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Northern Indiana is home to the third largest Amish settlement in the U.S. A few days spent in this area can restore a fatigued city dweller and at the same time, offer a glimpse into the unusual lifestyle and history of the Amish and Mennonite people.

The small communities of Middlebury, Nappanee, Wakarusa, and Shipshewana all lie in Amish country. Tourism has grown up around the Amish people. Restaurants, shops, and other attractions are primarily operated by those outside the faith who attempt to represent all that's positive about the unique lifestyle of the Amish.

Mennonites and Amish are two religious groups that grew out of the Anabaptist movement dating from 1525. Mennonites generally lead average lifestyles, have normal jobs, and wear regular clothing, while the Amish have resisted the advances of the 20th century. Often misunderstood, the Amish are still occasionally harassed. Impatient drivers, in particular, get frustrated with horse-drawn buggies, and accidents do occur. Try as they might, many outsiders cannot fathom why the Amish want to continue in their old, familiar ways, but the fact is they do, though they never attempt to thrust it upon others. Peaceful co-existence is a tenet of their faith.

It was evident early on that some outsiders in northern Indiana were sincerely curious about the origins and long-standing traditions of the Amish. So, in the fall of 1986, in an effort to answer these questions, hundreds of Amish craftsmen gathered together in Shipshewana for a barn raising, although this red barn was not destined to house bales of hay or livestock. The barn became part of the Menno-Hof Visitors Center, which officially opened in May 1988. Today, it's the best way for onlookers visiting the area to educate themselves about Amish heritage and religious doctrine.

In fitting with Amish beliefs, the Menno-Hof was produced using simple mallets and wooden pegs, rather than hammer and nails. The unusual name is derived from Menno Simons, the leader who brought stability to the early Anabaptist movement, combined with Hof, the German word for farmstead.

A major portion of the center is dedicated to explaining the tumultuous history of a people searching for peace. One room depicts a replica of a dungeon were individuals were imprisoned, tortured, and executed for their beliefs. Another section contains a reproduction of a 17th-century sailing ship, cramped quarters and all.

Just across the street from the Menno-Hof in Shipshewana is the flea market. It began in the 1920s when Amish farmers came to town to buy and trade livestock. The market, which has grown over the years to an incredible 1000 booths, gains more notoriety each year, primarily because of its incredible size. Considered one of the largest of its kind in the nation, the market has sixty acres set aside just for parking!

The flea market runs every Tuesday and Wednesday from May to October, and sometimes longer, depending on the weather. Estimates say over 25,000 shoppers visit this market in one day. Since it's spread over 15 acres and has very wide aisles, it doesn't seem crowded.

While in the area, remember to respect the ideology and the safety of the Amish. Adults prefer not to be photographed, as it makes them very uncomfortable. In addition, little or no business is conducted on Sundays, so some stores and restaurants will be closed. Since you'll be sharing the road with slow-moving horse and buggies, motorists are urged to drive with extreme caution. Keep in mind, too, that the Amish of northern Indiana are not putting on a show for our benefit; this is their real life. Though tourism has touched their lives, it does not alter them.

For more details about the driving tour, or general information on the area, phone: 1-800-262-8161.