Shipshewana has something for everyone, especially at Christmas
Its charm and history make it much more than an ‘Amish tourist trap’
December 8, 2021
Yes, Shipshewana is a bit of a tourist trap. But I like tourist traps. I like to be trapped by them.
“Trap me, Shipshewana! Trap me!” I yelled in downtown Shipshewana, my arms held wide in surrender.
Please don’t do that, someone said. It scares the horses.
Yes, there are horses in Shipshewana. Many horses.
Some of the horses pull Amish carriages driven by Amish drivers and some of horses pull non-Amish tourists who want to sample the Amish carriage-pulling experience.
It’s an uneasy mix but one that seems at the moment to be working for everyone.
A Celebrated Christmas Celebration
I visited Shipshewana several times in November because it usually appears on lists of the best places in Indiana for celebrating the Christmas season.
Shipshewana is one of seven Indiana towns and their environs that encompass the third-largest Amish community in the United States.
Thanks to a widely popular summer flea market and amenities introduced to the town by the Riegsecker Family, Shipshewana has grown into a tourism mecca in recent years.
The summer flea market has become so popular that it allows visitors to trade the crazy traffic jams of the city for the crazy traffic jams of the country.
But there will always be some tension between the simple life chosen by the Amish and the needs and aims of more tourism-minded (not to mention, tourism-dependent) residents and business owners.
In a 2015 Chicago Tribune story about Shipshewana, the reporter asked two Mennonite women (the Amish and Mennonites are both offshoots of the Anabaptism movement) whether the town was destined to turn into “Amishland,” meaning an Amish Disneyland.
The women thought “the world people” might make it happen.
But the list of commercial ventures that would succeed almost anywhere, but which failed in Shipshewana, is long.
A waterpark, a wine bar, a convention center, and a car museum have all gone belly up.
There seems to be a limit to the amount of worldliness that can be introduced to Shipshewana.
I didn’t know about the existence of the waterpark until recently.
When I first heard about it, I couldn’t help but recall that reporter’s reference to “Amishland.”
“Was it an Amish-themed waterpark?” I asked myself, going down a rabbit hole from which I still have not emerged. “Did some ‘world person’ come in and try to mix an Amish sensibility with a Disney sensibility?”
Probably not, but I couldn’t help but imagine rides titled Lazy Trough, Buggy Bumper Boats, and Rumspringa Rapids.
While I don’t want world people to come into Shipshewana and do the sort of tone-deaf things there that world people tend to do everywhere, it was hard not to imagine what such people might try to do.
The Christmas season in Shipshewana begins in early November with a light parade. It’s a real parade with floats and it happens at night. A light parade that happens during the day would be much less effective, since light is what day is all about.
Day pretty much corners the market on light.
There are two ways to celebrate Christmas in Shipshewana: By enjoying Christmas events and displays, and by shopping for Christmas presents or shopping for yourself while using Christmas as an excuse.
If you like unique shopping experiences, Shipshewana is all about unique shopping experiences. It has no non-unique shopping experiences. If you prefer non-unique shopping experiences, it would be best if you vacationed elsewhere.
In fact, I believe there is a “non-unique shopping experiences” page on the state’s tourism website.
Shipshewana has funky malls like Davis Mercantile and Yoder’s Red Barn Shoppes, top-quality meat and cheese at (what else?) Yoder’s Meat and Cheese Company, and an Amish-owned grocery and bulk food store called E&S Sales.
Shipshewana shopkeepers sometimes share interesting tidbits of information about the Amish like, “You can tell how many people live in a house by looking at the washing on the line.”
That sounded delightful until I imagined getting caught in someone’s yard paying way too close attention to their washing.
A lot of the Christmas entertainment in Shipshewana is provided by the Blue Gate empire, which consists of a restaurant, a hotel, a theater, and a performing arts center.
The plays and musicals that are performed at the theater, which always feature Amish themes and/or characters, are written expressly for the theater and are then licensed to theater companies around the world.
I spoke with Andrew Rohrer, the vice president of sales & marketing for Blue Gate Hospitality about the history of the Blue Gate’s vast holdings.
Amazingly, it all started with a guy making and selling miniature horses and buggies.
His name is Mel Riegsecker. He grew up Amish and has proved himself to be a master at bringing things to Shipshewana that appeal to non-Amish tourists but are not offensive to the Amish.
The phrase “blue gate” refers to a gentle Amish joke that is too long to reproduce here. It involves an “Englischer” (world person) reading too much significance into the actions of his Amish neighbor.
Pretzel Wars? Who Knew!
One of the things Rohrer wanted me to do while in Shipshewana was wade into the pretzel war.
There are two sit-down pretzel-based restaurants in Shipshewana, which may be two more than exist in the rest of Indiana, plus the other Midwestern states, plus the non-Midwestern states.
Shipshewana’s pretzel restaurants are JoJo’s and Bens, and Rohrer said people are as fiercely loyal to one or the other as some people are to sports teams or brands of athletic shoe.
Before I visited Shipshewana, I may not have been the best person to nominate as pretzel critic.
I have never liked pretzels, neither the hard nor soft varieties.
But Shipshewana’s pretzels are their own thing. Whereas a ballpark soft pretzel evokes a bagel, a Shipshewana pretzel evokes a fresh breadstick.
There may be pretzel purists reading this now who are shouting at their spouses or dogs, “A pretzel shouldn’t evoke a fresh breadstick!”
Your dog is looking especially sympathetic, because he is hoping you will give him any pretzel, regardless of what it evokes.
Word to the wise: Most dogs who pretend to have strong pretzel preferences and aversions are lying.
I am not a pretzel purist. I may be a pretzel rebel. If I am the latter, then there are only two things I have rebelled against in my life: pretzel purism and that time they tried to recast the role of John-Boy in Season 8 of The Waltons.
I tried to describe to a Shipshewana resident the craving I’ve had for those pretzels since I tried them and he said, “What’s a craving? Do you mean a hankering?”
Pies and Other Sundries
Another foodstuff that Shipshewana and environs are known for is pies. The Blue Gate Restaurant and Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury often have a dozen pies on their buffets and the bakery at the former offers 30 varieties.
I could go to Elkhart County, eat nothing but pretzels and pies and be perfectly happy for the rest of my life, which would last about six months on a diet like that.
Next to JoJo’s in Davis Mercantile, there a coffee shop called Kitchen Cupboard. When I visited it, the tables were filled with groups of young Amish women and girls.
I thought of Central Perk from Friends, then I imagined some world person mounting an Amish edition of Friends (“The One with the Barn Raising”).
The world people may not have been able to gain much of a foothold in Shipshewana, but they sure gained one in my head.
If you have kids, you’ll want to make your way to the top floor of Davis Mercantile, which has a carousel, a toy store, and a candy shop. Bluegrass renditions of Christmas carols were playing over the P.A. when I visited.
I was encouraged to ride the carousel, but I declined after I imagined my bulk causing a weight imbalance that would lead to the sort of merry-go-round accident that hasn’t been seen since the climax of Strangers on a Train.
Taking You Back to the Future
One of my favorite stores in the downtown area is one that has seen better days.
It is a drug store/newsstand/ice cream parlor and that was clearly one of the oldest surviving retail businesses in Shipshewana.
There is a sign above the entrance that says “Hostelers Natural and Traditional Remedies,” which makes it sound as if the store is old enough to have sold patent medicines.
The clerk did not know precisely how long it had been open.
The ice cream parlor does not have a counter, but while I enjoyed a root beer float, I imagined teenagers from an idealized cinematic version of the 1950s hanging out there.
Then I imagined Biff Tannen from Back to the Future coming and roughing me up. This was, of course, followed by me wondering how a world person might finesse (or strong-arm) an Amish version of Back to the Future.
But there is so much technology in that movie trilogy, it might not be possible to make an Amish version of the tale.
A buggy fitted with a flux capacitor? That surely would go against the Ordnung (rules). And how would you get it up to 88 mph?
Regarding the Amish and technology, travel blogger J.D. Roth wrote, “When confronted with a new piece of technology, the Amish ask themselves, ‘Will using this bring me closer to God?’ If the answer is no, they don’t use it. If the answer is yes, they use it.”
Digging into History
This is not precisely true, as I learned from Ruth Miller, the manager of daily operations at the Menno-Hof Cultural Center.
If you are interested in Amish and Mennonite history and sociology, the Menno-Hof deserves a day-long visit of its own.
Miller said each district has its own bishop and suggestions for rule changes (including introductions of new technology) are brought to him, then voted on by district members.
There are more than 200 districts in northern Indiana, she said.
This is why Amish congregations can often seem different from each other to the eyes of Englischers. Because the rules can vary from district to district.
A lifestyle, fashion, or piece of technology that is accepted by one district may be prohibited by another. The Amish of Shipshewana are relatively progressive in the grand scheme of Amish things. They’ve had no choice: Most supplement farming with other business ventures to make ends meet.
But Miller said there are just some worldly things that will never take root in Shipshewana.
That’s the allure of Shipshewana. It’s a town where people who live an Amish life and people who lead an “English” life can find common ground without having to give up too much in the bargain.