Wakarusa, Indiana, population 1,700, may not be Elkhart County’s largest town, but it’s big on local flavor. For starters, sample the maple syrup tapped by Amish producers or the jelly beans sold at a business that dates back to the early 1900s.
A visit to this northeastern Indiana setting offers a glimpse into the past while showcasing community events and picturesque gardens planted firmly in the 21st century. It’s a place where family-owned businesses thrive; where volunteer firemen decorate a Christmas tree in the middle of town square; and where more than 1,400 volunteers worked together in 2009 to build a community playground in just five days.
“Wakarusa is just a great place for a quintessential downtown and is the epitome of small hometowns,” says Deb Shively, executive secretary of the Wakarusa Chamber of Commerce.
The town’s primary draws include the Maple Syrup Festival, held each April, and the annual Bluegrass Festival in June. But throughout the year, visitors are attracted to one-of-a-kind shops, locally owned restaurants, restful enclaves and family-friendly events, all located within a half-mile radius.
“You can shop in historic buildings, and it’s just like visiting someone’s home,” Shively says. “Owners welcome you in and show you around. It’s just little things like that that take you back to how it used to be.”
A Taste of Nostalgia
Wakarusa Dime Store is located in the former Wolfberg’s Department Store, which was founded in 1907. You can satisfy your sweet tooth with saltwater taffy and gummy bears, but the Jumbo jelly beans, which were invented in 1969, are without a doubt the celebrity among the candy shop’s confectioneries. The dime store sells more than 75 tons of the jelly beans annually to regional visitors and online shoppers worldwide.
An emporium of gadgetry, the Wakarusa Pro Hardware Store is also housed in a turn-of-the-20th-century building. Original hardwood floors, pressed tin ceilings and a floor-to-ceiling wall of more than 1,000 wooden drawers make a visit a one-of-a-kind experience. The store is closed on Sundays.
Located on the same block of South Elkart Street, Yoder Brothers Antiques offers an eclectic selection of items ranging from vintage clothing to furniture.
Local lore and memorabilia can be found in the Wakarusa Historical Society complex, where nine buildings and two railcars pay homage to the town’s colorful past. Visit a blacksmith shop, one-room schoolhouse, fire station and more. Call the chamber of commerce to schedule tours, which are available by appointment.
Want to view nature up close and personal? Wakarusa’s Memorial Park Butterfly Garden showcases hundreds of flights of fancy. Nearby, the downtown-based Heritage Trail Quilt Garden features flowers as art, a component of the Quilt Garden Tour. Hosted by seven Elkhart County communities, the tour features 19 quilt-inspired gardens and 20 quilt art murals, forming colorful interpretations unique to each setting. Started as a pilot project in 2007, 2013 marks the fifth consecutive year the American Bus Association has cited the tour as one of its Top 100 Events in North America.
“It has been a huge commitment for participating communities and has literally grown beyond our expectations,” says Jackie Hughes, public relations manager for the Amish Country/Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
More than 110,000 locally grown annuals are featured in the gardens, which average 1,200 square feet. Garden patterns change annually, and can be viewed May 30 through Oct. 1.