When I was growing up in central Pennsylvania, there were Amish settlements nearby, so you never had to travel far for some Lebanon bologna (Pennsylvania Dutch-style beef sausage) or a jar of “chow-chow” corn relish. But I never saw those technology-averse folks riding bicycles until I took a recent train-and-bike trip to the Amish country of northern Indiana.
There, I saw lots of folks, young and old, cycling in black hats and bonnets. They were pedaling everything from Spartan black three-speeds to fancy aluminum road bikes to the goofy-looking recumbent bicycles most often associated with a different breed of bearded men: college professors.
The raison d’etre for my journey was to try out the new bikes-on-board service on the South Shore Line commuter railroad, which runs from Millennium Park to South Bend, Indiana, the home of Notre Dame University. While Metra has accommodated cyclists since 2005, the South Shore Line dragged its feet on the issue for a ridiculously long time. The railroad finally launched a pilot program in April.
For my maiden voyage, I decided to pay a visit to the plain folk in the heavily Amish region east of South Bend, which includes the towns of Goshen, Middlebury, and Shipshewana. I opted for a pilgrimage to Nappanee, a town of 6,648 that’s home to Amish Acres Farm. It’s sort of a Historic Jamestowne for Pennsylvania Dutch culture, located an easy 35-mile pedal southeast from the South Bend Airport rail station.
I pedaled to Chicago’s Millennium Station early one Saturday morning and rolled my bike onto the South Shore platform, where a conductor cheerfully showed me to the two bike cars. Half of the seats had been removed to make room for the bike racks, with space for a total of 40 bicycles.
During the two-and-a-half-hour trip, I boned up on the origins of the Indiana Amish. They are believed to have emigrated from Germany to the American colonies in 1727, seeking religious freedom. Due to a mispronunciation of the word “Deutsch,” they became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. The first Amish migrated to northern Indiana in the 1840s, eventually making their way to Nappanee.
After arriving in South Bend and riding a few miles on a busy bike path along the broad St. Joseph River, I looked to my left and saw . . . a camel. It was being led around a parking lot by a bearded Amish fellow, with two small boys riding on its hump. The dromedary belonged to Amish-owned Maple Lane Wildlife Farm near Shipshewana, which, judging from its brochure, also features a bear, a lion, a white tiger, a crocodile, and a porcupine.
The camel ride was part of a kiddie carnival going on outside South Bend’s awesome indoor farmers market, which had a vast array of produce, including homegrown rhubarb and goods in Ball jars such as pickled beets and FROG jam (fig-raspberry-orange-ginger), plus an excellent giant pretzel stand run by teenage girls in prayer bonnets. I was so eager to eat that I nearly burned my lips on the piping-hot dough.
I continued along the river for several more miles, then made my way through gently rolling farmland. Just after the tiny town of Wakarusa—where I bought a bag of giant jelly beans at an old-timey candy store—I spied my first Amish person on a bike. He was a smooth-faced teenage boy in a stereotypical black hat, towing a trailer full of vegetables with an orange caution triangle on the back. He waved.
Soon I crossed paths with two teenage girls riding cruisers and wearing long, colorful dresses and bonnets. They didn’t return my greeting.
Next I saw a classic black buggy, pulled by high-stepping steeds. As I rolled into Nappanee, I passed an elderly Amish couple on a tandem.
It was late afternoon when I pulled up to Amish Acres, a farm founded in 1873 by Moses Stahly, a son of one of Indiana’s earliest Amish settlers. Still standing are the blacksmith shop, a one-room school, a cider mill, a maple sugar camp, a mint distillery for making peppermint or spearmint oil, and an icehouse, plus new buildings housing food and knickknack shops. Buggy and farm wagon rides are offered, and there’s a round red barn that holds a 400-seat musical repertory theatre. Most of the employees are “English” (the Amish term for any non-Amish person), but I did see a few ladies in bonnets working as shopkeepers and waitresses.
The day’s activities were winding down, but Sunday morning, before riding back to the train, I returned to the farm for a tour of Stahly’s 130-year-old homestead. It was led by Rhoda Creighton, an “English” lady in a floor-length dress. She showed us shacks used for smoking meat and drying fruit, and explained how the Amish save ashes to make lye, then mix the lye with lard to form soap.
Creighton pointed out a fringe of yellowed newspaper strips hanging from the frame of the farmhouse’s front door. “This was supposed to rustle in the wind and scare away the flies,” she explained. “The Amish have lots of good ideas. I use many of them myself. This is not one of them.”
Saturday evening I attended a free wine tasting (while some Amish drink occasionally, the guy who served me was an “English” Vietnam vet). I also indulged in a “thresher’s dinner,” the traditional feast served to workers after a hard day of literally separating wheat from chaff. The massive spread included fresh-baked bread, apple butter, pickles, sweet-and-sour cabbage, ham and bean soup, homemade noodles with beef, green beans, mashed potatoes, sage dressing, country ham, “broasted” (pressure-fried) chicken, sassafras iced tea, and the archetypal Amish dessert, a gooey slice of molasses-based “shoofly pie.” I was soon pleasantly stuffed.
Unfortunately Amish Acres’ theater wasn’t showing its mainstay musical, Plain and Fancy, the 1955 comedy about two city slickers who travel to Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, to sell some land to an Amish patriarch. Rather than sit through Forever Plaid, a 1989 musical about a 50s doo-wop group, I took a sunset spin to work off my dinner on the back roads southwest of town, where many of the working Amish farms are located.
I soon overtook a group of six 16-year-old boys on various types of bikes, all with fenders, racks, and saddlebags. The boys wore work boots, slacks, colorful shirts, and, interestingly, black knit watch caps instead of typical Amish men’s hats. They seemed stoic but friendly, each greeting me with a “Howdy.”
“I didn’t know that Amish people rode bicycles—is that a new thing?” I asked, after explaining I had traveled from Chicago.
“No, we’ve always ridden bikes,” replied one of the boys. “We like bike riding. We’ve pedaled up close to Chicago ourselves. We were over at Miller Beach [in Gary] one time. You can even see the Chicago buildings from there.”
I asked if they were riding home from work. “No, we’re just out spending the weekend with some other friends,” he said.
The teen told me the Amish usually just use bikes for practical transportation, rather than for exercise or recreation. “We seldom just go riding a bike for fun,” he said.
I asked if he felt that the Nappanee area was a safe place to ride a bike. “Yeah, this is a pretty good place,” he replied. “Most of the drivers around here are used to bikes, although some of them get a little bit speedy sometimes.”
“Well, I guess if they’re used to driving around buggies, dealing with bikes is not a big deal,” I replied.
After I bid the Amish teenagers goodbye, I noticed the boys cruising around a bit, and then saw them meet up at a crossroads with some other teens driving a buggy. Some hooting and hollering ensued.
As I pedaled back to town by the light of a big pink moon, I felt like a fish out of water—a bit like Harrison Ford in the 1985 film Witness. He plays a Philly police detective taking refuge from killer cops by hiding out in a Lancaster County Pennsylvania Dutch community. (Kelly McGillis costars as his love interest—a sexy Amish widow.)
Since, Nappanee doesn’t have much in the way of nightlife, other than the playhouse, my plan was to drink whiskey and read a book in my motel room. It was a little depressing to think these ascetic Amish kids would be having a more fun Saturday night than I would. But the next day I’d be back in the big city, just a bike and train ride away. v