It’s going to get busy.
That’s what local shop owners expect, and pray for each Memorial Day weekend, as tens of thousands of tourists flock to this tiny town to browse every kind of doodad, quilt, antique, clothing and trinket on display.
Shipshewana, a town of just more than 650 year-round residents and surrounded by Amish-owned farmland, has become a shopping and seasonal tourist mecca during the past decades. While the quaint, converted houses in the main business district draw shoppers from around the world, the big attraction is the Shipshewana Flea Market & Auction.
The market is held Tuesdays and Wednesdays most weeks with Mondays added on holiday weekends, including Memorial Day. While Shipshewana merchants will benefit from the flea market’s magnetism on tourists, the market’s economic impact extends well beyond Morton and Davis streets downtown.
“Everyone in LaGrange County understands the impact the flea market has on the local economy,” said Rene Hostetler, marketing manager for the Shipshewana Trading Place, the company that includes the flea market. “But it reaches farther than that with our vendors coming from all over the region, as well as other nearby counties, which reap the benefits as our little corner of the world becomes a popular destination for over-night stays, shopping and entertainment.”
Hostetler said the flea market is marketed to tourists through the tourist agencies in local counties and northern Indiana. The coverage for that marketing extends from Chicago to Cleveland and into southern Michigan. The market is also a member of the American Bus Association, which has placed the market on its top 100 destinations list. Last year 356 tourist buses visited the market, according to Hostetler.
The main tourist season runs from June to August and the busiest season for local shoppers is May to October, according to Hostetler. Shoppers are from just about every state, she said, and many foreign countries. She estimated that 250,000 people visit the flea market annually.
Others join in
The flea market brings tourists and their dollars into Shipshewana each week and some of those transient dollars make their way into the cash registers of merchants throughout LaGrange and Elkhart counties.
“Oh sure,” was Cindy Miller’s answer to the question of if the flea market has an impact on The Cinnamon Stick, the shop she manages in Middlebury, six miles west of Shipshewana. “And sales are up for us this year. It’s been good.”
She said the store’s sales in May are up 15 percent compared to May 2012. Some of that has to do with adding apparel to the store, but Miller said the tourist overflow from the flea market is noticeable.
“We have bus loads,” she said of the impact of tourism.
And the tourists are not drawn to the area by the many charms of Middlebury, which is noted for the Krider World’s Fair Garden, Essenhaus restaurant and its many recreational vehicle plants. “It’s not Middlebury. I am sorry. I would love to say so. Essenhaus is a big draw, but it’s Amish Country,” Miller said.
Amish Country is the marketing name used by the convention and visitors bureaus in Elkhart and LaGrange counties to describe the area roughly from Shipshewana, west to Bristol, south to Nappanee and east to Topeka. Within that boundary are rural areas populated by Amish and other conservative religious groups that travel in horse and buggies, plow fields with teams of horses and live for the most part without modern conveniences. That lifestyle has become a tourist attraction.
Amish join in
After working his shift at a Jayco RV plant, Steve Miller puts in time in his wood shop creating laser-etched plaques, glass shades for hurricane lamps and displays for photographs. Most of the items feature Bible verses and religious themes. All these items are marketed to locals and tourists who see his tiny shop sign hanging from a post along C.R. 16. The shoppers wind along C.R. 116 to his house and shop. Next door to the shop, his wife Inez operates Backroad Greenhouse.
The Amish couple are among many local rural families who run part-time businesses that cater to the local and tourist trade.
“It kind of amazes me how many tourists find us back here,” Miller said.
He estimated that about a third of the family’s sales are to tourists.
Miller said the family has signed up to host bus tours this year for the first time. The tours are day tours that operate from Shipshewana.
To cater to that influx of customers, Miller said he has added more smaller items to his woodcraft offerings so tourists are able to fit them onto the buses. Also, he constructs larger items so they can be disassembled to fit on the bus or be shipped to the buyer’s home.
Eighty-three percent of all the recreational vehicles built in North America are made in Elkhart and LaGrange counties. This weekend hundreds of those units will return to the KOA campground north of Middlebury.
“This is our first Memorial Day weekend since 2007 that we are at capacity,” said Hope Perkins, owner of the campground. “We are going into our overflow sites.”
As the economy picks up steam and tourism rebounds, the draw for some of the campers, according to Perkins, is the same thing that draws shoppers to the flea market and Shipshewana. “It’s the Amish,” she said.
Other RV owners use the campground as a base to tour local RV factories, according to Perkins.
“There are a lot of comments from campers that they enjoy the small town atmosphere and the small shops,” she said.
Perkins capitalizes on that feeling by offering “back road tours” for campers using 11-passenger vans.
She said the tourism season is always busy but it gets “crazy” on Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends because the flea market has its extended days on those dates.
Back in town
Barb Friesner was enjoying the sunshine last week on the porch of her Shipshewana shop and waiting for the weekend rush of tourists. Friesner is a local, who has lived in her aunt’s and uncle’s former home along Morton Street for 24 years. It’s one of the few homes in the central business area that hasn’t been converted to a retail shop.
To get to Friesner’s Raindbow’s End shop, visitors have to walk beside the home and find the cubby-hole out back. Friesner said that 100 years ago the building was a veterinarian’s office. Now it houses colorful stained glass window hangings created by Friesner as well as an eclectic collection of woodcrafts created by her brother and an assortment of antiques and Americana.
“Last Tuesday and Wednesday (May 13 and 14) the town was packed,” Friesner said in reference to the flea market’s operating days. On Monday though, when the flea market was closed, business was slow.
“I am hoping we will do well,” she said, looking forward to this holiday weekend.
Other merchants have the same hope.
Pam Masters said she has “high hopes,” for the weekend as well as the season. She was busy clerking her mother Mary’s store, that sells Mary’s paintings, artwork and jigsaw puzzles that feature Mary’s artwork.
Masters said last year’s tourism season got off to an early and booming start because of the abnormally warm spring and then business fell off as heat and drought took over during the early summer.
“If the weather is off a little bit or anything, It can affect the tourists,” Masters said. “It’s kind of funny.”
“People come back year after year,” she said. “It’s kind of like family.”
Bob and Susan Peterson of Mesquite, Nev. are part of that extended family.
“We come every couple of years,” Bob said while relaxing in a chair outside shops along Morton Street. “We travel from west to east on the way to Jersey. We have been all over the country and Shipshewana is one of the places we have to come to. We just love it.”