhouse with access to 6 acres of woods for walking. There are two guest rooms.
The Victorian Guest House; 302 E. Market Street, Nappanee, Indiana 46550; 877.773.4383; rates from $69+ per night.
This bed and breakfast is housed in an 1887 Queen Anne style house built for the Frank Coppes family. There are six guest rooms with private baths and Wi-fi.
Note: Please be sure to confirm all rates, hours of operation, and other details directly with the companies/organizations in question before planning your trip. The mention of and/or links to companies/organizations in this post do not constitute an endorsement.
Amish Acres, History of Amish Acres, http://www.amishacres.com/DW_WEBSITE/history/aa_history.php, accessed 20 July 2011.
Bonneyville Mill County Park, http://www.elkhartcountyparks.org/properties_locations/bonneyville_mill_county_park.htm, accessed 20 July 2011.
Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, Elkhart County Interim Report: Indiana Historic Sites and Structures Inventory, 2005.
Peat, Wilbur D., Indiana Houses of the Nineteenth Century, 1962.
Ruthmere; The Historic Mansion, http://www.ruthmere.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2&Itemid=29, accessed 19 July 2011.
Photographs courtesy and © of author, except as noted.