Fertile Ground: Goshen, Indiana

Fertile Ground: Goshen, Indiana

Goshen, Indiana

Goshen, Indiana; Photo: Peter Ringenberg

An entrepreneurial spirit pervades this diverse community in the heart of Amish country.

It’s the end of rush hour on a soft spring evening in downtown Goshen, Indiana, a city of 32,000 and the seat of Elkhart County. The knots of traffic are mostly gone. Restaurants and coffee shops are full of people relaxing after work. Suddenly, the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves asserts itself, and a black Amish buggy, brimming with young faces, hustles through the intersection at Main Street north of the courthouse. The stragglers on the street don’t even turn their heads to watch.

The 21st century coexists easily with the past in Goshen, 120 miles east of Chicago, where craft – a broad celebration of the authentic and the handmade – is propelling a remarkable renaissance in a town that got its start in 1831. Makers are everywhere in Goshen. They’re living and working in the Hawks rental building aimed at artists and entrepreneurs, a former furniture factory where each unit includes extra work space. They’re hanging out at one of the three craft guilds in town. They’re showing their work – at the indoor, year-round farmer’s market or one of the numerous craft fairs around the area or the once-a-month party known as First Friday. Or they’re firing a kiln together on the edge of a forest outside of town.

A number of artists who gathered for lunch at Rachel’s Bread in downtown Goshen marveled that other artists who used to tease them about living in the middle of nowhere are now hailing the high level of work coming out of Goshen.

One of the group, potter Justin Rothshank, notes that people have been coming to the area for years to collect Amish quilts and furniture but says the recent craft movement is the result of hard work by a number of individuals: “There’s a nice spread of people now working in craft.” 

Pottery is the dominant medium, in part because of the strong ceramics courses at Goshen College, a small Mennonite liberal arts institution a couple of miles south of downtown. Potters such as Marvin Bartel, Fred Driver, and Dick Lehman have also used events such as the autumn Michiana Pottery Tour to build their individual reputations – and that of Goshen as a craft center. 

Jewelers Judy Wenig-Horswell and Wilma Harder are also well known in the city. Kristina Glick, whose family connection to Goshen goes back three generations, says it “felt like the right thing” for her to move back after graduate school on the East Coast to teach at Goshen College. A jeweler who often works in enamel, she likes to use “the lines and textures I might see when I’m outside,” so she values being close to nature.

Sculptor John Mishler sells his work widely and has a piece in Goshen on the city-funded river walk along the city’s old millrace. He also serves, with Glick, as co-director of the Goshen College Hershberger Art Gallery. Jim Shenk makes guitars and mandolins in his Wooden Music studio behind Rachel’s Bread, where his wife, Rachel Shenk, creates artisanal breads to go with the robust meals she makes. Viki Graber, a fourth-generation basketweaver, works almost exclusively with willow saplings she grows herself. Amy and Richard Worsham’s Tympanum Press does handset letterpress printing. And organic farmer Ben Hartman jokes that he and wife Rachel Hershberger work in clay as well, tilling the land at their Clay Bottom Farm to grow heirloom tomatoes and other organic produce.

Artisans in Goshen are also expanding the definition of craft. Jesse and Amanda Sensenig and their partners have launched Goshen Brewing Co., serving locally sourced food and their own array of craft beer.

Janus Motorcycle Co., the brainchild of Richard Worsham and Devin Biek, who bonded over their mutual love of mopeds and other two-wheeled vehicles they could tinker with, offers two sleek, handmade models, assembled from parts mostly made within 20 miles of Goshen, often by Amish craftsmen.

“This is a wonderful time for people making things by hand in America,” says Worsham. Janus motorcycles are not antiques, “but we look to the past for what is missing in modern motorcycles, that relationship between form and function.”

Most people in town credit Dave Pottinger and his wife, Faye Peterson, with sparking the renaissance in Goshen’s downtown starting in the late 1980s by buying and spiffing up properties that had fallen on hard times.

“I thought, ‘Boy, somebody better do something, or this is going to slide into darkness,’ ” says Pottinger, 85, who began his career in plastics in Detroit and enjoyed a quirky second act running an Amish general store in Honeyville, Indiana. He transformed a sprawling old lumberyard on the edge of Goshen’s downtown into a year-round farmers’ market and the Goshen Clay Artists Guild. Soon there were also guilds for woodworkers, jewelers, photographers, and painters. The area now serves as the heart of the Goshen arts community.

The city has developed a lively retail scene, too, with stores such as Urban Gypsy, where more than 30 area makers display their wares, and restaurants such as Venturi – which serves a wood-fired pizza that Esquire magazine ranked among America’s top 15 “most life-changing” pies. At Constant Spring tavern, regulars in the “mug club” drink out of their own personal ceramic mugs.

But longtime residents agree that it was the redevelopment in 1984 of the Old Bag Factory on the north end of town by Larion and Nancy Swartzendruber that gave the first indication that craft might pave the way for a vibrant future for Goshen. The pair began operating their hand-made furniture business out of the old building and started attracting other artisans.

Goshen College religion professor Keith Graber Miller and his wife, Ann, whose family is studded with makers and artists, restored one of the buildings on Main Street into Found gallery, to display and sell the art they have collected on their decades’ worth of international service trips with students, plus works by Graber family members, and mid-20th century antiques.

Goshen is home to workers in northern Indiana’s recreational-vehicle industry, and the city is by no means entirely Mennonite – about 30 percent of the population is Hispanic – but many residents concur that Mennonite culture, which values community, service, and simplicity, has “sort of permeated” the city, as Mark Brinson, Goshen’s community development director, puts it.

Says Rothshank’s wife, Brooke, a miniaturist and Goshen native, “It’s about putting something into the world that improves life.”

Delia O’Hara is a Chicago-based freelance writer.