Anyone taking a guided walking tour of historic Elkhart or Middlebury this year might just find themselves walking side-by-side with someone who helped make that history.

Tour guides bring to life the hidden gems, mysterious backstories, and quirky details behind landmarks, but the folklore of these Elkhart County cities go to a whole new level when the stories are told by people who helped make that history or saw it happening.

Elkhart through the eyes of business leader

In Elkhart, longtime resident Brian Thomas will lead the Kings of the Hill (historic homes of Beardsley Avenue) and Tastemakers & Risk Takers (downtown landmarks and businesses) tours. Thomas has a front-row seat for the ups and downs of Elkhart history since at least 1971, both as the proprietor of Paul Thomas Shoes and more recently as a four-term Elkhart City Council member.

“I’ve seen several re-births of downtown, but nothing as exciting as what’s happening right now,” Thomas said. As for the historic homes on the Kings of the Hill tour, Thomas joked that as a kid he played basketball in the attic of one of the mansions.

Thomas has also led guided tours of the gloriously restored Lerner Theatre, the performing arts center that is the anchor of downtown. Those tours are available as an option to anyone taking the Elkhart tours.

The shoe store on Main Street was an institution for generations of Elkhart residents who were fitted for their first shoes there, then later brought their children for the same reason. The building that was home to Paul Thomas Shoes continues to house the Time Was Museum, Brian’s father, Paul’s, tribute to Elkhart history.

Middlebury family links to town’s glorious backstory

In Middlebury, three of the guides on the Giant Toadstools and the World’s Fair tour of Krider World’s Fair Garden have connections to the Krider Nurseries family.

Rex Krider’s grandfather, Vernon Krider, founded Krider Nurseries and, at its height, the Middlebury business distributed plants, shrubs, perennials and trees throughout the U.S. Among the pinnacles of Krider Nurseries was its exhibit at the 1933-34 World’s Fair in Chicago.

The inventive and eye-catching exhibits form the basis of the Krider World’s Fair Garden, which occupies a portion of the land that was home to the nursery.

“I spent all my early years working ‘from the ground up,’ and have many fond memories. It was an honor to keep the tradition going as long as we could,” said Rex Krider.

Other Krider connections include Marla Krider and Karen Wesdorp, who is the daughter of Krider Nurseries’ plant propagator.

Marla Krider also serves as a guide for the downtown Middlebury tour, Gangsters, Saloons and Buggies on Roofs. Marla’s husband, Greg, is a great-grandson of Vernon Krider and Marla said she considers Middlebury her home.

“(The garden and tour) links us to a time of prosperity, elegance and beauty. For many, it holds fond memories of the freedom of summer days, childhood fantasies, marriage proposals, weddings, reunions,” said Marla Krider.

When/how to take a tour

Tours in Elkhart and Middlebury will be available starting later this month through the fall.

Tours are at 10 a.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays in Elkhart through October.

Tours in Middlebury are 10 a.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, as well as 6:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month through the end of September.

Tickets for the Elkhart tours can be purchased by calling Brian Thomas at (574) 596-7411. Tickets for the Middlebury tours can be purchased from the Middlebury Chamber of Commerce website, https://middleburyinchamber.com, or by calling the Chamber at (574) 825-4300.

The Elkhart and Middlebury tours were developed by community partners in collaboration with the Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau is the official tourism advertising/marketing and public/community relations organization for the Elkhart County hospitality industry. The ECCVB advances quality-of-place initiatives in our downtowns and rural spaces, parks and natural environment, arts and culture, and events, festivals, groups and activities that help forge social connections.

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For more information, contact Terry T. Mark, director of communications of the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau, at 574-262-8161 or terry@eccvb.org.