“If you want to welcome people, you give them a place to sit down.”
I sat across from Alvin and Elsie Miller at Millie’s Market Café on the third floor of Davis Mercantile. Across the hall, a carousel turned round and round. The smell of chocolate wafted from the candy shop next door, competing only slightly with the bacon on my turkey bacon pretzel melt.
Next to me sat Mariah Contreras, Executive Director of the Shipshewana Retail Merchants Association, and the Millers’ granddaughter.
Welcoming people is important to Alvin, Elsie, and Mariah, and not simply because it’s good business. For them, it’s about community.
Davis Mercantile is an anchor in downtown Shipshewana. It originally began as a hotel, built by one of the town’s founders in 1891. The railroad came through town in 1888, and Hezekiah Davis thought it would be a good idea to give passengers a place to stay.
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He didn’t live long after the Davis Hotel opened next to the tracks, but the business he established continued to welcome travelers. By the 1920s, though, the only thing remaining inside the building was a barbershop.
Over the next several decades, the Davis Hotel housed various businesses, including grain storage and a chicken hatchery. In the 1960s, the historic building’s brick veneer was stripped and the frame moved up the street a couple blocks.
By the early 1980s, the building’s future was uncertain. Alvin, an independent project engineer who’d previously owned a sawmill, saw Shipshewana’s potential as a tourist destination.
“No one else could,” he said. He’d go to nearby Middlebury, Topeka, and other towns to count cars and buggies. Which towns were busy, and when?
The Millers bought the Davis Hotel in 1982. They renovated it, returning it to its original purpose as a hotel as well as adding shops on the first floor.
One of those shops was JoJo’s Pretzels. Mariah said her father named it for her mother before they were even married.
Although the railroad left in the mid-1980s, tourism grew, fueled in part by the Shipshewana Flea Market. The Millers expanded, and expanded, and expanded. Eventually, the Davis Mercantile was a mish-mash of six buildings with floors that didn’t line up.
Then, in February of 2004, tragedy struck. Twice.
It was a Monday when Alvin found out he had cancer.
On Saturday, Davis Mercantile burned to the ground.
There’d been a spate of unexplained fires in historic buildings in Indiana. Federal investigators arrived, including some who’d worked the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11. While they discovered where the fire originated, they never discovered who did it.
Cancer. Fire. Someone asked Alvin how he could be so calm. “When you’ve got a big hole in the ground and you’ve got cancer, you don’t want to think about cancer all the time, and you don’t want to think about the hole all the time.”
I can relate. I received my cancer diagnosis in August of 2020, during the height of the pandemic. My personal tragedy distracted from the global calamity, and vice versa. Instead of being overwhelming, the dual tribulations kept me from focusing on one or the other.
I have no idea why two absolutely awful things happening simultaneously, instead of one, didn’t destroy my mental health and might have helped me cope, but when Alvin said that, I understood.
The Millers couldn’t be on the premises for two weeks after the fire, but Alvin would still visit, walking the perimeter. A chain link fence surrounded the hole. The devastation was nearly complete, except for the spot where Lolly’s Fabrics had been. Bits of fabric laid in the ashes, somehow surviving the conflagration.
One day, Alvin came upon a woman who had her arm stretched under the chain link fence. In her hand was a jar. He watched as she scooped up ashes and frayed, scorched cloth.
“I just wanted a little bit of Lolly’s,” she said.
The Millers may have had an inkling about the impact Davis Mercantile had on the community, but that woman’s desire to preserve a piece of it was tangible evidence.
“To build something like that is really special,” Alvin said. “Can we duplicate what was here?”
“Little did we know what help we’d get,” Elsie said.
Throughout all this, Alvin was dealing with his cancer. It was a cancer that would require surgery, which meant travel to Ohio to get the proper care. How could he rebuild while trying to fight the disease?
With community. By September of that year, not only had Alvin recovered from surgery and beat cancer, but they also had an old-fashioned barn-raising. So many people showed up to help they had trouble finding them all work.
This type of community support is the norm in Shipshewana and LaGrange County, which has the third largest Amish population in the country. Still, even though it might have been expected, it wasn’t taken for granted.
The Millers wanted to create a place where people could feel welcome. Yes, they said, they wanted visitors to buy something eventually, but that wasn’t the first thing they thought of.
That year, the Millers had lots of family meetings. One big question was how to make it more kid-friendly, and how to bring people to the third floor. One of Mariah’s cousins suggested a slide, but as Elsie said, that would separate children from their parents.
They settled on a carousel, finding antique frameworks abandoned in a barn. “They were bedded down just like you’d bed down cattle,” Elsie said.
One family suggested a candy store. The youngest thought a toy store would be a good idea. Elsie figured they’d need a place to eat.
The carousel is now one of the top attractions in Shipshewana. Its gears and inner workings are open. It’s in keeping with the community itself, illustrating workmanship and the simple beauty of engineering without ornamentation. The animals, carved by an Amish man, are horses and farm animals. The benches are buggy seats.
The entire Davis Mercantile building is accessible, including the carousel. And true to Alvin’s belief in welcoming people, there are places to sit down nearly everywhere you look.
Besides the carousel, the most interesting feature of Davis Mercantile is its staircase. Made of tulip poplar, cherry, beech, and maple, all native hardwoods, it’s a work of art. Alvin, the former engineer and sawmill owner, designed it.
At each landing are pieces of the Millers’ and Shipshewana’s history. This staircase isn’t just about getting from one floor to another. It’s a living gallery, and its centerpiece is a gigantic tree.
This “One Large Log,” as it was described on the packing list, is a Douglas Fir from British Columbia. It’s over 370 years old, is 56-feet tall. and more than 44-inches in diameter.
Why did Alvin want to put a giant tree in the middle of the building? Basically, because he knew it would draw attention, and it has.
There are two elevators, one on either side of the building. Before the fire, about 80% of visitors used the elevators. After the fire, with the new arboreal centerpiece, that number dropped to 25%.
This change makes visiting Davis Mercantile a more intentional experience. Shoppers take their time and browse the four floors filled with 21 shops and eateries, including JoJo’s Pretzels and Lolly’s Fabrics.
A December 2004 article in the South Bend Tribune reported on the fire and the building-raising frolic. It began with this:
“Alvin and Elsie Miller have a lot of friends.”
Yes, they do. They’ve got a whole community.
Visiting Davis Mercantile in Shipshewana, Indiana
Davis Merchantile is located in downtown Shipshewana at 225 N Harrison St. website
Its 21 shops include stores specializing in furniture, music, clothing, home goods, toys, candy, and more.
Fun fact: Sarah Davis, a women’s apparel shop, is named for Hezekiah Davis’s wife.
There are three eateries: Millie’s Market Cafe on the third floor, and Kitchen Cupboard and JoJo’s Pretzels on the first.
Hours are Monday – Saturday 10am to 5pm. Like many Shipshewana businesses, they’re closed on Sundays.
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