We got a late start on a summer drive to New Jersey to visit relatives. Traffic on Interstate 80 in the congested stretch south of Lake Michigan was worse than normal. Tired and road frazzled we exited at Elkhart, Indiana, and checked into a motel for a night of needed rest.
We drive to the East Coast a few times a year and Elkhart has always been a pass-through town, worth a quick stop for a meal or a driving break before we push another couple of hundred miles East. Combined Interstates 80 and 90 clip the north edge of town making it easy to breeze right by, but our unexpected overnight stay was just long enough to discover a few of Elkhart’s attractions.
While checking into the motel the desk clerk said, “You’re lucky. We have only one room available. The town’s crawling with people here for the Jazz Festival.” Jazz fest? Although tired, we grabbed a tasty meal at the nearby Chubby Trout restaurant and drove to downtown Elkhart. It was crammed with jazz buffs enjoying musicians on several stages. Excitement and music filled the air.
“Elkhart was once the band instrument capital of the world, but not anymore. C.G. Conn, Vincent Bach and Selmer once made instruments in town, and some trumpets and trombones are still made here, but the real legacy of Elkhart’s instrument history is the annual Jazz Festival,” said Terry Mark of the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau. The town is already gearing up for the next festival June 19 to 21.
Sometimes travel is serendipitous. We never expected to attend a music festival that travel night, but jazz capstoned an otherwise tiring driving day with fun.
While heading for the festival we passed the New York Central Railroad Museum and the Elkhart Environmental Center but didn’t have enough time before dark to visit the RV/Motorhome Hall of Fame or see any of the area’s famed garden quilts. Indiana is a state of gardeners. We’d heard of the area’s Quilt Gardens but had never seen one. Before heading east the next morning, we enjoyed seeing an ingenious patterned “quilt” that was actually a floral garden of multicolored blooms in a complex pattern. Many others are sprinkled about, all with different designs.
We vowed to return to Elkhart when we had more time and museums were open. That led to a delightful couple of days there in late October. Garden quilts were closed for the winter, but area maple trees were in full autumn glory.
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Elkhart was once a major stop for New York Central Trains en route between Manhattan and Chicago. A massive train yard serviced them, and dozens of small companies produced items needed by the busy railroad. Although the New York Central is long gone about 100 freight trains still pass through Elkhart daily. The nation’s third largest rail yard operates there and two Amtrak Trains breeze through every day.
The city operates the New York Central Railroad Museum near downtown. It’s a must see for train buffs. We enjoyed watching model trains inside. In a light rain we ambled past historic locomotives and cars. We climbed into a massive locomotive and wormed our way through tight passages between giant motors. Working there must have been hot and incredibly noisy. Rich was pleased to find an old GG1 locomotive. His grandfather was an engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad and operated this powerful electric powered locomotive. When the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads merged the new company, called the Penn Central, kept using GG1s in the East, but they’ve been out of service for years. Today the Norfolk Southern Railroad runs through Elkhart.
A quirk of fate, or good planning, enabled Elkhart to transition to a modern economy as trains began declining. Americans increasingly shunned railroad travel and switched to cars. While some towns withered, Elkhart was creative and became the epicenter of the American recreational vehicle and motor home industry. “About 80% of all recreational vehicles are now made within 50 miles of Elkhart. This is the world’s RV and motor home capital,” said Darryl Seaver, President of the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum.
The modern RV industry began in the 1930s when Schultz Industries was making manufactured homes. Recreational Vehicles were a natural offshoot and Elkhart was a perfect place for the industry to settle. “We are located between Chicago and Detroit, have excellent transportation, and the area has a skilled workforce,” continued Seaver.
We usually camp in a tent but were intrigued. Just off the Interstate is the National RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum. We stopped in. Although we had thought this form of camping was new, we learned that people were tinkering with vehicles and creating RV’s even before there were cars. We saw one from 1888 that was horse drawn. “Even the old Conestoga wagons were a form of vehicle a family lived in,” said Seavor. Almost as soon as cars emerged people began inventing vehicles and trailers to make camping more convenient and fun. This evolved into today’s recreational vehicle industry. Today 420 industry innovators are honored in the RV/Motorhome Hall of Fame, located near the Museum. An adjacent event center hosts activities throughout the year.
Many RV manufacturers, including Thor Motor Coach, H-L Enterprises, Heartland Recreational Vehicles, Dutchman Manufacturing, Nexus, Jayco, and others offer factory tours, often by appointment only. Winnebago Industries is unusual. It’s based in Iowa, not Indiana. However, it makes Fifth Wheels and Travel Trailers in Middlebury, Indiana, and offers tours by appointment. For detailed information on how to arrange a tour contact the Elkhart County CVB.
So many specialized vehicles are made in the Elkhart area that the industry has spawned a major supply chain of smaller companies that make refrigerators, mattresses, and many other components tailored to the limited space and special dimensional needs of RVs.
The thriving RV/Motorhome industry has helped bring prosperity to Elkhart and support an array of, perhaps surprising, cultural attractions in an otherwise Rust Belt town. We were able to visit four area museums on our most recent visit.
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An unusual one is the Hall of Heroes Superhero Museum. Founder Allen Stewart showed us his classic comic collection and an amazing array of artifacts from action movies. He was delighted that the men who play “Sheldon” and “Steuart” on the Big Bang Theory had recently visited what he calls the largest collection of Superhero memorabilia in the world. We were thrilled to see Adam West’s Batman costume and Robert Downey Jr’s 65 Shelby Cobra. On that rainy Saturday afternoon, the Superhero Museum was crowded with visitors of all ages enjoying both the nostalgia of classic comics and the excitement of newer ones. Each Labor Day weekend the museum hosts the Hall of Heroes Comic Con.
After leaving the Superhero Museum our biggest surprise of the day was discovering an original Grant Wood painting. It was the first time we’d viewed his Sheaves of Corn on display at The Midwest Museum of American Art in a large classic building near downtown. Other originals that are on display were created by John Steuart Curry, Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol, John Singer Sargent among others.
The next time we’re in Elkhart we’ll visit the Ruthmere Museum, the town’s most prominent mansion. Once the home of Albert and Elizabeth Beardsley, the 1910 era structure is open to the public. Ruthmere offers mobile tours of C.G. Conn Band Instruments, architecture, railroads, gardens and grounds, and historic sites. For information access ruthmere.org or TourElkhart.org.
When visiting a town new to us we try to ferret out locally owned coffee shops and restaurants. Elkhart proved challenging. Because it is skirted by Interstates 80 and 90 it’s filled with every imaginable chain restaurant and hotel. Finding an out of the way locally owned place was daunting, but fortunately our iPhones helped guide us to interesting dining.
As we approached Elkhart we began searching for distinctive eateries. Our trusty phone identified Steelyard Coffee Company and directed us down a long complex series of turns until we found it tucked against a metal recycling plant in a building holding several antique shops. As we enjoyed a locally sourced Indiana lunch, owner Nicole Nichols gave us pointers of must-see places in town. From there we headed to the nearby Superheros Museum.
That evening our phone helped us find de Vince’s Italian restaurant. After enjoying an unusual and delicious pizza we asked if we could compliment the owner for both the food and outstanding wait service. We learned she only speaks Italian and even the restaurant’s computer system was written in that language. The meal and the atmosphere were decidedly European, yet set in Indiana.
Just Outside Elkhart
Elkhart is nestled just west of larger South Bend. Iowans have gotten to know this town better since Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been in our state frequently in his campaign to become President.
South Bend was home to the famed Studebaker Company, which was founded in 1868 and made horse drawn wagons for many years. In 1902 it introduced an electric car and two years later followed with a gas model. Studebakers were well known to generations of American drivers, and the company also made hundreds of military vehicles. Many of the trucks given to the Soviet Union when they were fighting the Nazis were Studebakers.
The company fell on hard times and closed the South Bend Plant in 1963 and moved production to Canada. The last Studebaker was made there in 1966. Studebaker faded as recreational vehicles grew and many laid off workers found employment in the RV industry. Today many company artifacts are in South Bend’s Studebaker National Museum. It’s a great stop for car and history buffs and is close to the Interstate.
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Also, in South Bend is the renowned University of Notre Dame. The town has many other attractions and interesting eateries. We’ve been to the University and on our next trip East we’ll tour the car museum.
Bicycling, Hiking and Car Touring
The Pumpkinvine Trail and connectors link Elkhart, Middlebury and Goshen. The asphalt surface invites cyclists and hikers. For information check pumpkinvine.org.
Anyone who would rather tour rural areas by car will enjoy the 90-mile long Heritage Trail Driving Tour. It circles through small towns and rural areas and gives motorists a chance to view many Amish farms in the area. The Editors of LIFE declared it one of America’s most scenic drives. A guide is available from the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau either as a CD or download.
Elkhart is 340 miles west of the Corridor and about a six-hour drive east on Interstate 80. We time trips to pass through the 60 miles of congested highway between Joliet, Illinois, and Eastern Indiana during times when traffic is less harrowing. That’s either a weekend or the middle of weekdays.