Whether or not you’ve always been curious about the Amish, consider making a road trip to LaGrange County, Ind. Although it’s just 60 miles northwest of Fort Wayne, in many ways it’s another world.
LaGrange County has many charming communities worth visiting but is best known for Shipshewana, a town of about 650 residents that attracts some 2 million tourists each year. Visitors come from around the world to shop for high-quality furniture, hand-made quilts and other goods.
“The Amish are known as industrious entrepreneurs,” explains Phyllis Youga, executive director of LaGrange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They make and sell their wares from backroad country barns or in shops throughout the county. People enjoy seeing the horse-and-buggies, the women in long dresses and the men wearing hats, but they also come for the amenities – to dine, shop and be entertained.”
Now in its 100th season, the largest weekly flea market in the Midwest, boasting 700 vendors on 40 acres, takes place in Shipshewana May through Labor Day on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“It began as a market where the Amish met to trade their goods onTuesdays and to auction livestock on Wednesdays,” says Youga.
Even after Labor Day, plenty of good shopping continues year-round.
“There are new shops opening every year, as well as old favorites with long and interesting histories,” says Youga.
One favorite is Shipshewana’s Davis Mercantile, which stands where the 1891 Davis Hotel existed before it was destroyed by fire in 2004. The Alvin and Elsie Miller family, who are Amish, rebuilt the structure that’s now home to 21 stores. A giant Douglas fir log – the tree was 370 years old when harvested – stands in the center of the 4-story structure. A 1906 Dentzel carousel on the third floor, with animals hand-carved and painted by local Amish artists, delights visitors, including the Millers’ 23 grandchildren. Shops in Davis Mercantile sell toys, candy, clothing, puzzles, linens, Amish foods, home décor, fabrics, furniture and more.
The Blue Gate Restaurant and Theatre is another main attraction. The original site housed an old factory purchased in 1984 by Mel and June Riegsecker, who transformed it into a workshop where visitors could watch Mel and his crafters make the miniature wagons and six-horse hitches that had become very popular.
In time, the venture expanded to become Riegsecker Marketplace, a hotel, shopping area, furniture store, bakery and 750-seat restaurant with six dining rooms.
“The restaurant serves wonderful foods in Amish homecooked tradition, like fried chicken, melt-in-your-mouth roast beef and 20 kinds of pie,” says Youga. “Mel Riegsecker wanted to give the people who come to town for the flea market some food and entertainment, so he opened a 350-seat theater above the restaurant that features musicals.”
In 2020, Blue Gate opened a second venue, the Performing Arts Center, which books big-name entertainers of many styles. Among them this October are Boz Scags, the Greatest Piano Men, Three Dog Night, the Booth Brothers and Travis Tritt.
Just outside the Blue Gate Restaurant, visitors find a buggy station from which they can depart for a peaceful horse and buggy ride through Shipshewana. Entertainment in LaGrange County doesn’t end with the Blue Gate Theatre, however.
The Michiana Event Center, with its motto of “Built for Big,” boasts a 4,500-seat capacity and hosts not only top entertainers like Willie Nelson, but also rodeos and circuses; auto, home and camping shows; giant craft fairs; and many kinds of equine events, like the Six Horse Hitch Classic Series World Finals that took place in September.
Visitors who want to better understand the Amish lifestyle enjoy the Menno-Hof, a cultural center that explains the 16th century Anabaptist movement from which Amish, Mennonite and Hutterite groups evolved.
“They do an excellent job of explaining the origins of these communities and have interesting displays so people can see, for example, what an Amish kitchen looks like,” says Youga.
Similar to the Pilgrims, the Anabaptists sought to restore Christianity to the purity it enjoyed in the first three centuries after Christ. They believed state control of religion had corrupted it. Many were persecuted by the church and state in Europe.
Although a day trip to Shipshewana is fun, an overnight stay is even better, says Youga.
“There’s plenty to keep visitors busy for a few days and every kind of lodging is available, from popular hotel chains along the I-80 and I-90 corridors to VRBOs and privately owned bed & breakfasts with Amish décor.”
At Stutzman Dairy Farm, for example, guests stay Amish style – meaning there’s no electricity but there are plenty of farm animals to pet and a special room for viewing cows during milking.
In keeping with religious tradition, most businesses in Shipshewana are closed on Sundays.
“Many visitors explore the beautiful parks throughout LaGrange County on Sundays,” says Youga.
There are also a number of trails in the county, like the Pumpkinvine Trail, a well-maintained, solid-surface biking/walking trail connecting the towns of Elkhart, Goshen, Middlebury and Shipshewana.
“I know the word ‘unique’ is used too often, but it really fits when you’re talking about LaGrange County,” says Youga. “It’s a unique and very special place.”
Learn more, find a list of holiday special events and access a visitor’s guide at visitshipshewanain.com. ❚