Let’s face it–Elkhart is not the sort of place people generally go for vacation. This is a hard-working and prosperous city that residents go from for vacation–and many of them go in recreational vehicles, the county’s main product. Elkhart County has been a national center for the construction of travel trailers, motor homes, and mobile homes (called “manufactured housing” around here) since area factories started turning out prefab houses during World War II. You can’t visit the area without passing factories where RVs or their components are built, or completed models on the road to dealerships.
It’s not officially open yet, but the RV/MH Heritage Foundation Hall of Fame, Library, Museum, and Convention Center (801 Benham Ave., 219-293-2344) is sure to make it onto Americana fans’ must-see lists soon; this big hall on the south side of town houses a growing collection of campers (going back to the 20s), memorabilia, and archival materials. The official opening is next spring, but if you call you may be able to set up a tour with the curator. Maybe you’ll even get to catch a showing of the 1954 classic The Long, Long Trailer, in which a huge and demonic RV threatens to destroy Lucy and Desi’s honeymoon.
A stone’s throw from the RV museum is the National New York Central Railroad Museum (721 S. Main St., 219-294-3001), only a year old, which consists of exhibits set up in two old railroad cars. I recommend it only to rail fans, who might want to see the ongoing restoration of the rail cars and locomotives; lay visitors like me are more likely to sprint through, stopping only for a rather endearing display detailing the story of “Curly Top,” a young Elkhart girl who achieved a certain fame in the 1930s by waving to the passing Twentieth Century Limited every day, and whom celebrities threw autographed menus to as the train rumbled by. I take it those train passengers ate fare more elegant than the sandwiches served in the attached diner nowadays. (Museum hours are 10 to 3 Thursday through Sunday, and donations are encouraged.)
More transportation: The S. Ray Miller Foundation, Inc. Antique Car Museum (2130 Middlebury St., 219-522-0539) preserves immaculately restored antiques, many of them manufactured by small companies in Indiana before the consolidation of the automobile industry. It’s open 1 to 4 Monday through Friday and noon to 4 the last weekend of every month; admission is $2, $1 for seniors and students.
The gem of Elkhart’s museums is the Midwest Museum of American Art (429 S. Main St., 219-293-6660), located downtown in a renovated bank building. Ignore the large Norman Rockwell gallery upstairs unless you’re really into Americana; the real treasures are on the main floor, where the painting gallery offers a swift but rewarding run-through of American art styles, including a rather surreal midwestern landscape by Grant Wood. Some of the works are displayed in the old vault, the door of which is worth a look itself. (The museum is open 11 to 5 Tuesday to Friday, 1 to 4 on weekends, closed Monday. Admission is $1.50 for adults, 75 cents for students and seniors.)
To see the high style Elkhart’s wealthy were accustomed to near the turn of the century, visit Ruthmere Museum (302 E. Beardsley Ave., 219-264-0330), the large, boxy mansion of Albert Beardsley, one of the founders of Miles Laboratories, makers of Alka-Seltzer. The house was built in 1908 and is interesting largely for its mix of old-time luxuries and modern conveniences; it came with its own organ, a built-in vacuuming system, acres of mahogany paneling, and Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced stained-glass windows. In the garage is the cozy Robert B. Beardsley Arts Reference Library of American Domestic Architecture and Decorative Arts, which contains besides its book and periodical collections two bronze sculptures, one by Rodin, the other by his mistress, Camille Claudel. (The mansion is open for guided tours Tuesday through Friday at 11, 1, and 3 and Wednesday evenings at 7. Ruthmere is closed from December 15 until early April.)
Ruthmere faces (across Beardsley Park) the confluence of the Saint Joseph and Elkhart rivers, where a small island allegedly shaped like an elk’s heart gave the city its name. Parts of the rivers’ banks have remained green and hidden, and a good way to enjoy them is by renting a canoe for a few hours. Both the Old Father Canoe Center (607 W. Plymouth Ave., Goshen; 219-533-2295) and Bristol Sporting Goods and Canoe (504 E. Vistula, Bristol; 219-848-5360) are upstream of Elkhart; they’ll let you drift for a few hours and pick you up downriver.
Also along the river in Bristol (the next town up the Saint Joseph) is the former Bristol High School, now home to the Elkhart County Historical Museum (304 W. Vistula, Bristol; 219-848-4322). The collection of local history is long on artifacts and short on interpretation; there are large aggregations of old toys and of arrowheads and other Native American tools found locally.
Back in Elkhart, there’s the “Time Was” Downtown Museum, upstairs from Paul Thomas Shoes (125<4 N. Main St., 219-294-2362, irregular hours), which is full of Paul Thomas’s collection of photos and memorabilia about Elkhart. I don’t recommend it; it’s only worth a visit if you want to experience one person’s unique sense of local history (one photo caption: “Tony retired to Mayor John Weaver’s farm & later lightning struck a tree & fell on Tony & killed him”).
The more touristy Amish and Mennonite country east of Elkhart has seen the establishment of many bed-and-breakfasts lately, an innovation that has not reached Elkhart proper. To avoid the motels up by the toll road you may want to drive to one of the closer local inns. Abraham and Edith Martin, a Mennonite couple, will put you up at their 100-acre working dairy farm south of Elkhart (26620 County Road 40, Goshen; 219-862-4600). They’ll tour you around the barns (you can see the morning milking if you get up early enough) and feed you a gut buster farm breakfast (which is also early–checkout time is 9 AM most days, 8 AM Sunday).
In Nappanee, 15 miles south of Elkhart, you can stay in the comfortable and unpretentious rooms of the Victorian Guest House (302 E. Market St., Nappanee; 219-773-4383 or 219-773-7034). This 100-year-old manse was built by a local cabinet-making family–a heritage evidenced by the dark wood-paneled dining room. The house has been nicely restored by Chicago-area native Kris Leksich, who serves a continental breakfast of bagels, muffins, and so on.
Between Elkhart and Wakarusa is the Country Bed and Breakfast, the home of Vernon and Bertha Miller (27727 County Road 36, Goshen; 219-862-2748), who have a couple of guest rooms; Vernon also makes toy barns, dollhouses, wooden lawn tulips and ducks, and other bric-a-brac for sale in the garage. He can even construct a full-size lawn gazebo or sandbox for you. Just look for the decoratively painted mailbox in the shape of a house.
Of course, the way to see Elkhart County in true local style would be to rent an RV and stay at a local campground. Worldwide Recreational Vehicles (25610 County Road 4, 219-264-3161) will rent you a trailer or motor home; a fun place to camp is Eby’s Pines outside Bristol (14583 State Road 120, 219- 848-4520), which features not only an indoor roller-skating rink but also Indiana’s largest Christmas tree plantation.
Eating in Elkhart County has generally meant the sort of big, family-style farm dinners that go a long way toward explaining why Indiana has the highest percentage of obese people in the country. Two places that still serve this sort of thing, and do it well, are the Patchwork Quilt Country Inn (11748 County Road 2, Middlebury; 219-825-2417), which is known for its award-winning buttermilk pecan chicken and also has several guest rooms; and Come & Dine (on State Road 19, Wakarusa; 219-862-2714), where you can also enjoy a 12-minute ride on a large outdoor toy railroad that runs along a mile-and-a-half track.
Elkhart locals who don’t work on the farm and do watch their waistline try to stay away from those places. The encroute-and-salad set go to the Exchange Restaurant & Bakery (109 W. Lexington Ave., 219-293- 5175), which is a good place for a light lunch; specials change daily. One block over is the Old Style Deli (110 W. High St., 219-295-2133), which tries to pretend it’s in New York. The writer and cynic Ambrose Bierce, who waited tables at a local restaurant as a young man, would have had a good time ridiculing the silly names they’ve given the sandwiches, but even he would probably have admitted that they taste good.
Elkhart’s bachelor RV millionaires–there are quite a few of them–go to Flytraps (505 S. Main St., 219-522-9328) for a drink after work. They probably stay for a nouvelle cuisine dinner; the food is good in this bistro, including some nice pasta dishes and grilled marinated vegetables. Prices are moderate. Another new eatery featuring “international specialties” with a continental ambience is the Grapevine (26084 County Road 6; 219-262-4377), on the north side of town.
Families looking for steaks and seafood go to Gubi’s Restaurant (2425 Cassopolis St., 219-264-0183), which looks like Bennigan’s but has better food. Another traditional favorite is Crimaldi’s Restaurant & Lounge (117 W. Jackson Blvd., 219- 522-9125), a combination sports bar (the front room) and family-style Italian restaurant (the back). For dessert I’d go to the Freers Ice Cream Co. (240 E. Jackson Blvd., 219-293-4324); they make the stuff on the spot and sell it in their spacious soda fountain cum sandwich shop. Scoops and sundaes are inexpensive and delicious; unfortunately, the trip between Elkhart and Chicago is long enough that it’s probably not practical to bring an extra quart home.