Elkhart, IN – RV Factories and Amish Country

Bonneyville Mills

Irises in bloom

White Amish barn

Horses & buggies parked at the hardware store

Kids get early driver's ed at a young age.

Jayco Designer fifth wheels in the holding pen

Jayco Jay Feather travel trailers

Amish home across the street from the Jayco holding pen

Modern versus antiquated. 

Complex & Global versus Simple & Local.

These buggies move at a fast clip

The Amish drive on government maintained roads

Yoder Popcorn

Plowing with a team of horses

Getting a little motorized help

Tending the garden

Nothing beats a little power

We saw at least seven women mowing this way

Return to Indiana countryside with red barns

Heartland Factory

Trailer chassis stacked up outside.

Wheels, water and holding tanks installed.

Flooring installed.

A unique dolly system moves trailers sideways down the line

Furniture installation begins.

Bathroom sinks waiting for installation.

Side and rear walls installed. It starts to look like a trailer.

Ready to install the slide-out room.

Slide-out ready to be installed on the trailer.

Slide-out is pre-assembled.

Ready for front caps to be installed

Front caps lined up for installation.

Ready for delivery.

Elkhart's Amish & Heartland RV Tours

Early June, 2009 - The Elkhart Visitors Center is a great resource.  Not

only did they help us locate the RV/MH Hall of Fame, but they gave us a

list of RV factory tour schedules.  It was astonishing to see how many

manufacturers are based in this town, and more surprising to see how

many weren't offering tours because they weren't in business any more.

I wanted to find out how to experience some of the local Amish culture,

and the lady at the desk handed me a CD called "The Amish Heritage

Tour."  You pop the CD into your car's player and it guides you through

a 90 mile tour of the surrounding countryside.  The accompanying paper

map helps you figure out where you are going.  The CD assumes you

drive the speed limit, and gives directions on where to turn.  As you drive

it narrates the history of the area, describing the industries that support

Elkhart today, pointing out the Amish settlements and giving insights into

their lifestyle, and explaining the Indian and European roots in the region too.  The sound effects and accompanying music are

delightful, and the driving instructions are terrific.  Every 5-10 miles there is something worth stopping to see, and the CD explains

where to park and what to look for as you walk around.  We returned the

CD to the Visitors Center at the end of our tour and later found out you

can download the MP3 files from their website instead of borrowing the


We spent a very happy day with that CD.  The first stop was Bonneyville

Mills.  A beautiful iris garden out front caught my eye.

The second suggested

stop was the RV/MH Hall

of Fame, which we had

seen the day before.  I

don't think you could

squeeze both tours into one day.  What we were most eager to see was the Amish countryside.  We

learned that some 20,000 Amish live in this area, of about 225,000 worldwide.  They are a subset of

the Mennonites who number about 1.5 million in 65 countries worldwide.  With a birth rate of 6.8

children per family, the Amish population is growing at 4% annually, making it one of the fastest

growing cultures in the world.  Customs vary by community, but in this area their homesteads have

white barns rather than the usual red ones in the rest of Indiana and Michigan.

The essence of their beliefs is twofold:  humility and isolation.  Their forebears were so terribly

persecuted for their religion in Europe in the 1600's that they withdrew from society at large,

preferring to nurture their own community's independence while keeping the rest of the world at bay.

Therefore, when electricity became available in the 1920's, they rejected it, as it would bind them to

the non-Amish around them.  Similarly, they prefer to travel by horse and buggy and work the fields

manually.  A horse's range is perhaps 25 miles before it needs to rest and eat, shortening the distance they can travel outside the

Amish community.  Manual field tools prevent anyone from attempting to acquire a larger field than his neighbor and thereby

aggrandize himself rather than remain humble. All this adds up to an extremely simple lifestyle that thrives without much

technology.  However the rejection of technology is not so much of technology in and of itself but of things that could lead to one

individual standing apart from the rest or that could make the community dependent on the outside world.

I had seen photos of Amish horses and buggies but

couldn't really believe it, so when I saw them all tied to

hitching posts at the local hardware store and local

dentist's office I was quite startled.  The biggest

grouping was at the local bulk food market, a huge

building that must have had 40 horses and buggies

lined up outside.  All the horses were dark colored and

the buggies were black.  Most had a roof, windshield

and doors, though some were open air buggies.

The kids get early equestrian training and learn to

drive on the roads responsibly at a young age.

The CD instructed us not to take photos of the Amish, which

I mostly obeyed.  However, in every Amish shop we entered

(which were staffed exclusively by Amish), there were

arrays of books and information about the Amish for sale,

featuring photos of all kinds, including some beautiful coffee

table books that had very intimate photographs of the

Amish in all aspects of their lives.  Who took those lovely

photos, and did the Amish object?  Apparently not, as they

were happy to display and sell the books.  The Amish are

not totally independent of the world around them, as they

need to buy homes and land as their population increases,

so they interact financially.  Some rely on the tourist trade

for money and others hold jobs.  They have

been affected by the economic downturn as

well, and I read one local newspaper article

about an Amish man who had lost his job in

an RV factory and had to rely solely on his

farm.  He liked spending more time at home

with his kids and wife, tending their farm

together, but he said if his job were available

again he would return to work without


In our search for trailers last year, we had encountered several

manufacturers who advertised that their trailers were Amish made,

especially the interior woodwork.  The image of a man with beard,

suspenders and wide brimmed hat carefully crafting the cabinetry with

hand tools while his horse and buggy wait patiently outside can be

appealing.  But it isn't quite accurate.

Jayco, in particular, advertises this Amish connection.

We came across their holding pen for trailers ready to

be shipped across country.  It was an open field with

space for rows and rows of trailers.  Only about half of

the rows were occupied, but it was interesting to see

rows of their high-end Designer fifth wheels and light-

weight Jay Feather travel trailers ready to go.

Directly across the narrow lane from this holding pen was an Amish farm, complete with a

large barn and several buggies parked out front.  The woman of the house was tending her

vegetable garden and the clothes line was full of clothes swaying in the breeze.  I was

fascinated by the juxtaposition of the simple living and home based values sandwiched into

the modern, mass market standards of the surrounding community.

We found this odd mix of

cultures on the road too, as the

horses and buggies fill all the

roads in the area.  We stopped

at the Rise 'n Roll Bakery and

were enchanted with what lay

inside.  A group of young Amish

were baking and selling their

goods.  The girls were singing together as they worked, and when

they stopped periodically to talk together they spoke German (we later

found out it is a dialect of Swiss-German).  Of course their English is

perfect as well, and the young boy at the cash register was utterly

charming as he offered us samples of the most amazing donuts I have

ever tasted.  There was an innocence and sweetness among those

teenagers at that bakery that I have rarely experienced elsewhere.

And what better place for sweetness than a bakery; the sugar coated delights were heavenly.  I

wanted so much to photograph the charming scene there: the girls in their bonnets laughing and

singing; the boy in his suspenders gently teasing them.  Instead, I took a picture of a little sign

they had hanging below the cash register:  "As you travel on life's pathway, may this always be

your goal: Keep your eyes upon the doughnut and not upon the hole!"

We took a fresh raspberry pie and

some donuts out to a little bench in

front of the bakery and watched the

Amish world go by for a while.  The

horses and buggies were more

common than the cars, and they moved

at quite a clip.  I was amazed looking at

one of my photos later to see that all

four of the horse's hooves were off the ground.  The Amish may not travel

long distances, but they have the same urgency to get where they are

going as we do.

I read later that in some Amish communities only the young use open-air

buggies, and they are used for courting.  That didn't seem to be the case

with this open-air buggy, but it sure looked like a fun way to get

around.  Of course they travel on all the state and US highways that we do, and those roads are maintained by the governments

that govern us as well as them.

The Amish pay all taxes except social security tax (because they never apply for social security, relying on families to take care of

their disabled and elderly instead) and Worker's Compensation (because they do not use insurance).  Again, both Social Security

and insurance would bind them too tightly to the community at large.  However, some hospitals have begun to offer special care for

the Amish when they are sick, and they have been participating in studies of genetic diseases and disorders, as most Amish today

are descended from just 200 original European ancestors, and genetic disorders have become an issue.

We found ourselves eating our way across Amish land as we stopped next at the "Deutsche Kase Haus," the Cheese Factory.

They had a seemingly infinite variety of cheeses, and all were available for sampling.  Mark was immune, because he doesn't like

cheese, but I tried almost all of them, and they were delicious.  I noticed that other tourists were stocking up on goodies, both here

and back at the bakery, and I discovered that many people come into

Amish country on a regular basis just to buy their amazing foods.

One fellow who was traveling through ("I come here twice a year every

year!") highly recommended that we stop at the Blue Gate Restaurant in

Shipshewana and have the "Amish Plate."  He said it would be one of the

best meals we'd ever have.

We didn't make it there, but we did get to Yoder Popcorn where we

bought a bag of Tender Tiny Whites.

Across the street we watched a man working his fields with a team of six

horses.  The notion of using manual labor to discourage individuals from

trying to outdo their neighbors by having a bigger farm was intriguing.

The very essence of western culture can be such a Darwinian survival-

of-the-fittest scramble to the top, where aggrandizement is revered and everyone

wants to stand out.  It was hard to imagine a culture where the drive for

achievement was capped.  We learned that the Amish don't go to school past

eighth grade, usually attending one-room school houses in their communities.  In

order to comply with the government's minimum age for leaving school, they simply

repeat 8th grade until they are the acceptable age.  Amish students score higher

than average on all standardized tests except vocabulary.

Down the road we saw a man working his field with a single horse pulling a cart

that he sat in, and which, in turn, towed a gas powered tractor.  Because it wasn't a

riding tractor, his farm size was naturally limited by his horse's stamina.

We did not see any churches in their communities, as they prefer to worship in

each others' homes, every other Sunday.

It was a perfect spring day, and every home had a prominent vegetable garden out front.

Almost every vegetable garden was being tended by a woman in her long dress and white

bonnet.  The division of labor between the fields and the homes was distinct.

Women also mow the grass in

the yard.  I stopped counting

after then 7th woman I saw

pushing a lawn mower.

These weren't little manual

rotary mowers like my brother

used to push in our tiny city

yard in Massachusetts.  These

were big gas mowers that

could really get the job done.  One thing we noticed is that extreme

obesity is not a problem with the Amish.  All that work around the home

and farm keeps them trim.

There are Mennonite communities in the area too, and they are much

more lenient in their interpretation of how to live humbly, simply and

without ties to the outside world.  At the local supermarket I watched a

group of women in long dresses and

bonnets filling their baskets with many

of the same goods we rely on, and

when they got outside they hopped in

a car and drove off.

Near the end of the tour we emerged

back into the familiar Indiana

countryside with red barns.  They were

beautiful too, but it was a sign we were

coming back to a society that is more



We enjoy factory tours, and we wanted to visit

Heartland RV, one of the very successful newcomers to

the fifth wheel market.  Having left the rundown looking

but elite Tartan yacht factory a few days earlier, what a

contrast it was to pull up to this modern building topped

with a proud sign and a new Mercedes parked out

front.  We walked inside, inquiring about a tour, and several people instantly scurried off and came back with a salesman for us.

He was clutching some papers and thrust them towards me as he said excitedly, "Sales are down 27%!"  I raised an eyebrow.

"We're number three in the industry!"  He handed me the papers, and sure enough, out of 30 or so manufacturers, where sales

were down 40-60% across the board, Heartland was third from the top for smallest decline in sales volume. What a sign of the

times that a 27% drop in sales would be news to brag about.

He led us on a brisk walk to the beginning of the line, explaining to us that Heartland's founders

had been in the RV industry since time immemorial, coming from Coachmen years ago and

starting several other RV enterprises before opening Heartland.  The place was abuzz with

activity.  Drills, saws, stacks of parts, people moving fast: it was like a movie set.  A feeling of

purposeful, focused ambition filled the air.  We came out into the sunlight where the line begins

with stacks of chassis made by Lippert.

Once inside, each chassis gets

its water and holding tanks and

wheels installed.  Then the

flooring is laid.

Unlike the traditional trailer

manufacturing techniques we

have seen elsewhere,

Heartland has a unique

method for getting the

trailers down the line.  Most

manufacturers line the trailers up

nose to tail and let them stand on

their own landing legs and wheels

as they do at a campground.  They

roll down the line all in a row on their

own wheels.  In contrast, Heartland

puts each chassis on a dolly system,

both the front landing legs and the

rear wheels.  They stand cheek-to-

cheek and roll down the line

sideways.  The trailers don't come

off the dollies until they leave the

building, fully assembled.

This allows Heartland to put

twice as many trailers on

each assembly line.  In

addition, each station on the

line has a scaffolding system

mounted to the ceiling that

can be lowered around the

trailer once it is in place to

allow workers easy access to

the high areas.

After the flooring is installed

on the chassis, the furniture

can be put in place.  The

furniture modules are largely pre-


Then the walls are installed.

The gaskets for the slides are

installed next, and the windows

are put in place.

Then the slide-outs, which are

assembled and furnished

separately, are mounted in


Last of all the front cap is

installed on the nose of the


Finally, the trailers emerge into the

sunlight, ready for shipping to the


There is a lot of pride in this

bustling factory.  But when I asked

about warranties and repairs, it

didn't sound like the Heartland

factory wants to see their trailers

once they leave the plant.  Unlike

NuWa, which offers phenomenal

personalized service at the factory for both

in-warranty and out-of-warranty work,

resulting in a steady stream of loyal customers

visiting their plant in Chanute, Kansas,

Heartland's repair service is handled exclusively

by the dealers.

Elkhart is loaded with RV manufacturers, and most offer tours.  However, we

were ready to change gears and go up Michigan's west coast to visit some of the

cute waterfront towns that line Lake Michigan's shores.