By Marshall V. King
MIDDLEBURY — Mike Landis remembers the first time someone came out of the woods toward the drive-through lane at Dairy Queen.
The then-owner of the restaurant didn’t realize that the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail had been partially finished to the east, but a cyclist had.
Landis soon made a path from the trail to his parking lot for the safety of his customers, cutting down small maple trees. Within half an hour of finishing, someone used it.
Someone working for the county finished the job with a motorized tool and gravel and soon the DQ parking lot was a trailhead for what has become one of Elkhart County’s busiest attractions.
The rumors that the Dairy Queen was about to close before the trail between Middlebury and Shipshewana opened aren’t true. Landis, who has since sold the business, said business probably grew by 3 to 5 percent overall because of the trail. It’s hard to tell because of the rebound from the Great Recession. “The Pumpkinvine became fully functional about the same time things started picking up again,” he said.
What did happen was that on a warm, sunny Saturday, the Dairy Queen was packed. On a cool, rainy weekend day, it was slower. Guessing on the staffing became Landis’ biggest challenge.
The biggest impact on business was the Amish coming in to town for dinner. “The Amish learned real quick it was a way for them to safely travel from Shipshewana to Middlebury,” he said of the Pumpkinvine.
A 2017 study by Eppley Institute of Indiana University shows that the primary activity on the Pumpkinvine is biking, followed by walking and jogging. Statewide, walkers are more likely to use the trail as the primary activity. Miles and minutes are above state averages and counts showed hundreds of people use the trail each day for physical activity, recreation and other reasons. Those on the trail said their activity has increased because of the trail.
That all adds to quality of life, but they’re also spending money because of the trail. Pumpkinvine users are spending an average of $3,188 per user per year, which is below the state average of $3,563. However, the numbers for transportation and lodging are higher than the state average, showing “that the trail may be a tourism draw,” according to the study.
Spencer and Brittany Short, owners of Pumpkinvine Cyclery, purchased the shop right before the trail opened. “I kind of understood the impact trails have on a community,” he said.
Without the Pumpkinvine trail, Pumpkinvine Cyclery would likely have Spencer working with a part-time employee. Instead, he and his wife have eight employees in the summer working to service bicycles and serve customers.
“We wouldn’t be here without the trail,” he said. “We would be a little one-man bike shop with a helper, but we wouldn’t be where we are. The trail has done so much in getting people out and active in the community.”
Short sees many of the people who ride the trail: retirees, RVers and others come and locals. He encounters customers from outside the United States and regulars from Chicago. “I have customers who do their shopping when they’re in town to ride the trail,” he said.
One customer from Illinois plans to have work done on his bike after he drives four hours to Middlebury. Customers from Joliet vacation here.
“That’s the coolest part of this,” he said.
The town of Middlebury is working on updating its wayfinding to help cyclists, said Sheri Howland, executive director of the Middlebury Chamber of Commerce. In that role and previously as head of the Goshen Parks Department she’s seen the trail help people find downtowns, particularly Middlebury and Goshen.
Families can travel from Shipshewana to the Goshen Dam or even downtown Elkhart almost exclusively on trails. Jesse Sensenig, owner of Goshen Brewing Co., says his business is stronger because of the trail and how people utilize it to get to him.
The Pumpkinvine and the other trails in the community make the area more attractive to young families wanting walkable, bikeable communities, said Howland.
“It definitely is an economic catalyst in Middlebury and the surrounding areas,” she said, noting that visitors from the trail explore shops and restaurants.
Amish use the trail, as Landis said, to get downtown. They’re also using it to get to Das Dutchman Essenhaus, one of the largest family restaurants in Indiana.
Operations Manager Joel Miller, whose parents started Essenhaus in 1971, said families head for the restaurant particularly on those warm Saturdays. Many of them make coming to the breakfast buffet a family tradition, he said.
There are times the restaurant serving Amish-Mennonite fare doesn’t have enough buggy parking. Yet he also knows people are using the trail. He’s seen as many as 100 bikes outside on a Saturday morning.
Marshall V. King is a free-lance journalist based in Goshen. He wrote this on behalf of Vibrant Communities.