SHIPSHEWANA, Ind. — Soon winter will dust the land with snow and the tourist will be gone, but presently, pumpkins ripen on the vine across northern Indiana's Amish country, signaling harvest time and a season of good cheer.
Horse-drawn buggies hurry along country lanes, and signs in old-fashioned stores tell of quilt sales and hand-crafted dolls. Roadside stands shelter garden-fresh corn, fruits, eggs, apple butter and other farm produce.
In Indiana's Amish communities, visitors photograph the horse-and-buggy world of a religious sect that shuns the automobile, the telephone, TV and other material possessions venerated by a nation that, in the eyes of the Amish, travels a self-indulgent path strewn with eroding moral values.
Amish elders study the Bible of an evening by the light of a hissing kerosene lamp while their wives fashion carpets from rags and brooms from corn straw.
This isn't to say that all Amish practice abstinence. As a 19-year-old, Mel Riegsecker lusted for a '56 Chevy, which got him excommunicated from the Amish fold and delivered into the arms of the Mennonites, a more liberal order that permits one to sport fancy cars and enjoy the benefits of electricity.
Along the way, Riegsecker also got rich.
In the storybook village of Shipshewana, surrounded by great Amish farms, Riegsecker operates the Crafts Barn, the Antique Mall, a sweet shop, the Old World Copper Smith Shed, a glass studio and other tourist-oriented enterprises that fan out from his Blue Gate Restaurant & Bakery, where Riegsecker features Amish and Mennonite country-style meals.
Mel makes it easy for his guests to spend up a storm, inviting them to browse in his shops until a table is ready and they're paged over a speaker system connected to the stores.
For a one-time unsophisticated Amish lad with cow dung on his boots and hay in his hair, Mel Riegsecker, 49, is harvesting a fortune as Shipshewana's leading entrepreneur.
Vagabonds settling for a spell in Shipshewana stroll down Main and Middlebury and Depot streets, listening to the creaking of buggy wheels and inhaling the fragrance of fresh-baked bread, sticky buns, peanut-butter bars, cinnamon rolls and cream cheese brownies turned out at a shop behind Morton's Bed & Breakfast, a two-story white frame with black shutters, antique beds and a porch where guests gather as darkness falls and a chorus of crickets is heard near an old mulberry tree.
Other wayfarers stop for a spell at the Davis Hotel (circa 1891) and Green Meadow, a 20-acre Amish farm with horses and goats and roosters that sound reveille of a morning for guests who repose in brass and four-poster beds, their rooms facing a garden crowded with roses and hollyhocks, along with maples whose leaves are turning with the first frosts of autumn.
Quilts, rag dolls and stuffed animals share the parlor at Green Meadow, and breakfast is served on a porch strewn with antique wicker furniture. House rules forbid smoking and alcohol. And this being Amish country, guests must do without the Cosby Show and Roseanne, simply because there is no TV. Instead, guests read and play checkers and stroll through the garden.
At Shipshewana, thousands of head of cattle are sold year-round in one of the nation's largest auctions, and an indoor flea market draws hundreds of vendors from towns throughout Indiana each Tuesday and Wednesday, May to November.
In this bucolic corner of northern Indiana, buggies belonging to the Old Order Amish race along country lanes to join cars at traffic lights in villages strung from Shipshewana to Elkhart and Goshen. These are the Plain People, and they are particularly visible on market day as they load buggies with garden-fresh vegetables, smoked meats, turkey sausage, eggs, fruits and other fresh produce.
Shipshewana is true Amish country, where marriage is forever and divorce is unspeakable. The Amish plow the earth in the old-fashioned way, with horses, and whitewashed barns and silos and endless miles of corn and alfalfa reach out to the horizon.
Particularly on weekends, tourists by the hundreds turn out to watch Amish buggies roll into Shipshewana. Stores display homemade quilts, afghans, sun bonnets and patchwork pillows.
Indiana's Amish country is famous for its country restaurants with their all-you-can-eat, family-style meals. At Mel Riegsecker's Blue Gate restaurant, waitresses in Amish bonnets with beepers strapped to their belts load tables with chicken, ham, potatoes, homemade dressing and gravy, garden-fresh vegetables, tossed salad, bread, apple butter, ice cream, date pudding and shoofly pie. The family physician would wince at the cholesterol count. Still, the meal's a steal at $8.75.
A few miles away in the village of Middlebury, as many as 3,000 guests gather daily at the country inn called Das Dutchman Essenhaus. Housed in a huge barn, the restaurant turns out hearty meals that draw diners from as far away as Ohio and Michigan.