A slow Berne

Historic town comes into its own in the 21st century

The Canton Tree in downtown Berne, photography by Neal Bruns
Bear statue in downtown Berne, photography by Neal Bruns
Ruheplatz in Berne, photography by Neal Bruns
The Muensterberg Plaza and Clock Tower, photography by Neal Bruns
Products from Lasting Lite, photography by Neal Bruns
Candles from Et Cetera Ecke, photography by Neal Bruns
Products from Lasting Lite, photography by Neal Bruns
Products from Nora Gray, photography by Neal Bruns
Edelweiss Florist, photography by Neal Bruns

Charming and historic Berne, Ind., sits 35 miles south of Fort Wayne and offers fun, food and fanfare for residents and visitors all year long. Settled in 1852 by Swiss Mennonite immigrants, the city has a proud heritage and a distinct identity.

Founded as a profoundly religious community, Berne is still very much so today with more than a dozen churches for its 4,000 residents, including the largest Mennonite sanctuary in the United States, the First Mennonite Church, a beautiful Gothic-style building, finished in 1912.

Berne Mayor William (Bill) McKean (pronounced McKain), a congregant, says a tour of the church is interesting, especially for its impressive pipe organ. The surrounding areas are also home to a sizable Old Order Amish population, who speak Bernese German, a Swiss German dialect. It’s quite common to see horses and buggies in traffic, and you might even spot some Amish residents around town on rollerblades or scooters.

The distinctive and traditional Swiss architecture of Berne is delightful and can be found on homes, businesses and tourist attractions, which feature exposed rafters, decorative carvings and the city’s ubiquitous red-and-yellow crest with a bear in the middle, another herald of the area’s direct Swiss heritage.

The push to adopt the decorative Swiss style of architecture started in the 1960s by some community leaders, wishing to preserve the area’s legacy. While not every building features the Swiss Chalet look, even Dollar General and McDonald’s have joined in on the fun with some exterior accents, with an impressive collection of historical photos of Berne inside the latter. New construction is not required to add these aesthetic touches, but the city has offered incentives to do so in the past with success. Berne’s signature look is decidedly Old World and successfully lends to the captivating and engaging feel of the area.

The peak of the enormous Muensterberg Plaza and Clock Tower greets visitors as they approach the area. A near replica of the original Zytglogge clock tower in Bern, Switzerland, it was built in 2010, with private funds raised by the Berne Community Development Corporation, and sits on the corner of U.S. 27 and State Road 218. The impressive tower is 160 feet tall, 32 feet wide at the base and weighs approximately 1,216 tons. The gilded clock hands are made from gold anodized aluminum, and the clock’s dial is 18 feet in diameter.

The clock tower’s glockenspiel presentation plays in the warmer months at noon, 3, 6 and 9 p.m., weather permitting, and tells the story of Berne with 12 figures, each about 5.5 feet tall. At the very top in the belfry, a statue of a bell-ringer can be seen with a mallet, which stands about 7 feet tall. The plaza boasts a splash pad for children, The Settler’s Statue, carved from Indiana limestone, and three flower beds, which are planted to display popular quilting patterns. The plaza is also home to the only Canton Tree in the United States, which features the crests of each of the Swiss Cantons (states), the United States, Switzerland, the state of Indiana, the city of Berne and its sister city, Trachselwald, totaling 32 crests on each of the two sides. From May through October, events and concerts take place on the plaza, often featuring local musical groups as well as traveling bands. Visit berneclocktower.org for the schedule of events.

The warm and welcoming community boasts a thriving and exceptionally walkable downtown district with locally owned restaurants, boutiques, professional services and more. Well known for high quality and stylish furniture, as well as generations-long family-owned furniture stores, Berne has more recently become a comprehensive shopping district with goods and gifts for every taste, with incredibly friendly and accommodating store owners and shopkeepers. Most stores are located within historic and restored original buildings, and the floorboards creak and crackle in the most delightful way. Be advised that most shops close early on Saturdays, and do not open on Sundays, so plan an early visit to make the most of a shopping trip during the weekend.

Et Cetera Ecke is part thrift shop, part fair trade emporium, with handmade toys, gifts and decor from artisans and crafters throughout the world. Next door, Nora Gray is an All-American women’s and children’s clothing boutique, with an appealing array of rustic home decor, cosmetics and gifts as well. Owner Staci Huey tracks current clothing trends to ensure her inventory is always fresh and due to her DIY spirit, loves to stock handmade items, by Staci herself, or other local/regional makers. Nora Gray was a pioneer of the revitalized downtown shopping district and operates a thriving business both in person and online via its website and phone app.

Down the street, Berne Hardware offers so much more than nails and hammers. The store has a dizzying array of cookie cutters and other kitchen tools and accessories, as well as souvenirs, home goods and American-made straw hats. Most impressive is the absolutely massive selection of John Deere toys and gifts, apparel and accessories. Fans of the iconic farm equipment brand will be positively thrilled.

Across the street is Lasting Lite, the retail store for the town’s family-owned electric candle manufacturing company of the same name. Mother-daughter team Cindy and Jennifer Reusser, along with husband and father Neal, travel to national trade shows and markets, where they’ve forged relationships to sell Lasting Lite all over the country as well as bring in indie brands from outside Indiana to line the shelves of their retail store. Lasting Lite electric candles are an exquisite yet modern example of local craftsmanship, and the brand enjoys a wide national distribution. The retail store carries an enormous selection of their own candles, many which feature Jennifer’s handwriting within their designs, in addition to gracious home accents, gifts, handmade soaps, vintage finds and a candy bar, housed within an antique penny candy counter. Lasting Lite has also produced two editions of their Lehman family cookbook, both of which feature traditional and more modern favorites across the generations of a storied, Berne founding family. Along with Lasting Lite’s Berne-themed mugs, tea towels and decorative art, the cookbook is a wonderful souvenir from the area that will endure and delight.

Around the corner, you’ll find Honeysuckle, a successful and popular online store with limited local hours on Friday afternoons. It’s worth planning a trip around Honeysuckle’s open hours due to owner Shelby Goodman’s impeccable eye for vintage, and some modern treasures. Her store offers carefully curated vintage furniture in great shape, kitchen accoutrements, mid-century modern decor accents and some handmade items, some even crafted by her husband. Goodman is also a talented freelance graphic designer and sells her own designs in the oh-so-stylish shop. If you happen to miss the brick and mortar hours, shop The Honeysuckle Shop online at Etsy.com.

For a coffee or tea break while in Berne, visit Alpine Rose, a quaint but full-service cafe, with delicious baked goods as well as hot breakfast options and soups and salads for lunch. Across the street, and adjacent to the informative and helpful Chamber of Commerce, is Dee-Zerts, a gourmet ice cream shop that scoops its own handmade ice creams. Dee-Zerts features a rotating menu of over 75 flavors, both traditional and unique.

Palmer House, a pleasant and cute diner, complete with servers dressed in native Swiss costumes, cooks up traditional comfort food staples like beef pot roast, pork chops and ham steak, in addition to a full breakfast menu, sandwiches, soups and salads. Established in 1947, the restaurant also hosts a popular and storied Friday Night Swiss Smorgasbord, which has lured visitors to the area for decades. Locals recommend the array of Palmer House’s fresh, homemade pie selections, with favorites such as baked coconut, sugar cream and peach cream varieties.

Located outside of downtown, Berne Dining is the area’s popular family restaurant. With a full menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it’s a favorite restaurant of locals and visitors alike. Diners might find themselves breaking bread along with Mayor McKean, who recommends one of his favorites, the breaded tenderloin. On another side of Berne, outside of downtown, Amish Country Popcorn can be found, selling all manner of popcorn (so many varieties!), gift sets, flavored seasonings, cookbooks and Whirley Pop poppers. Amish Country Popcorn is sold in many area stores and is another Berne-made product sold nationally. Since Berne residents take their popcorn seriously, it’s a regular staple in the area’s kitchens, especially enjoyed as part of Sunday suppers.

Don’t miss the Swissland Cheese Shop on U.S. 27, for an extensive selection of cheeses, many locally made. So many varieties are represented, in both cow and goat milk variations, as well as unique and interesting flavors, such as the seasonal pumpkin pie cheese, which is surprisingly delicious and quite versatile. Also along U.S. 27 is Hilty’s Dry Goods which sells fabrics, hats, boots and other Amish staples, as well as kitchen accessories and pantry ingredients, balms and salves and the quick-action card game, revered by many locals, Dutch Blitz. It’s a fast-paced family game for two to four players, invented by an immigrant to Bucks County, Penn., and has remained popular among the Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish communities, and which spread to other Amish communities over the years.

Swiss Heritage Village & Museum, not to be confused with the area’s notable retirement home, Swiss Village, is northern Indiana’s largest outdoor museum. The historical village offers visitors a glimpse of country life for Berne’s Swiss settlers. Sponsored and managed by the Swiss Heritage Society, the museum honors the culture of the city’s ancestors and its mission is “to spark and sustain an interest in the Swiss and Christian heritage by promoting learning through discovery.”

On the grounds is a 4,000-square-foot indoor museum that holds Swiss artifacts and informational displays. The rest of the property is home to 12 authentic, typical and important village structures, all donated by local families from their own properties. The Luginbill home is a classic example of a pre-Civil War farmhouse, built in 1856 and moved to the museum’s grounds in 1987. The “half-timber” construction of the home illustrates the conservative style the Swiss settlers brought to their new country. A “summer kitchen” was used to keep living quarters cool in the summer by moving cooking and other heat-producing household operations to a separate structure. During colder months, the structure would be repurposed for storage or laundry activities or occasionally used as guest rooms or to house newly wed members of the family. This two-story summer kitchen was donated and moved to the museum in 1988. The well-built and beautiful red Sweitzer barn is over 100 years old and served three owners before it was donated and moved to the museum in 1993.

Both the cheese house and smokehouse were vital structures for the preservation of food. The late 1800s smokehouse arrived at the museum in 1988, while the early 1870s cheese house, which features original cheese molds, arrived in 1990. The small barber shop was gifted in 1991. The medical office of Dr. Peter Sprunger, who served as Berne’s doctor from approximately 1872-1895, was moved to the museum in 1992, while the saw mill, an important site given all the construction involved in the founding and building of a city, was gifted around 2009.

The charming one-room, red-brick schoolhouse was built in 1881 and moved to the museum in 1991. The structure still boasts the original bell in the belfry, and the flag flying above dates back to 1888. Inside, visitors will see the row of hooks and lunch-pail shelf the many students used as well as the different sizes of desks to accommodate the various ages of students each year. The historic log cabin had been disassembled long before the complete collection of hewn logs was given to the museum. The pioneer-era, one-room log cabin was then reassembled on the museum property in 1995. The Rev. David Baumgartner church is comprised of many original elements, while many newly constructed pieces have been carefully crafted in the style of the original. Rev. Baumgartner, a native of Bern, Switzerland, came to live in Indiana and helped to establish the first Mennonite congregation in Berne. The Baumgartner church moved to the museum in 1988.

The treasured star of the village museum is the famous Hauenstein family cider press, located in the cider house, built during the Civil War. The world’s largest cider press was originally constructed by immigrant F. William Hauenstein in Huntington, from memory of those he’d seen in his native Switzerland. The main pressing beam is estimated to have been over 300 years old when it was cut for the press in 1860 and the press was made using only hand tools. The press and its barn was donated and relocated to the museum in 1992 and is used just once a year, during the museum’s Heritage Festival, held every September. Locals rave about the fresh cider to be had during this fun-filled annual festival. Swiss Heritage Village & Museum opens every Saturday in May and then opens daily, except for Sundays and holidays, June 1-Oct. 31.

Perhaps one of the best ways to experience the many aspects of Berne for the first time is during the legendary Swiss Days, a three-day annual festival that celebrates Berne’s Swiss heritage with all manner of family-friendly fun. The festival brings to town thousands of visitors from surrounding communities and well beyond. The slate of events, scheduled for July 27-29 this year, features museum tours, a quilt show, amusement rides and a range of contests, such as a recliner race, a grape stomp, a cheese carving contest, a kids tractor pull and a sidewalk chalk exhibition. Saturday morning kicks off with a pancake and sausage breakfast at the fire station, while a tennis tournament is hosted by the Rotary and The First Bank of Berne hosts its annual (43 years and counting) 1-mile and 5K foot races.

A main stage shows concerts of various musical genres throughout the festival, but with an emphasis on themed polka music by a few favorite and lively polka bands. Main Street is blocked off to traffic to allow for local stores and special craft and food vendors to set up shop outside for an epic sidewalk sale experience. While the stores remain open, they often feature limited-edition merchandise or special promotions in their outdoor tents. Saturday afternoon is the Swiss Days Parade, followed by the Steintoss competition (a stone-throwing contest) at the Berne Public Library. For a comprehensive list of events and resources, visit the official festival website, www.bernein.com/swiss-days.

Berne is an historic gem, nestled in the beautiful countryside of Northeast Indiana, and the ideal destination for a day-trip adventure, fit for the entire family.

First appeared in the May 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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