Arriving at the Newmar factory in Nappanee, Indiana (pronounced “nappin-E”), the office, and most of town, were shut up tight.
I didn’t expect anything less from a state as densely Christian as Indiana, especially northern Indiana, as many of the residents are Amish or Mennonite.
All the choice RV spots in front of the modern service center were taken.
These spots had full hookups, and all the coaches had a price tag of over $500,000. This was warranty work territory. Down the way and around the corner was the other RV lot, with no sewer hook ups, graveled but muddy from a recent rain, adjacent to the road.
The coaches there were a little more rag-tag, including my nine-year-old coach, which was looking small next to the big behemoth buses. At first my hide was a little chapped to see two Tiffin motorhomes taking up valuable spaces, on the coveted concrete no less, but hey, perhaps those people were here to pick up a brand-new Newmar.
MONDAY – FIRST SERVICE DAY
I thought I was so clever for setting my alarm for 6:00 a.m. My plan was to be at the service desk by 7:00 a.m. to check in and to go over the particulars of the service items. Instead, there was a knock at 6:05 a.m.; an Amish man, identifiable by his beard but no mustache, dark pants, light shirt, and suspenders, was standing at the door, clipboard in hand. In my bathrobe with sleep still in my eyes, I invited him inside, but he declined, a little self-consciously, saying he would be back in a few minutes.
I scrambled to feed the animals, dress myself, bring in the slides, and get everything ready for the service day. By 6:30, I was homeless. I headed over to the service center lobby, which wasn’t even open yet, and made a pot of coffee after a guy working in the attached shop let me in.
I was thrilled to find a laundry area adjacent to the lobby, as I was unable to wash clothes in the rig without a sewer connection.
When their office opened at 8:00 a.m., I took Boss Tweed to the local vet, where they boarded him for the day. The dogs could hang out with me, but I was concerned about having no litter box for Tweedy Pie. Then I stopped at City Hall to request a visitor’s pass for the members-only dog park in town.
For five dollars and proof of vaccinations, I was given a key and asked to return it when I left town.
Being “downtown “at 8:00 a.m. gave me the opportunity to explore and take photographs of the charming little town. The key streets in Nappanee are Market and Main, but large semis rumble up and down both streets, Indiana highways/arterials (Hwy 6 and Hwy 19, respectively).
That might explain why so many of the shops are no longer open.
Nappanee is home to an Apple Festival every fall. Apple sculptures sponsored by local businesses and decorated by artists, are all over town,
as is the recent installation of Seward Johnson statues, which is a temporary exhibit;
over 50 of his life-sized works have been positioned in the downtowns of Elkhart, Goshen, Middlebury, Nappanee, Bristol and Wakarusa. These are water tower towns, most not even big enough for Walmart.
Nappanee is also part of the Quilt Gardens Along the Heritage Trail, which are 19 quilt-inspired blooming gardens and 22 hand-painted, quilt-themed murals in six communities.
After my downtown tour I took the dogs to the dog park. By 10:00 a.m., I was exhausted! I putzed around the service center lobby until 2 o’clock, when the rig was returned to me. (The service guys drive the rigs back from the shop to their camping spots, park them and turn on the power. Curiously, they don’t put down the stabilizers or open the slides. I wonder why? The lawyer in me guesses liability reasons.)
They replaced the Atwood leveling/stabilizing system, and repaired a switch that operates the windshield sunshade. As a little extra added bonus that made me smile, Paul the repairman also fixed the window shade by the driver’s seat, which fell on me somewhere in Montana and was being held up by bungee cords. I had not gotten around to hanging it back up yet; it wasn’t even on the list of service items.
As I suspected, I have a hole in one of my airbags. I can hear the air escaping when I park, and if I restart the engine a short time later, alarms sound as the air builds up again. Paul told me that is a Spartan chassis problem, so I called Spartan in Michigan today, and their first available service appointment is in October!
TUESDAY – SECOND SERVICE DAY
Alarm at 5:00 a.m., animals fed and walked and safely in the car, slides closed and power unplugged by 6:00 a.m. – I was a little trooper this morning. By 6:05 I was at the service lobby laundromat, doing the deep washing, like the throw rugs and pet bedding. I dropped off Boss Man at the vet for boarding at 8:00, grabbed coffee at the local espresso shop, then drove to Shipshewana for the midwest’s largest flea market, with over 900 vendors, held on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
In Middlebury I stopped off at the Essenhaus Amish Inn, Restaurant & Conference Center, then snapped a few photos of the Seward Johnson statues in town.
I returned at 3:30 to find the closet rod repaired. I laughed when I read what Paul wrote about the repair on the service order update, which is emailed to me nightly by his supervisor, Roger:
Paul also shimmed the refrigerator doors (the alarm no longer beeps to falsely indicate the doors are ajar), and the airhorn was again functional. Also good news – Paul thinks he can repair the airbag problem. I told him how grateful I would be if he could repair it, given the first available appointment at Spartan was in October.
WEDNESDAY – THIRD SERVICE DAY
This getting up before the crack of dawn (three hours ahead of Seattle, I might add) and being homeless all day, living out of my car, is for the birds. Paul is taking the day off tomorrow for Ascension Day, an Amish holy day, and apologetically told me no one could work on the rig then. I’m thrilled! I plan to sleep in and take the Newmar factory tour, because on service days I don’t want to leave the dogs in the car for the amount of time it would take. Tomorrow they can stay comfortably in the rig as I learn all about Newmar.
Speaking of the Amish, you might wonder how a group of people who eschew modern technology work on recreational vehicles! The Amish live in the world, but prefer not to be of the world, and none of their rejections of modern technology are religious tenets per se. Here’s a video that briefly and at times humorously explains the Amish and Mennonite religions. I do find it curious that someone who does not even use electricity is working on my electrical system, and knows everything there is to know about it. What a strange and wonderful world we live in.
Speaking of the factory tour, there are 16 RV manufacturers that offer tours in Elkhart County, an area that produces over 80 percent of all the RVs built in the United States. RV makers, suppliers and vendors create a $9.5 billion impact on Indiana’s economy. About 1,000 new RVs leave Indiana factories every workday and are transported to dealers throughout the United States and Canada. Ben at the dog park’s mother-in-law works in textiles at Newmar. Ezra at the bar used to work at Newmar. Kathy at the bar used to deliver RVs to dealers. Business is good; driving through the communities in Elkhart and Lagrange Counties, hiring signs can be seen at boat manufacturers, heavy equipment transporters, RV factories, and glass makers. And it’s good that business is good. Back in 2008/2009, when the bottom fell out of everything, many of the homes in Nappanee were in foreclosure, and even the president of Newmar sold off thousands of acres of farmland and farm equipment to keep the business afloat.
With hours to kill, I headed to the RV/Manufactured Home Hall of Fame, Museum and Library in Elkhart, which traces the history of RVing from 1913 to today.
Exhibits span the century and explore design, amenities, and lifestyles. They even have a house car custom built for Mae West in 1934,
and a 1939 travel trailer made for Charles Lindbergh.
As I arrived at the museum, Paul called with bad news; both vent caps on the roof needed replacing, and there was a soft spot the size of a dinner dish indicating a water leak. I told him not to worry about the soft spot, replace the vent caps, and seal them up tight. He agreed that would stop the leak from spreading any further. “On the plus side, he repaired the rollers on one slide, the motor on another, fixed the LP gauge in the coach, and repaired the hole in the airbag and the ICC switch. He felt confident that, even with his day off on Thursday, he could complete the rest of the work by Friday at noon.
As I sat in the parking lot near the museum taking Paul’s call, an older gentleman drove up, asking if I needed help finding the museum. That man turned out to be Darryl Searer, President of the RV/MH Heritage Foundation, Inc.
I assumed that the museum was funded by the RV industry, but Darryl cleared up my misconception when we met officially and spoke inside. The museum operates on ticket and souvenir sales, donations and convention revenue. Darryl himself is a “Voluntary President,” and the museum has only three paid employees.
Given that bit of background, I could not have been more impressed with the museum. I don’t imagine there’s anywhere else on the planet where you can see the world’s first travel trailer,
moving homes built in the first decade of the 20th century, the first Fleetwood,
the first Holiday Rambler and Coachmen,
and a 10-foot long Bambi Airstream prototype (the only one of its kind in the world).
Yes, as a friend in California pointed out to me, the library is sparse and disorganized, but what the library needs is more staff hours.
Many of my vintage trailer friends focus on the lightweight trailers manufactured by scores of long-defunct companies in the 1950s. The museum does not highlight those years or those companies, which are a big part of the West Coast, California Car Culture, Tin Can Tourists, and Sisters on the Fly. But why should it? This is Indiana. It seems to me that as each of us becomes an expert on our particular vintage trailer, we could offer that information to the library. I didn’t get a chance to speak with Mr. Searer about this, but I think what they could really use is a volunteer to do outreach for, and coordinate and catalog, RV historical information.
By the way, they are in the process of building out a space for rallies! It is a lovely building, with a theater and lots of convention and meeting space, so if you’re planning a rally, think of the museum. Indiana certainly is a central meeting spot for national rallies. (Currently they are Harvest Hosts members, with five first come, first served, dry camping spots available – no need to call in advance.)
After touring the museum I headed to the town of Elkhart, which sits along the banks of the Elkhart River (the Elkhart runs directly into the St. Joe).
More Seward Johnson statues were on display, including the 20–foot tall “God Bless America,” a 3D version of Grant Wood’s painting, “American Gothic.”
The Seward Johnson people call the big ones, like the “Marilyn Forever” statue that visited Palm Springs a couple of years ago, “Monumentals.”
On the way back to the rig I stopped in the small town of Wakarusa for a tour of the old dime store, now a candy shop, and saw a couple more Seward Johnson statues and a Heritage Trail quilt garden.
(The man taking photos of his wife and son are Seward Johnson pieces!)
THURSDAY – NO SERVICE DAY!
Even when no Amish guy is knocking on your coach door at 6:00 a.m., it’s hard to sleep in at the Newmar factory in Nappanee. Back up beepers, forklifts, the sound of engines or the clip-clop of horses as employees arrive for work, pallet jacks, the rumble of motorhome Diesel engines, semi tractor-trailers delivering supplies, and trains make it hard to stay in bed. Not to mention, for the last three days the animals have gotten used to eating at 5 o’clock in the morning, so by 6 o’clock they were walking on my head.
How luxurious to be able to leave the animals in the coach while I went exploring! My first stop was the Newmar Kountry Klub membership office, where I had coffee and spoke with Linda, the one woman operation for the entire club. Before the recession there were three people in the office, but Linda is not complaining, as she was laid off for three months when the downturn hit. The club offers discounts, members only rallies and caravans, and regional gatherings. I signed up and got myself a cute denim shirt with the image of a Newmar coach, in rhinestones, on the back; I am becoming very brand loyal.
Roxie at the plant tour was a little concerned that us four visitors would find the tour rather boring, as there was no production on account of the Ascension Day holiday. I myself enjoyed it, as it was very quiet and we were not in anyone’s way. (Unfortunately, they did not allow photos inside.) Roxie explained that with Ascension Day and Memorial Day, Newmar gives its employees five days off in a row. This made me even more impressed with my service guy Paul, as he is coming in tomorrow to finish the work on my coach. What can you give someone as a thank you when your go-to bottle of booze isn’t appropriate?
We heard some fascinating numbers and statistics as we walked through the main production plant. Newmar was founded in 1968. The factory sits on 50 acres, with 24 buildings. They employ over 800 people. They produce eight units a day, a mixture of their product line, from the Baystar gassers, to Ventanas, Dutch Stars, and up to the granddaddy, the Essex. The Essex alone has almost 5 miles of wire in it, totalling 1000 pounds!
FRIDAY – FINAL SERVICE DAY
Paul was on schedule to return the coach to me by noon, so I hurried to South Bend 45 minutes away to tour the Notre Dame campus. The weather was perfect, sunny and in the high 60s, and Emily our tour guide, a junior, was superb.
I just love college irreverence. Almost every statue on campus has been renamed by the students with a football reference. Here’s one of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, known as “The Holy Handoff.”
This statue of Father William Corby is known as, “Fair Catch Colby.”
Here’s “First Down Moses,”
and of course, “Touchdown Jesus,” officially named The Word of Life Mural, which aptly can be seen from the stadium.
The tour took us by the campus’s most famous sites, including The Main Building and the Golden Dome, with paintings by Luigi Gregori,
the Grotto – a 1/7th reproduction of the Grotto of our Lady of Lourdes in France, where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared several times (leading me to wonder, if she appeared in Indiana, would she be one seventh the size?),
(Here’s a particularly divine-looking photo, with the rays of sunshine shining down.)
and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (1888), the tallest University Chapel in America.
This is the Clarke Memorial Fountain, where students run through the water after winning home football games.
I returned by 1 o’clock to find Nellie parked in the modern service area parking lot, complete with full hook ups – not bad for my last night in Nappanee. Paul had serviced the air conditioning units, the furnace, the refrigerator, and the hot water heater. Not only did he finish on time, but he finished $1,500 under what I expected to pay. I am extremely pleased! I shook his hand vigorously (which in retrospect may have been a faux pas on my part), and really wanted to take his photo, but the Amish do not believe in posing for photographs, which are considered graven images.
What better way to cap off my time in Amish Country than by seeing a play at the Round Barn Theater at Amish Acres?
Amish Acres is within walking distance to Newmar. The locals warned that it is very touristy and not authentic, except that the performances at the theater are quite good. Who knew the Amish were such thespians? Several of the towns stage productions along the Heritage Trail, including Shipshewana and Middlebury.
In the summertime, between seasonal productions, the theater puts on “Plain and Fancy,” a 1950s Broadway musical about New Yorkers traveling to Amish Country in Pennsylvania. According to Wikipedia, “Since 1986, The Round Barn Theatre at Amish Acres in Nappanee, Indiana has staged ‘Plain and Fancy’ every year as part of its repertory program. To date it has been performed by the company more than 3,500 times.” Unfortunately for me, 3,501 was too many. The sound was terrible, with canned music drowning out voices, and several of the voices were not strong. It felt like a high school production – I wouldn’t consider it a value at $40. I did not return after intermission.
Here’s one of my favorite parts about this lifestyle – meeting up on the road with friends I’ve made along the way. In 2015 I met Johana and Geoff at the RVing Women convention in Oklahoma. We ran into each other again the following year at Quartzite, Arizona. They are currently spending a couple of months in Goshen, Indiana, a 20-minute drive from Nappanee. Today I say goodbye to Nappanee, and I’m off to Goshen to spend the weekend with Johana and Geoff at the fairgrounds before hitting the road for the New England on Memorial Day. By the way, if you need any satellite or entertainment-related work done on your RV, contact them first!