An Entrepreneurial History

In 1831, Dr. Havilah Beardsley negotiated a deal for the land that would eventually become Elkhart. As the story goes, his purchase was driven by an ambitious vision of what could be, and more than a little competitive urge.

In other words, it was an act of entrepreneurism – and it seems to have sparked a passion for enterprise that continues to this day.

From the first farmer to hew a living out of this Northern Indiana landscape to today’s high-tech job creators, Elkhart County has always offered a home to people with an entrepreneurial mindset.

“In some communities, entrepreneurship just comes out of the community,” says Goshen College professor Michele Horning, adding that the culture in Elkhart County has traditionally focused on manufacturing and products. “Elkhart County has a ‘maker culture.’ You can find lots of examples where people tinkered with something and created a new tangible something.”

This “maker culture” seems to have first hit its stride in the late 19th century, when Dr. Franklin Miles launched Miles Medical Co., a company that initially manufactured and marketed his “Restorative Nervine” and later made and sold better-known products like Alka-Seltzer and Flintstones Vitamins.

Around that same time, the first musical instrument makers opened production facilities in the area, laying the foundation for an industry that would earn Elkhart County the title “Band Instrument Capital of the World.” Eventually, more than 60 instrument manufacturers would set up shop in Elkhart County.

In the 1930s, the area saw the arrival of the first recreational vehicle manufacturer – putting in motion a growth that would lead to another world title: “RV Capital of the World.” Soon the county was home to a number of RV manufacturers, as well as countless businesses that produced components for the RVs.

Boat makers and van-conversion firms also moved in, along with other manufacturing facilities that were drawn by the reliably hard-working area residents. These businesses helped to support the launching of countless retailers, restaurants, professional-services and other business required of a prosperous and growing county. A tourism industry was built on creativity and the area’s Amish heritage, and “agri-preneurs” found new opportunities in farming.

The good times were not going to last forever, though. As businesses were bought and sold and markets shifted, some of the firms that had helped to build Elkhart County moved away. Miles Medical Co. was bought by Bayer and its local operations were consolidated into other cities. The musical instrument businesses saw similar consolidation, and most of them left the area, too. Then, when the economy truly soured in the last decade, the RV industry suffered a massive decline in business, forcing lay-offs and shut downs that hit the community hard. At one point, The New York Times declared Elkhart to be the “white hot center of the economic meltdown.”

Fortunately, the entrepreneurial spirit was not to be defeated. Community and business leaders focused on recovery, young entrepreneurs launched new endeavors, the economy cooperated, and just a few years later, Elkhart County was on the rebound.

Today, the community has hit a new stride, fueled in part by a collaborative spirit and the creativity and ambition of its entrepreneurs. While some of that turnaround was sparked by a revival of the RV business and other manufacturers, the county also enjoyed a boost from some new, innovative industries – electronics, software, apps, and high-tech agriculture, to mention a few.

The result? By 2013, Elkhart County was the top county in the nation for job creation, and third in the nation for GDP growth – a turnaround that, no doubt, would have made Havilah Beardsley proud.

Elkhart County, IN Entrepreneurs​