Sometimes our similarities are more striking than our differences.
Case in point: a visit to the Amish Country of Northern Indiana, where church groups can have real encounters with members of the Amish orders that call the area home. Though they are famous for their plain clothes, low-tech lifestyle, German dialect and traditional values, Indiana’s Amish aren’t all reclusive, and the numerous opportunities for visitors to spend time with them highlights the many ways people are alike, regardless of the differences in their cultures.
Church groups that take tours of northern Indiana can have numerous experiences that include personal encounters with the area’s Amish, during which they will learn about their lives as family members, churchgoers and entrepreneurs.
“We find that people like the authentic, the rural, the opportunity to meet people and get to know personalities,” said Sonya Nash, director of group and experiential sales and marketing for Amish Country of Northern Indiana. “It’s not just driving on the bus and seeing something out the window. It’s the in-home Amish meal experience, the Amish camel dairy farm, the family that makes baskets and the Amish coffin-maker. It’s the interactive experience that’s really taking off well.”
Each of these visits is part of a raft of hands-on activities tourism offers to groups visiting town, and each gives visitors the chance to meet and talk to local Amish residents, see their work and, in some cases, sample their products.
Product samples are an important part of another experience that has become popular with groups visiting the area: the Brown Bag Tour.
“This is the fun, hidden surprise tour,” Nash said. “Everybody gets a bag. You go with a guide to the tea shop, the noodle shop, the popcorn shop. Everybody gets something everywhere you go, so you end up with a bag full of goodies. In the fall, it might be doughnut holes and cheese. So, people have a ball seeing the things they’re going to get next. It’s another way to experience the back roads.”
In addition to these interactive cultural experiences, here are four other highlights that should be on your next Indiana Amish itinerary.
This summer, Amish country is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its Quilt Garden initiative, which brings flower gardens planted in patterns inspired by Amish quilts to 19 attractions and businesses in six cities and towns throughout Elkhart County. This year’s gardens feature more than 150,000 plants.
The 10th-anniversary celebration will also feature a series of 56 bronze statues created by a New Jersey sculptor. The statues depict everyday scenes from small-town life, such as a policeman writing a ticket or a child eating ice cream. The highlight is a 25-foot-tall interpretation of “American Gothic,” with a couple and a pitchfork standing in downtown Elkhart.
Das Dutchman Essenhaus
Not far from Shipshewana, Das Dutchman Essenhaus is one of the premier hospitality and dining attractions in northern Indiana. And with more than 1,100 seats, the dining room at the Essenhaus is one of the largest restaurants in the state. Though it isn’t an overtly Amish establishment, Essenhaus pays homage to the Amish traditions in the area through its restaurant and bakery menu, as well as five shops in former farm buildings on the property where guests can find fruitcake, home-style noodles, locally made jams and fruit spreads, and other area specialties.
Groups can stay in the Inn at Das Dutchman Essenhaus, which offers some of the best accommodations in the area, and see theater productions at the newly built Heritage Hall, which offers shows from May through December.
Most groups that visit northern Indiana plan a stop at Amish Acres Historic Farm and Heritage Resort, where they can get a comprehensive look at the history and traditions of the Amish people who inhabit the area. Built on a 19th-century Amish farmstead, Amish Acres features historic buildings and interpreters who demonstrate Amish lifestyle and farming techniques, many of which are still used today.
In addition to taking a guided tour of the farm and historic structures, groups see a show in the Amish Acres’ Red Barn Theater, which is the national home of the Amish-themed musical “Plain and Fancy”; it also features a season of other productions. The on-site restaurant offers Amish-style Threshers Dinners, served family style in a barn.
Since 1984, the Riegsecker Marketplace has been the tourist highlight of the picturesque town of Shipshewana. Created by a local craftsman in a restored factory building at the community’s main intersection, the marketplace holds several furniture stores, a craft barn, a gift shop and more.
Many groups that visit Shipshewana make time for dinner and a show at the Blue Gate Restaurant and Theatre. The massive restaurant has nine dining rooms and can accommodate over 1,000 guests, who come for traditional Amish and home-style meals. The Blue Gate Theatre hosts a series of well-known music and comedy performers, including artists such as Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrell and Jeff Foxworthy.