Not long ago I did a charity bike ride in the countryside near my home town. A few miles from the finish, I was riding down a quiet country byway when it occurred to me that there was something unusual about the road. You see, instead of the usual slight depressions left by car and truck tires with a little ridge between them, the center of this road was a trench a couple of feet wide and two or three inches deep. It took a few minutes to figure out why, until I remembered where I was: Amish country, just outside the little town of Grabill, Indiana.
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In the twenty-plus years since I moved away from my home town, it's transformed itself from a sleepy little farming community to a day-trip destination and a popular site for antiquing and fans of country crafts. Many of the houses along the main streets have been converted into shops and tea rooms: it's rather strange to be browsing through candles and knick-knacks in what used to be a high school classmate's living room! Since it's a popular side trip in the northeastern Indiana region, I thought you might like to get an "insider's" look -- colored as it is by nostalgia.
An Amish Community
Northeastern Allen County is one of several Midwestern Amish communities, along with other Indiana towns like Berne and Nappanee and large areas of northern Ohio. If you're not familiar with the Amish, remember Kelly Willis in "The Witness"? That's not Amish...
The best-known US Amish center is near Lancaster, PA; there are also communities throughout the Midwest and Great Plains states and a few in southern states such as Texas and Georgia. Traditionally, the Amish - a religious sect - eschew modern conveniences such as electricity and internal combustion engines; they live a "simple" life concentrated on farming. Men, women, and children wear simple clothing in plain (though sometimes vivid) colors; zippers are forbidden. Men wear a traditional flat hat; women wear a white prayer bonnet. Upon marriage, the men grow a beard (sans moustache). The Grabill community differs from the better-known Lancaster group mainly in the use of an open horse-drawn buggy year-round instead of a covered phaeton. Men of the community are known to work in local stores and factories (particularly the Grabill Cabinet Company) to supplement their farming income. The English - non-Amish - community is dominated by germanic and other northern European influences. Many are members of the Mennonite church, a conservative religious sect that is only slightly more tolerant of modern conveniences than are the Amish.
You'll probably see some of the Amish community on the streets of Grabill or making their way into town on the local roads, their horse-drawn buggies marked by a brilliant red-and-yellow state-required Slow-Moving Vehicle triangle. If you're lucky, you'll catch a glimpse of a toddler peering out at you from behind his mother's voluminous skirts, all apple cheeks and soup-bowl haircut.
The heart of Grabill is - and has been for over a century - Souders' Home Center. Situated at the town's one major intersection (the corner of State and Main), the warren of buildings connected by bridges, walkways, and oddly-placed doors has grown mainly by a process of accretion. The original store, on the ground floor right at the corner, still stocks flat hats and button-fly trousers for the Amish community; along with bolts of solid-color cloth and parts for treadle sewing machines.
Be certain to visit the soda fountain and candy store, where bins of penny candy are still filled to the brim (though everything costs a dime these days). Your sweet tooth will never forgive you if you don't buy some of the confections made by members of the local Amish community and other communities nearby. The entire second floor of Souders' (and part of the first) is given over to antique vendors. Decades ago, this store sold furniture and appliances; some of its former merchandise might just be for sale here again. The broad and varied selection will keep antique fans happy for hours. You might want to take a GPS with you, though, or some other means to help you find your way out!
For those of you from northeastern Indiana, Souders' Home Center is the family business of your US Congressman, Mark Souder (R-Ind). Mark grew up in Grabill and still lives there when not in DC.
After browsing Souders' you'll want to wander the streets and visit little shops scattered throughout town (most of them are on the two main streets). The old Grabill Lumberyard -- two blocks south of Souders' on Main Street (past the bank) -- has been converted into a minimall of decor and "Country" shops. By the way, if you see crafts made by "From the Heartland," buy lots - my sister could use the cash! Other single shops mingle with the usual businesses of a small town: the bank, a dentist, the hardware store... The old hardware store is gone, though. Fifty years ago the local amish would sit in their buggies and watch movies projected onto a sheet hung from the wall of old building! More shops can also be found along State Street on the way to the neighboring town of Leo; most of them are in converted family homes.
The best-known full-line restaurant in town is the venerable Elias Ruff House. Set in the oldest building in town (it dates to the 1860s) this restored log parsonage is decorated with antiques dating to the time when the Reverend Ruff called the building home. The restaurant is hidden in an alley behind Souders' and the Grabill Bank -- to tell the truth, I never knew it existed until it was restored! Another full-service restaurant is the Grabill Inn, situated at the west end of town. Several small tea rooms, sandwich shops, and ice cream parlors also dot the streets if you just need a snack.
Should you happen to visit the town during the annual Grabill Country Fair (held the weekend after Labor Day), be certain to stop by the fudergong tent and enjoy authentic Amish country cooking! Similar festivals occur at harvest time and in the Spring, and Grabill always puts on a show for Santa's arrival.
The old farming community is located out on the country roads of Allen Country, about twenty miles northeast of Fort Wayne. The Ohio State Line is about fifteen miles east, and Michigan is perhaps fifty miles north. From Fort Wayne, take Indiana 1 north to Leo and turn east at the four-way stop sign (Leo-Grabill Road), which turns into State Street. You can also follow Indiana 37 northeast; there are signs at the turnoff for Schwartz Road. From northwestern Ohio you can follow Ohio 2 out of Hicksville - it turns into Indiana 37 at the state line - and turn west on Cuba Road in the town of Harlan, about ten miles west of the line. Coming South from Michigan on I-69? Take the eastbound Dupont Road exit between Auburn and Fort Wayne, and follow it to Indiana 1 and northeast to Leo.
This, I don't know - I always stay with Mom! but there are plenty of chain motels in both Fort Wayne and Auburn, and I hear there's a scattering of little Bed and Breakfast establishments throughout the region.
Other Regional Sights
You won't want to miss the Auburn Cord-Deusenburg museum in Auburn (15 miles northwest); and if you're visiting Fort Wayne I'd also suggest the Foellinger-Fryman Botanical Garden (downtown) and the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo at Franke Park. Further north is Indiana's Lake country, including Pokagon State Park on Lake James
For More Information, visit Grabill's Chamber of Commerce website, http://www.grabill.org/
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