Thousands of RVers make a special trip to Shipshewana, Indiana, each year to shop at one of the largest outdoor markets in the United States.
By Pamela Selbert
You may have heard of the Shipshewana Flea Market, reportedly one of the three largest such outdoor sales in the United States (the others are in Kenton, Texas, and Webster, Florida). Located in the small northeast Indiana town of Shipshewana, the market attracts shoppers from throughout the United States and Canada, who roam among the stands of 1,100 vendors in pursuit of just about anything money can buy.
You know before you get there, because of what you’ve been told, that it’s going to be colossal. But until you actually see the place, it’s difficult to imagine it. It will knock your socks off.
My husband, Guy, and I learned about it on an early autumn visit to northeastern Indiana. As we walked around the Elkhart County/Middlebury Exit KOA where we were camped, we were surprised to see so many different license plates on other coaches parked there. It was a Monday evening, and locales from California, Minnesota, Iowa, Florida, and even Ontario, Canada, were represented. Numerous others hailed from neighboring Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and Michigan. Because the tourist season was over for most, we wondered what accounted for the crowd.
“Oh, they’re all here for the Shipshewana Flea Market,” explained campground owner Hope Perkins. “It’s one of the biggest anywhere and brings in thousands of visitors, lots of whom come back half a dozen times over the season. You just watch; they’ll all be driving out of here early tomorrow morning to be at the market when it opens at seven.”
She was right. And later that day, when the couple who were camped next to us returned in their pickup truck and hauled sacks full of purchases to their motorhome, we couldn’t resist waylaying them to ask about the market. Darrell and Vera Vaughn, of Lebanon, Ohio, said this had been their first visit to the flea market, and the reason they’d come to Indiana.
“It is huge!” Vera exclaimed. “And everyone is so friendly.”
“We bought a fire truck flag and a lot of scrapbook supplies,” added her husband. “You simply can’t believe what all is there. We’ll be back; that’s for sure.”
This flea market, open Tuesdays and Wednesdays from May 2 to November 1, 2006 (specific dates vary each year, but it’s generally open from May through October), spans 18 acres. Beyond that, 82 acres are devoted to office space; a livestock auction facility; a restaurant; and parking for thousands of cars, trucks, tour buses, and RVs (14 grassy acres just for motorhomes).
We headed out the next morning to see it for ourselves. Because it was after Labor Day, we parked for free. Actually, parking is free before Memorial Day, too; in between Memorial Day and Labor Day parking costs $3 for cars and $6 for motorhomes. But that $6 lets you stay there overnight, if you wish to park without hookups.
Although the parking area was huge, it was the flea market “” hundreds of shops arranged in a grid the size of a respectable town “” that had our heads swimming. Nearly every merchant’s space is located in a giant tent set along wide, gravel walkways swarming with visitors, and each tent measures approximately 500 square feet. And whatever you can imagine wanting or needing is offered for sale: ceramic pots, real and artificial plants, perfume and cologne, silver jewelry, T-shirts, Christmas decorations, porcelain dolls, antique model cars, garden décor, stuffed animals, carpenter’s tools, candles, films on tape and DVD, wind chimes, bundles of socks, colorful woven bags, ornate sweaters, and goat’s milk soap …. If you can name it, you likely will find it.
You don’t have to worry about getting lost in this colorful bazaar, because you are given a free map of the grounds when you arrive. The map also helps you to focus on the themes for each month at the flea market, as vendors whose wares fit in with that theme are highlighted on the map. In May, the theme is Home and Garden; in June, Outdoor Sports; in July, Family; in August, Antiques and Collectibles; in September, Arts and Crafts; and in October, Fall Harvest.
And then there’s the holiday season after that. Several motorhomers told us they come here every year to finish their Christmas shopping early, and in only a day or two. Among them are motorhomers Richard and Brenda Renaud of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, who have been coming to the market annually for the past 10 years. On this occasion Richard was waiting in the couple’s coach while Brenda shopped for gifts. “It’s a bit of a drive,” he said with a grin. “But coming here is one of our favorite traditions.”
Motorhomers Burt and Dixie Byers of Amana, Iowa, echoed the sentiment. They were there to buy stocking stuffers for the grandchildren and kitchenware and gadgets for the motorhome, a 37-foot Winnebago. Like the Renauds, the Byerses said they “wouldn’t miss it.”
We ate chili dogs at one of the four spacious (and packed) food courts, then stopped to admire the crocheted doilies at a booth run by Danny Burns, of North Webster, Indiana. A longtime vendor “” he’s been selling his wares here for 25 years “” Mr. Burns said he’d been attending the flea market since he was in the eighth grade and his father was a vendor. He laughed when we commented on how large the crowd was that day.
“This is a weeny crowd, only about 5,000 shoppers today,” he said. “During the summer you can hardly walk among the booths. There are 30,000 people here every day the market is open.”
After Labor Day the number of vendors also shrinks a bit. Kevin Lambright told us that he and his brother Keith have owned the flea market since 1981. Kevin said the vendors, “occupying 1,100 spaces that are totally full all summer,” filled 872 booths the day we were there. He added that he tries to offer a wide variety of items for sale with relatively few duplications and “nothing distasteful.”
Food is sold only at the four food courts. Visitors can purchase carryout sandwiches, salads, fruit cups, soft drinks, and more. For sit-down service, the Auction Restaurant seats 206 and serves Amish food. Shipshewana is at the heart of the third-largest Amish community in the United States, with approximately 6,400 residents.
Mr. Lambright said the market was begun by local farmer George Curtis in 1922 as a livestock auction. Also for sale were “miscellaneous antiques and things the farmers brought, like apple butter and other canned stuff.” In the 1940s Mr. Lambright’s grandfather, Fred Lambright, bought the market. He owned it for 20 years, and in 1961 sold it to Walter Schrock. Mr. Schrock also owned it for two decades before Kevin and Keith Lambright bought it in 1981. By that time approximately 300 vendors were selling their goods there. The “real growth pattern” in vendors took place in the 1980s and early 1990s, Kevin Lambright said.
The livestock auction, at which feeder pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle are sold, continues to be popular. It’s held year-round at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday and is preceded by a sale of hay and wood at 10:00 a.m. A horse auction, also a year-round event, is held at 9:00 a.m. on Fridays. More than 200 horses are sold every week “” not surprising, considering the size of the local Amish community.
One cavernous building on the grounds is used exclusively to house antiques, and it is open year-round. An antiques auction is held there every Wednesday at 8:00 a.m., too. The Antique Gallery is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in summer, and 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in winter.
Only the flea market is a May-through-October affair, open Tuesdays from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Wednesdays from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Mr. Lambright noted that the flea market is also open on the Mondays of Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day (May 29, July 3, and September 4, 2006), from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
As mentioned previously, motorhomers are welcome to camp on the grounds overnight or for several days. Most RVers stay on the grounds Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings to visit the flea market. The $6 parking fee applies during the summer (Memorial Day through Labor Day). However, motorhomers often take advantage of the opportunity and may even stay, during the season, on days when the flea market is closed. Simply contact the flea market office to make arrangements at (260) 768-4129.
“Our aim is keeping our customers happy,” Mr. Lambright said. “And motorhomers are some of our best customers.”
Later we stopped at several stalls where Amish farmers displayed their homegrown and homemade wares. Chris Yoder, who lives on a nearby farm with his wife, Mary, said the two of them had made and sold more than 700 pounds of noodles thus far during the season. They also offered a variety of jams, cookies, and rounds of bread in various flavors.
Harvey Bontrager, who farms 56 acres just outside town, had piled the tables in his stall high with elegant produce. Among the offerings were pumpkins colored either white or orange, and an array of squashes, including the Blue Hubbard variety and 2-foot long Speckled Swan gourds, which look exactly as their name suggests. Chrysanthemums and dozens of the biggest heads of cauliflower we’d ever seen also filled the space.
Mr. Bontrager suggested breaking the cauliflower into flowerets, spreading them on a cookie sheet, brushing them with olive oil, and then placing them in a 450-degree oven for 10 minutes. The results, he said, “taste like popcorn.” We bought a cauliflower, a massive five-pounder, and tried the recipe that evening. While I would disagree with the popcorn comparison, it’s a tasty dish and certainly healthful.
Our last stop was at an intriguing stand run by Jose Atavalo of Ecuador. His wares, which filled the stand to bursting, included a dazzling array of brightly hued and ornate sweaters, ponchos, and woven purses; silver necklaces, bracelets, and earrings decorated with colorful stones; woven belts; and much more, all made in South America. He said he’s been a vendor at the market for several years, and during the season he stays with family members who live in nearby Elkhart. “I return to my country for the winter,” Mr. Atavalo added, gesturing to the south. “Next summer, I’ll be back.”
And, Guy and I have agreed, so will we.
The flea market is located a few miles south of Interstate 80/90 (a toll road) in northeast Indiana. Complete directions are available on the Shipshewana Auction & Flea Market Web site. The Web site also has more information about camping at the flea market site, plus a listing of several commercial campgrounds in the area that provide hookups and other amenities.
For more information, contact:
Shipshewana Auction & Flea Market
345 S. Van Buren St.
Shipshewana, IN 46565
Remembering A Chief
Before leaving Shipshewana, motorhomers might like to take a few minutes to visit a monument to the man who lent the town its unusual name, a chief of the Potawatomie Indians. At a site near Shipshewana Lake, less than three miles northwest of town, a small, triangular park contains an 8-foot granite marker that tells a bit of his story.
Chief Shup-She-Wah-No (whose name means “vision of a lion”) and the rest of his tribe were “removed” from the area on September 4, 1838, and escorted to Kansas by a company of soldiers. The following year, the chief was allowed to return to his former campground on the banks of Shipshewana Lake. He died there in 1841.