I’m going to make a bold statement now, get ready.
I’ve found my new American home town.
Yes, it took a much shorter period of time than I thought, but I’ve very quickly decided I want to move to Shipshewana, Indiana; to live among the folk in Amish country.
I want to spend my days on the outskirts of a quiet, small town surrounded by corn and soy bean fields as far as the eye can see, whitewashed farms, the sound of horse hooves clip clopping down the road and with the most wondrous of cheese factories on my doorstep.
Yes, this will be my new home.
In truth I’m not quite sure Loops agrees, judging by the look on his face when he spies me scanning the internet for house prices in Shipshe (as we locals like to call her). Admittedly he’s looked at me like that numerous times as I’ve checked houses and land for sale in the Smokey Mountains, around Knoxville in Tennessee, and Auburn, Indiana. More often now it comes with a roll of the eyes as well.
But I tell you I am sold – and this is how it has come to pass…
We left Berrien Springs in Michigan mid-morning to make our U turn and begin to head towards North Carolina, with our sights set on stopping in Shipshewana for the day and evening. The town had been recommended to us by Ron and Dorinda for two reasons – first, it’s quaint, laid back and a favourite location for Bluebird rallies and second, because there is an Amish repairman who works on RV air conditioning units and Loops wants to see if this man can work out what the ‘click’ noise is in the bus (yes, he’s still going crazy about it).
Our trip southeast doesn’t have a happy start however with us both being grumpy (though I really can’t remember about what now), but the miles pass in silence and I’m obviously feeling childish enough about our disagreement to pretend not to notice when Loops gets lost and starts to huff and puff, getting flustered and needing help with navigation. Admittedly he’s obviously feeling the same way as he’d rather struggle than ask for my help, so we’re both as stubborn and stupid as each other. So goes the way sometimes, eh?
We manage to finally make our way to the air conditioning workshop where indeed a very nice Amish man comes aboard the bus – neat shirt, slacks, tool belt and beard to boot. He and Loops begin poking and prodding at different parts of the bus, turning the AC on and off, trying to make the click appear. It’s much akin to taking your car to the garage – the problems you have seem to magically disappear. As the click appears to not be forthcoming, Loops and the Amish chap shamble off to look at the units on the roof, leaving the AC to run and hopefully do its thing in a bit.
I take the time in the peace and quiet to Skype – a special call today as my two friends, Binky and Kezza G, and I have discovered the delights of the three-way Skype call – meaning all three of us can converse together at once! It turns a little bit into a Three Stooges skit though as we struggle to add Kezza G to the call, first with video but not sound, then sound with no video; Binky is making dinner so is clattering pots and pans the whole way through and I am wearing the world’s dorkiest headphones which have the unfortunate problem of deafening me every time the phone Kezza G is using vibrates from an incoming text message. But still, I get to see and speak with my friends back home, which makes me happy no matter what.
It’s not long after we say our goodbyes that the click suddenly begins to sound and I call out to the boys who come back in to investigate. It’s like watching CSI, but with Amish actors. It takes some doing but finally a proclamation – the source of the noise is located! It turns out not to be an electrical problem as Loops feared, but rather a simple case of two AC ducts not fully secured together; expanding and knocking against each other, rather more like a pop than a click when you stand right next to it. I can tell Loops is relieved in one sense, nothing major or expensive, but also realises that the noise is just something he’ll have to live with and hope that he learns to tune it out!
We have a much more interesting afternoon once we get into Shipshewana town centre proper. We find some rather convenient RV parking spaces behind Yoder’s Department Store, facing outward toward the main road, but directly behind us is a pretty view of a small reed pond, a large playground on slight hill to our right and in the distance to the left the bright white wooden clad buildings of the Farmstead Inn. Though we are near the road, when we throw open the windows for a breeze, all we can really hear are the horses and buggies which regularly clip clop past our bus through the back of the car park to the hitching posts at the front.
We decide to tour the town by foot, given that the majority of it is within walking distance of where we have parked. For its small size, Shipshewana certainly packs in a lot for visitors to see and do. One of the main attractions is The Blue Gate Restaurant and Theatre, where you can sit down to a family style Amish cooked meal and then head to the small theatre which shows productions such as ‘Josiah for President’ (about an Amish chap who runs for the presidency), ‘Mennonite Girls can Cook’ (a comedy about two Mennonite ladies who have their own cooking show and head for Hollywood) and a host of musical acts throughout the year.
There is a cornucopia of bakeries, crafts stores, gift shops, furniture makers and, my favourite, a music store called ‘Simple Sounds’, with the most amazing array of non-conventional instruments I’ve ever come across.
Walking into the store you will be astonished at some of the folk instruments you will find – strumsticks, harps, tin and penny whistles, maracas and castanets, ocarinas, nose flutes, ukuleles, mandolins and my instrument of choice (if I had the spare $80 to blow), a lap harp. I’ll tell you why I like this store so much, it is because the majority of the instruments present don’t actually require much musical talent to play and produce a good sound. Take the lap harp for instance – it is of simple construction, a flat piece of wood cut into a triangular shape, with pegs running down the two sides of the triangle and music strings strung between them. You then can buy triangular music sheets which slide behind the strings and show you which notes to pluck and in which order, to play the song. I spent a very happy ten minutes plucking ‘You Are My Sunshine’ while standing in the store, and it sounded beautiful. I could very much imagine me sat around a campfire entertaining crowds with classics such as ‘London Bridge’ and ‘Frere Jacques’.
As we wander the town it is impossible not to notice the Amish residents, for they are absolutely everywhere. Be it passing by in their buggies, parking up their bicycles at the shops, wandering around the town in their crisp colourful dresses and bonnets or smart trousers and collared shirt with hats; this is certainly their community. Everyone seems polite to a fault, nodding, smiling or saying hello, but there is a definite feel in the air of division; the Amish do keep to themselves and within their own people. I remember reading somewhere the phrase ‘to be in the world, but not of it’ relating to the Amish; meaning that they live side by side by non-Amish residents, but are not actively mixing or partaking in the outside world as we know it. And this is exactly how I feel wandering and watching in Shipshewana.
Loops and I take our evening meal in the Fireside Café, where I order a delicious bacon, turkey and avocado wrap followed by equally scrumptious ice cream – served to us by our Amish patrons.
The evening is still light enough that I decided to stroll a little up and down the pavement nearby on my own; it is a picture perfect evening with peaceful farmland scenery, bright flowers in bloom everywhere, red barns and whitewashed houses.
I wander over to the playground to hang out on the swings and spend a good half hour watching two young Amish children, a boy and a girl, play in the park under the watchful eye of their father. They both run around in fits of giggles, barefoot in the grass and climbing the frames; they make me smile and make my heart feel light. I watch them until the sun begins to set in a wash of red and purple splashed across the sky.
Loops and I decide to spend a second day parked in the lot, and I’m determined to fill my time with as many experiences as possible, so bright and early at 9am I find myself across the road at the Shipshewana horse auction. I have no idea what to expect upon entering the auction barn, so I am open to all I see.
Where I find myself is in a large barn building, slightly gloomy due to the lack of light and presence of cobwebs, filled with stalls on the lower floor and a wooden walkway bridge over top; so I might peruse my potential equine purchases from above. I find that I have either arrived too early or too late as there are only a handful of horses to view. I find singular stalls closer to the entrance and the deeper into the barn I venture, the stalls become occupied by groups of horses. I am reliably informed later in a conversation with Dorinda that the singular horses are purchased for riding or as harness horses, and those grouped together are too old, potentially ill or just too bad tempered for work and most likely destined for the food or glue lot. I am very glad I do not know this information as I wander this day.
I do spend about half an hour watching those below as they bring in their horses or inspect horses to buy. I am quite captivated by one group that consist of around 8 ponies, all dark as molasses in colour and attempting to make room for themselves in the stall. There are two horses in particular near the stall gate; one has a real demon look in its eye, standing tall and haughty and is picking on the other in a nasty manner by biting it every time it comes near. The horse being bitten is doing its very best to stay out of Demon-Eyes way, trying to edge and wiggle its body further into the herd, but all of the others keep knocking it backwards so it is forced to remain within chomping distance – no-one else wants to get close to the biter either, they’d rather sacrifice the other for their own safety. It makes me feel sad to watch.
I wander over to another pen which contains, what looks to be, a single Shetland pony. There is an older gentleman examining the pony and explaining to his grandson, I’m guessing, as to why they won’t buy this one. When I look at the hooves of the pony I can see exactly what he is talking about, the pony’s hooves are so overgrown I am surprised it can even stand, let alone walk. This makes me even more depressed and I decide to leave the barn.
Out in the fresh air I try to remind myself that people from different cultures have different views of animals and their welfare, and that especially here in the country these horses are seen as working animals, not pets; therefore they hold a different value to the people who buy them. Sadly I believe some may treat the horses much as others would treat a car; and that just sits very badly with me.
To help lighten my mood I wander back over to the bus to find Loops and talk him into going cycling with me; and here is where I fall in love with the countryside of Shipshewana.
There is a trail, a dedicated bicycling trail, hidden in the rural landscape on the outskirts of town. It runs for 22 miles between the three towns of Shipshewana, Middlebury and Goshen connecting together these three very Amish communities. I discovered the Pumpkinvine Trail quite by accident while browsing literature on the town and decided to ride the 7 miles over to Middlebury to see what it was all about – and now I want to ride this trail every day forever.
It doesn’t seem like much, really it doesn’t, but as we slowly peddle our way along the asphalt path the world goes silent – I can no longer hear any road traffic, instead all I can hear is the wind rustling the leaves, the birds singing loudly in the trees and the simple sounds of country life. We pass pristinely maintained house after house, clothes drying on outdoor lines, children giggling as they run around in the farmyards, and gardens with ladies in their dresses and bonnets working in the vegetable patches on their hands and knees. We cycle along a hedgerow bordering a field and can hear the clinking of chains and the creak of wood, and spy a man and woman driving horses that are pulling a wagon through the field, carrying a load of freshly made hay bales. Under a blue sky with picture perfect white fluffy clouds and a bright yellow sun we cycle through the heart of the Amish community, and its peacefulness rests on my shoulders.
The closer we get to Middlebury the farms make way for more industrial sights, including passing a factory that makes Jayco motorhomes and 5th wheel trailers. Following the trail into downtown we pass over a short wooden boardwalk bridge and through a small community park, and then I hear Loops give a shout. It seems his bicycle has come a cropper – he has a giant bulge in the side of his tire and can’t ride further without getting it fixed. Luckily for us, or maybe in a rather too coincidental moment, not five minutes before we passed a bike shop right across from the trail, and so back we go to spend a good forty minutes having Loops’ tires changed out and his pockets emptied.
With a pumped up tire but slightly flattened mood, we decide to make our way back towards Shipshe, but with an important detour on route – to visit the Guggisberg Deutsch Kase Haus Cheese Factory! Now my enjoyment of cheese cannot be overstated here, for there can be no better savoury treat, especially when it is paired with sweetness such fruit. And as luck would have it, this Amish cheese heaven happens to be a short five minute bike ride away from the Pumpkinvine Trail, halfway back to town.
I would encourage anyone passing through this area in northern Indiana to stop in to the cheese factory, for not only do they produce about 30 different types of cheese (which you can watch them make through a window), they also have a large range of dry savoury snacks as well as sweets. And the very best part – they have samples – samples of everything!
You can easily walk around the store and try a small chunk of each flavoured cheese and then peruse the back wall and sample vegetable crisps, flax seed corn chips, smoked cheese corn chips, honey dipped sesame pretzels and feel you’ve eaten a full lunch. But for those of you still munchy, walk outside and there is a nice lady cooking up scrumptious cheese toasties that you can buy, cooked on orange coloured bread.
Needless to say I didn’t leave the store until I’d spent a fair $50 on food items which included the sharpest tasting cheddar in the world and something magical called ‘peanut butter spread’, which is basically a spreadable form of the inside of a Reese’s piece. More than one spoonful and you’ll go into a diabetic coma, and be warned, it’s addictive.
Loaded up we almost make it back to the town when I spot a small sign pointed towards Shipshewana Lake and a memorial site. Well, I wanted to know who was being memorialised so down the hill we freewheel until we come upon a minor bump of a hillock with a single standing stone. Upon reading the inscription, I felt saddened.
It turns out that the town and lake are named for Pottawattamie Indian Chief Shipshewana (pronounced Shup-She-Wah-No which means to have ‘vison of a lion’), and he and they were removed from their reservation lands in 1838 and moved to Kansas by soldiers. Left heartbroken the Chief was eventually allowed to return a year later but died not long after in 1841.
After seeing this I later did a bit of research into the history of Indiana and found that the north-western part of the state was once heavily settled by a number of tribes including the Chippewa, Shawnee and Pottawattamie amongst others; and the state name itself means ‘Land of Indians’. Therefore it seems incredibly wrong for land to have been taken away from them at all, but that’s a whole other can of worms to discuss another time.
We arrive back in town to find that we seem to have missed a historical event with lots of examples of old time farming practices during the day, but we manage to catch the end of the afternoon and see a couple huge steam tractors in motion, learned how a manual corn shucker and sheller works and sampled a root beer float with homemade ice cream; and let me tell you it was the creamiest ice cream I have ever tasted.
The early evening was rounded off with the community taking part in a haystack dinner, basically the Amish families had prepared a number of food dishes and for a fee you could grab a dish, walk the food line and be provided a whole meal, with pie for desert. Loops and I watched the process while we sucked on our root beers and sat amongst the families in the food tent, listening to them speak what I am assuming was a version of Pennsylvania Dutch.
Once again I just enjoyed the simplicity of it all, the community spirit; watching the adults and children always looking as if they are dressed in their best, plain single coloured button up dresses and bright white starched bonnets for the women and trousers and shirts with braces and hats for the men, including the identical bowl haircuts and long beards they all seem to sport. They all sit down, take their hats off and bow their heads in prayer before they begin to eat. There is just something very humbling about it all.
And while I will obviously never be Amish, my love of trashy TV alone would preclude me, I do feel that being in Shipshewana and watching a different style of life, a quieter life, I am viewing something very meaningful. I am watching people who are at peace with who and what they are and their expectations of their life and the world around them.
I see them smile and laugh, always together in groups talking or working, and so at home in themselves and with the simplicity of their life.
And that is something I desire. I see that as an inner strength. To put aside all of the non-essential modern elements of life that are heaped and thrust upon us, which often get in the way of feeling that fulfilment so many people here have.
And for that alone, I declare Shipshewana a town I would love to live in, and one that you all should visit.