GOSHEN — Exactly 30 years ago today, a group of five local cycling enthusiasts met to discuss the possibility of constructing a linear bike trail along the abandoned Pumpkin Vine Railroad corridor, planting a seed that would ultimately grow to become the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail.
“As you can imagine, it’s very hard to believe it’s been 30 years,” said John Yoder, current president of The Friends of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail and one of the trail’s original founders along with fellow cycling enthusiasts John Kolb, Chet Peachey, Norm Kauffman and Ervin Beck. “It’s been a process that went fairly slowly but, with the trail, you don’t think about the time passing quite like some other events that you might be involved with.”
According to Yoder, the idea for the Pumpkinvine actually first came to him while on sabbatical in Oakbrook, Illinois, back in 1988.
“That’s close to the Illinois Prairie Path, which is actually one of the first rails to trails projects in the country,” Yoder said of his time in Oakbrook. “My daughter and I would go riding on this trail, and thought it was cool, and one day she asked if we could do this in Goshen, since we knew about the Pumpkin Vine having been abandoned a few years earlier.”
Around that same time, the Kolbs, Peacheys and Kauffmans had ridden a trail in the Netherlands while vacationing in 1988, and they, too, enjoyed trail riding, Yoder explained.
Upon their return to the area, Yoder met with Kolb, Peachey, Kauffman and Beck to discuss his idea of forming a trail on the abandoned Pumpkin Vine corridor, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I thought maybe this (a rail to trail) would be possible,” Yoder said. “We had no expertise, but my feeling was if we don’t try, we’ll regret it.”
From those conversations, The Friends of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail was formed, and the local nonprofit would ultimately go on to purchase the abandoned Pumpkin Vine Railroad corridor from Penn Central in 1993 at a cost of $100,000.
About $60,000 of that total came from generous donors, while the nonprofit was able to borrow the remaining $40,000 shortfall, Yoder explained. The names of the founding donors who gave at least $500 are currently located on a plaque in Abshire Park.
Yet despite that initial support, legal and political challenges would plague the trail project for nearly a decade, Kauffman explained.
“We had a lot of opposition initially from groups like the Farm Bureau, and local politicians who supported the Farm Bureau,” Kauffman said of he and his fellow co-founders’ early efforts. “And I think that was just that they felt that the land should revert back to the farmers, basically. So we had to use a lot of legal help to prove that we owned it, that it had been deeded to us, and it took a few court battles to get that done.”
With their legal challenges finally behind them, Kauffman noted the trail would go on to face yet another challenge, this time from property owners who were concerned about the trail being close to their property.
“At that point, the opposition changed to those ‘not in my backyard’ types,” Kauffman said. “It changed from political pressure, and sort of cranking up unfounded fears, to those who didn’t really want us to go through their property. So it was a tough road.”
Kolb was quick to agree.
“It was a very difficult journey, and I’m surprised that we were able to accomplish as much as we did,” Kolb said. “But after 30 years, you know, it actually happened.”
Jump forward to today, and most of those “not in my backyard” issues have been dealt with, Peachey said, though it has resulted in the linear trial being slightly less than linear in some spots.
“There are some areas that we had to do a bit of change, going around where the original corridor had been, because some of the corridor had already been purchased by people that lived adjacent,” Peachey said. “We had purchased the majority of the corridor, so we had to do some negotiating with people who lived on or next to the corridor. But I think in the end, the trail’s variety has turned out to be a good thing. It’s not straight, and it certainly has some interesting places where you may have to bike up some hills, etc., but I think overall it has turned out quite well.”
Today, save for a couple of small gaps that have yet to be filled, the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail stretches approximately 17 miles, connecting the communities of Goshen, Middlebury and Shipshewana.
And despite its initial naysayers, Yoder sees the Pumpkinvine as having significantly enhanced the safety and quality of life of each of those three communities, while at the same time having a huge — and beneficial — economic impact as well.
“The community has really embraced the trail and, on several levels, I would say,” Yoder said. “One is just going out and seeing all the folks enjoying it. And it’s not just cyclists. It’s a whole range of different folks enjoying the trail, people who walk, jog, bike, watch birds, check out the flowers. ... It has a much broader appea,l I think, to people than what we may have originally thought. And we’ve had awards given to us by all three communities, and that’s very gratifying, when you get an award that says you’ve improved the quality of life for the community. Wow, what a great thing.”
Beck, reflecting on the trail’s wider impact on the community, offered a similar sentiment.
“I think one of the great results of the Pumpkinvine is the extensions and spreads of other trails in Goshen and throughout the county,” Beck said of the Pumpkinvine’s influence. “If you think about it, there are all kinds of new trails that have sprung up that probably wouldn’t have if the Pumpkinvine hadn’t been established.”
“And I think a lot of credit needs to be given to the local park departments that have participated and continue to maintain the trail, as well as the actual members of the board over the years that have provided leadership, all the volunteers, the donors who gave even though most didn’t really know what they were giving toward, and the many attorneys and other persons who provided services free of charge,” Kolb added of the trail’s journey. “It truly was a community effort.”
With 30 years of trail advocacy now officially under their belts, both Yoder and Peachey will be retiring from their terms on the Friends of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail board at the end of this year, though both men have made a point of assuring everyone that the board, the nonprofit and the trail itself are all well positioned for success moving forward.
“We have a strong board and great leadership,” Yoder said. “I truly feel like it’s in good hands.”
For more information about Friends of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail Inc. or its history, visit pumpkinvine.org/about-friends/.