A respite in the country can provide a way to unwind and reboot. Remarkable cultural and animal awareness, as well as friendship, often comes as a bonus.
Story by Elizabeth Granger
The unrecognizable humming, almost a cooing, is coming from the barn. When the door opens, several animals look out toward the daylight. They’re mostly off-white and a bit wooly like sheep, but with long necks and huge doe-like eyes partially hidden by thick bangs.
The barn is at Heritage Farm near Flora; Tim Sheets is introducing his guests to the alpacas.
Both Tim and his wife, Beth, had grown up on Hoosier farms, and when they spent their careers working in Indianapolis, their goal was to move to Beth’s family farm some day. When they did, their question became, “Now what do we want to do?”
They did consider the traditional route with cows or sheep. “But I’m sort of a non-traditional person, so we investigated alternatives and discovered alpacas,” Tim says. “They were intriguing.”
So in 2003 they bought their first one. Before bringing it home, however, they went out looking for a friend for it. They ended up with five.
Now there are 50.
And although they’ve been at the Sheets’ farm for more than 15 years, the alpacas are still somewhat of an oddity. “We’d have open houses every fall and invite the public to come and see them,” Tim says. Soon they realized a lot of people wanted to come, from farther and farther away. So they’ve introduced “experiences” through Airbnb in a modern three-bedroom house on the property, and in a renovated 1850s cabin with an outdoor kitchen that includes a pizza oven. RVs are welcome, as are tents. The Sheets offer a tree tent; think huge hammock with mesh sides and a top. A second level can be added so six or seven can sleep out in the woods.
Guests meet not only the alpacas but also the flock of chickens. “The kids really like to collect eggs,” Tim says.
There’s a creek for summertime exploring, woods for hiking, a zipline. There’s a fire ring for s’mores, so popular that the Sheets’ grandchildren nicknamed three of the young alpacas Marshmallow, Graham Cracker, and Hershey.
In winter there’s sledding.
“The coolest thing is how this all came together,” Tim says. “We didn’t have any idea how popular this would be. We’ve booked over 250 nights in the past year.” And while some guests stay for multiple nights, others visit for just a few hours during the day.
A friend’s daughter liked the alpacas, and the farm, so much that she got married there. Now Heritage Farm is a wedding venue.
There’s also a small gift shop which features items containing alpaca fiber – socks, hats, sweaters, shawls, scarves, even stuffed animals. And yarn.
A November Christmas festival featured 30 artists, including some Indiana artisans, along with music, hot drinks, wine tasting, crafts, Santa, and a horse dressed up as a reindeer.
They’re planning a summer wine tasting in the pasture, with the alpacas. “They’re curious animals, so if you sit still, they’ll come over to you,” Tim says.
Alpacas are also featured at Heavenly Acres Farm & Learning Center in Thorntown. They buddy up with a menagerie that includes goats, sheep, donkeys, miniature horses, a mule, a bunny, dogs, cats, ducks, and lots and lots of chickens. More than 50 chickens of 20 different breeds that lay eggs in different colors.
Forrest and Jennifer Bopp offer day and evening tours as well as overnights. Forrest’s enthusiasm belies his past as a city boy growing up on Indy’s east side. No farm experience here. None at all. But Jennifer’s youth on a small farm caught his attention, and the next thing she knew, the two were owners of a farm just outside Thorntown.
“We wanted a piece of property that was country-ish,” Forrest says. And he wanted a few animals.
Nothing too big, insisted Jennifer. “How about alpacas?” he responded. “They’re just like sheep with longer necks.” She acquiesced. And then he said they needed a guard dog.
“A dog?” she shot back, since they already had three. “Why do we need another dog? Why do we need more animals? What is going on here?”
“Well, how about a llama?”
“They’re aggressive. I don’t want anything aggressive.”
He suggested a donkey.
“They’re noisy,” she countered. “And stubborn.”
“They are not stubborn,” he insisted.
“We’ll think about it,” she agreed.
And then he found a 7-month-old male donkey. “This is rare, to find a young one,” he said. “Trainable.”
“I feel like you’re pulling my leg,”
she said. “Besides, we don’t know what we’re doing. Why would we get one we have to train?”
“Let’s just go look at it,” he said.
And she thought: “My kids pulled that on me, multiple times.” But they went
to look at the donkey. One donkey. And ended up buying two.
That same man also had alpacas. “Let’s go look,” Forrest said.
So they bought four alpacas, which would join the five they’d already agreed to buy from someone in Kentucky.
And then a friend from Tennessee called and said she had miniature horses. “I was super excited,” Jennifer says. “I had always wanted some.”
So she said to Forrest: “Let’s just go look at them.”
And now Heavenly Acres is open to the public. “God gave us this,” Jennifer says. “When we got here, we fell in love with the place. We’re just trying to share what God gave us.”
Forrest is downright giddy about their country life and wants to share it with just about everyone, especially inner-city kids. So there are day and evening tours as well as overnights in a house on the farm. Guests are also welcome to stay overnight in their RVs or tents. There’s are fire pits, a stream, hiking paths. The Bopps have also taken some of their animals on the road to assisted living facilities, libraries, fairs, churches and schools.
“We’re still learning as we go,” Forrest says.
Jennifer adds, “The neighbors are impressed we’re still here.”
Near Wakarusa, Will and Jewel Johnson open their farm home to weekend stays. This is Indiana’s Amish country with horse-drawn carriages, women in bonnets and long skirts, men in suspenders and broad-brimmed hats. Where electricity is prohibited and farm plowing is done by horse. Typically.
But the Johnsons are part of a small Brethren community which differs from
the Amish lifestyle most “English” (those who are not Amish) are familiar with. The Johnsons’ branch drives cars and has electricity, although the Johnsons choose not to have television or WiFi. “We describe our life as a celebration of simplicity,”
Will says. “We still value the ideals and principles that we share with our other Anabaptist groups. We find inspiration in our traditions, grappling with how to find the heart of these principles and live them out in a modern world.”
The farm stay, he says, “is just us, doing things we normally do. Basically what we really like to do.”
“And you come and join us,” Jewel adds.
The Johnsons’ lifestyle and religious practices, in addition to the farm experience, lead to stimulating discussions with their guests who find the farm stay, titled “Simple Living in Indiana Amish Country,” on Airbnb, as an “Airbnb Adventure.”
A recent Friday evening saw Jewel kneading masa corn flour and water, forming a yellow dough a little coarser and stickier than pie crust. She rolled it into balls which, if they were cookie dough, would have made good-sized cookies. Her daughters, Kate (who’s 10) and Jane (who’s 8), and one of their guests took turns flattening each ball in a tortilla press.
Behind them, at the wood stove, Will Johnson, son Frank (who’s 5) and the other guest waited. Small cast iron skillets, about six inches in diameter and the same size as a mini tortilla, were already oiled and heated. Within minutes the tortillas were done.
The kitchen camaraderie included not only information about the food preparation but also riddles and knock- knock jokes and talk of favorite book characters that included Nancy Drew and Winnie the Pooh.
Food at the Johnsons’ home is local as much as possible – eggs from the farm’s chickens, vegetables from the garden. Guests are invited to help gather the eggs, harvest the vegetables, prepare the meals. Favorites include omelets, cinnamon buns, jam, pies. While the kitchen does have an electric range, the wood stove is often the cooks’ choice.
There’s biking, hiking, woodworking (making cutting boards is a big request). Even hanging clothes on the line outside to dry. Guests may attend Sunday church service with the Johnson family or relax at the farm or perhaps explore neighboring towns.
Tyner Pond Farm near Greenfield focuses on the local food movement and natural, sustainable farming methods. Visitors are invited to see the more typical Hoosier farm animals. A new guest house with four bedrooms and three full bathrooms welcomes guests for a minimum two-day stay. They’re encouraged to wander out to the fields to see the chickens, cows and pigs enjoying their day, or to curl up and relax in front of the Vermont casting wood-burning stove with their favorite book. Food pre-ordered is waiting in the refrigerator.
In Center Point, an overnight stay (for adults only) centers on big cats. Lions, tigers, leopards and more – in all, 160 big cats. Founded in 1991, the Exotic Feline Rescue Center allows day visitors to see about 50 cats, but overnight guests can see them all. Two all-day passes and joining the keepers in areas not open to the public are included. The cats are visible right outside the windows of the guest room.
Wilstem Wildlife Park in Paoli offers a variety of lodging options ranging from studio apartments to cabins to a seven-bedroom lodge. Animal encounters get visitors close to elephants, giraffes, kangaroos, lemurs, and – not quite so close – to grizzly bears. Activities abound here, with horseback riding, side-by-side ATV tours, a 5,000-foot canopy zipline tour, and more.
When you book a rental through Brown County Vacation Homes, you get the convenience of staying within walking distance to all the quaint shops and art galleries in downtown Nashville, Indiana, but with the added experience of a visit to Donkeytown included with your stay. This mini-farm is less than ten minutes from downtown Nashville, and it’s where you can get up close and personal with more than 15 miniature donkeys. These endearing animals are extremely affectionate and are great with children. While at Donkeytown, you’ll also get to meet Waylon and Willie, two adorable goats who enjoy showing off for guests, especially if it means they earn a treat. Other Hoosier sites invite guests to visit and meet their animals during regular and, sometimes, special hours, but they do not offer related overnights.
French Lick Resort’s “Horse Sense” program, available April-October, offers a 30-minute class about horses with a meet-and-greet with a horse. It’s followed by a trail ride.
Wolves are the big attraction at the education/research facility Wolf Park in Battle Ground, but there are also coyotes, foxes and bison. Operations coordinator Kimber Hendrix says the animals are socialized so they enjoy being around people – but they are fenced in.
Regular tours are in the afternoons. Popular special tours include cookout howl nights, Wolf Park after hours, Easter egg hunt, watermelon party, pancake breakfasts. “If you’ve been once, you haven’t seen it all,” Hendrix says.
Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Albion is home to nearly 100 non- domestic animals that include wildcats, bears, canines, reptiles, birds and more that are the products of the exotic wildlife trade. Some were former pets; some were abandoned; some were confiscated. They will live out their lives at this professional animal retirement center.
River Jordan Camel Dairy in Milford has camels. Owners Luke and Amber Blakeslee say
it started “as a simple desire to raise camels to ride (and mow the grass).” Open Farm Day tours are offered one Saturday each month during warm weather. Additional opportunities to meet the camels are offered throughout the year. The dairy uses camel milk to make soaps and lotions.
The bottom line: Indiana has options to get away from it all to experience something new. Meet the animals, share stories, make new friends – all close to home during a staycation.
For More Information:
HEAVENLY ACRES FARM
TYNER POND FARM
WILSTEM WILDLIFE PARK
FRENCH LICK RESORT HORSE SENSE PROGRAM
BLACK PINE ANIMAL SANCTUARY
RIVER JORDAN CAMEL DAIRY
BROWN COUNTY VACATION HOMES