Trail of the Month: November 2014
“If you stick with it, eventually good things will happen. It’s something to be proud of.”
Like everything else in the idyllic countryside of northern Indiana, the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail has a homespun, easy charm. While it doesn’t offer dramatic mountain ranges or crystalline waterfalls, what it does promise is a smooth, paved trail with vistas of vibrant green cornstalks and golden-hued wheat fields under a wide blue sky; dense tree canopies lush and cool in the summer and brilliant yellow in the fall; and thickets of wildflowers like clouds of color drifting along the trail in the spring. If you want to experience genuine Midwestern Americana, this is it.
“I can’t help but feel good when I see families on the trail,” says Larry Neff, former director of the Elkhart County Parks Department, who recently retired after 39 years of service. “Everyone loves the trail. It’s wooded, it has streams running under it, and you see pastoral scenes of Amish life. The public just loves the thing.”
It’s hard to reconcile such a place with the relentless and cruel tactics once used to prevent the trail from ever happening. Opponents of the trail strung barbed wire across it, blocked it with their cars and dug holes in the pathway. But they met their match in a tightly knit group of friends that had banded together to make the trail a reality. Leading the charge for the trail was John Yoder, a perhaps unexpected fighter with his quiet and soft-spoken demeanor.
“John had an idea and was convinced it could work,” says Mike Landis, who co-owns a Dairy Queen adjacent to the trail with his wife Jan. “Everything that comes to pass needs somebody like that. He was the driving force behind the trail, and he didn’t give up.”
The trail’s story of resilience and tenacity began in 1988, fittingly with a bike ride. Yoder, an administrator at Goshen College at the time, was on sabbatical, enjoying the Illinois Prairie Path, one of the country’s first rail-trails, with his wife and young daughter. He was so inspired by the trail that, when he got back from the trip, he brought together a few friends to look at the opportunity of creating a rail-trail in their own community.
An old Penn Central line connecting Goshen, Middlebury and Shipshewana, dubbed the Pumpkin Vine Railroad for its twisty path, had been out of use since the early 1980s. Yoder’s group, which officially became the Friends of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail in 1992, made an offer to the railroad to purchase the right-of-way for $100,000. They raised the money by offering $500 donors a plaque with their name on it that would be placed along the future trail; $60,000 was raised that way, and the remainder of the needed capital was secured with a bank loan.
In the beginning, news of the trail spread largely by word of mouth. Yoder, who has served as president of the Friends of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail since its inception, started a newsletter and would attend events like the county fair where he would hand out index cards about the project.
“Then the local paper got wind of what was going on—because we were working with the parks department—and the opposition started coming out of the woodwork,” remembers Yoder. “They said the trail would be a magnet for crime, trespassing and littering.”
Many adjacent landowners also claimed that the land belonged to them and not the railroad. Over the next several years, several lawsuits were won by the friends group or mediated to prove ownership of the property and settle land disputes. Neff, whose own house was on the outskirts of Goshen next to the trail corridor, was supportive of the idea even as the controversy heated up in the early 1990s.
“When my neighbors started coming around asking us to sign a petition to be opposed to the trail, I told them that I was not opposed to it, and they stopped talking to me,” remembers Neff, who liked to go on bike rides with his four children; to him, the trail “seemed like the right thing to do for the community.”
In 2000, the pendulum swung with the opening of the trail’s first phase. “There was a lot less opposition once we got the first 1.7-mile section done,” says Yoder. “It was the most important thing we did. They could really see the benefits of it and that the trail was really happening.”
More sections followed with federal funding available through the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. In the beginning, it was one new section every few years and, later, several sections per year. While individually not very long (usually only a mile or two), what these completed segments demonstrated was progress and, strung together, they now form a continuous trail covering more than 17 miles with only one short on-road connection in between.
Because the rail-trail connects three townsand two counties (Elkhart and LaGrange), its management is a hodgepodge of government entities. However, through the Pumpkinvine Advisory Committee, they all have a voice at the table and oversee the trail successfully.
“Although a lot of different groups manage the trail, they work well together,” says Eric Oberg, manager of trail development for the Midwest Regional Office of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC). “From a user perspective, it’s a seamless experience.”
Currently, the trail ends about a half-mile from downtown Shipshewana, the center point for one of the largest concentrations of Amish in the country. Although the town is small—less than 700 people—it’s bursting with culture, history and attractions. Big draws here are the artisan and specialty shops and homestyle restaurants that the Amish are known for. Come here on a Tuesday or Wednesday from May to October and this usually quiet town is humming with activity at the region’s largest outdoor flea market, where hundreds of vendors display everything from handmade furniture and jewelry, to locally grown produce and baked goods, to antiques and collectibles.
“We want a trailhead here in Shipshewana very badly, but it’s a matter of resources,” says Mike Sutter, Shipshewana’s town manager, who says the community is actively pursuing funding for the trail connection.
“One of the great things about the Pumpkinvine trail is that it doesn’t skirt around the towns,” says Oberg. “In Goshen and Middlebury, it goes right through the center of town. With the trail so well-integrated, visitors can take advantage of all the amenities in town. It’s not a situation where you have to drive to the trail and then drive away to eat or drive to a place to stay. Visitors stay there and spend their money, so the benefits of the trail are apparent to the community.”
It’s a benefit that Landis knows firsthand. His Dairy Queen in Middlebury is right on the trail, providing one of life’s best combinations: ice cream and trail. He first noticed a difference about two years ago when a section of the trail finished within 100 yards of his property. “We anticipated that the trail would have an impact, so we put in a bike parking area that would fit 10 bikes comfortably, but it’s been totally inadequate, so now we have to figure out what to do next….When I see 40 or 50 bikes in the parking lot, that’s new business.”
While the bump in business is seasonal for the ice cream shop, Landis notes that other local businesses are appreciative of the trail, too. More than a dozen of them support the trail through corporate sponsorship of the Friends group. “If anyone has anything negative to say, you could push me over with a feather,” he says.
In addition to drawing tourists and recreational users, the trail serves a practical purpose, too. With an aversion to technology such as cars, the rail-trail is a heavily used commuter route for the Amish.
“Between Middlebury and Shipshewana, there’s one road, and it’s dangerous to ride a bike on,” says Landis. “Once the trail was finished, the Amish could get on the trail, and it became their interstate highway into town.”
In 2013, RTC conducted trail counts and user surveys on several multi-use trails in Elkhart County, including the Pumpkinvine. While hanging a counter box, Oberg recalls an older gentleman who was out riding and stopped to chat with him. “He’d been riding the trail since day one and said it was huge for him and his family. He said it was the greatest thing that’d been done for the community. To hear something like that firsthand, it hits you upside the head with how it’s impacted the area.”
For Yoder, whose ambitions for the trail have been a lifelong effort, the results of the trail survey were very encouraging. “Middlebury’s number is more than 80,000 [estimated annual trail users]—that’s amazing!” Of his experience on the project, he says, “If you stick with it, eventually good things will happen. It’s something to be proud of.”