GOSHEN, IND.—-Ray and Wilma Yoder watch the world roll by from the front porch of their 85-year-old farm house on County Road 34 in Goshen, Ind. While sitting next to each other on a twin rocking chair, Ray and Wilma wave to Amish neighbors who hold tight reins on their horse and carriage. Truckers and cars go too fast for this thin stretch of rural highway about 25 minutes southwest of Elkhart.
You see, Ray and Wilma always move in modest directions.
They met in 1953 in baptismal class at a Mennonite (new order Amish) church about four miles from where they live today. Ray has lived in the same farm house since he was five years old. “Wilma came about ten miles that day in a horse and buggy not knowing it was all going to be worth it,” Ray quips during a front porch conversation on a warm September morning.
Ray and Wilma will celebrate their 61st wedding anniversary on Oct. 11.
Their life has been filled with rewarding turns.
The Yoders are the proud parents of four children between the ages of 43 and 58. In the 1960s Ray became a factory worker at the now- defunct Globemaster Mobile Homes in Goshen before snagging a job delivering motor homes from manufacturer to dealers in Elkhart, the RV capital of the world.
And that was their gateway to becoming octogenarian Americana celebrities.
In 1978 while making a delivery in Nashville, Tn. Ray ate at his first Cracker Barrel Old Country Store on Briley Parkway by the Opryland Resort and Convention Center. Cracker Barrel is headquartered in nearby Lebanon, Tn.
Since then Ray and Wilma have visited all 645 Cracker Barrels in 44 states.
“It’s so much like the food at home,” Ray says. “The green beans are super good. We’ve not been able to match the meat loaf. Maybe its a little drier.” Wilma adds, “Sometimes mine falls apart but it as near like mine as any I’ve tasted. I like their hash brown casserole. Blueberry pancakes.”
Ray and Wilma are to Cracker Barrel what Willie Nelson is to Wacky Tobaccy.
As Ray and Wilma’s children grew older Wilma began to trail Ray in a second RV so they could make more money on a drop. They would rest at the same time. They would communicate through Citizens band radio.
“I didn’t let her go anywhere without me,” he says while glancing at his bride. “Even with the snow blowing in Wyoming I would look in the rear view mirror and her little headlights would be there. We would pull into a filling station and people would see us talking together. They’d say, ‘Are you two together?’ And I’d say, ‘We don’t get along too well so we have two motor homes.’
And Ray and Wilma laugh at the memories.
The Yoders also planned vacations around Cracker Barrel. For example, when they visited the Grand Canyon they would find a nearby Cracker Barrel. “We never owned an RV,” he says. “We were always in a new one. We could sleep in it if we were en route. But we needed to use rest rooms at the rest area or a Cracker Barrel. The best part of our lives were the years with the RVs.”
Ray says it took about ten years before they realized they had a Cracker Barrel streak going.
“We had a couple hundred of them down,” he says in a country drawl as thick as pancake syrup. “I heard where another restaurant chain had a guy following them. I said, ‘If he can do that, we can do this one. And if you don’t mind Mom, we’re going to all of them’.”
Wilma nods her head in agreement.
“I like to eat,” she says.
The Yoders do not own a computer. They do not have GPS. They are not on Facebook or Instagram so there’s no social media bragging on their Cracker Barrel quest. “I knew where I was going,” he says. “The Cracker Barrel map would always say what exit to get off at. Its a map filled with 600 stores.”
The hard-hitting journalist might ask if Ray and Wilma have documentation of all their visits.
“I really don’t have documentation,” Ray answers. “Just between me and God. I will tell you we’re not in a lying situation. We didn’t do this to prove anything to anybody. We took some pictures. We did circle each one on the directory map. I’d put a check mark on the map as one we’d have to get.” Once Ray and Wilma visited the Cracker Barrel they would circle the check mark on their map.
Ray explains, “Now that we’re retired from the RV we take our own car. We still like driving and getting out. Is there a rodeo or a concert? We like Western Swing and we can’t find that very easy around here. We’ve seen Asleep at the Wheel at about 25 places and we’re still not tired of them. We came to Naperville (at a July, 2012 Tex- Mex Festival) to see him (bandleader Ray Benson).” There is a Cracker Barrel Old County Store at 1855 W. Diehl Rd. in west suburban Naperville, Ill.
Ray and Wilma have discovered that most Cracker Barrels are alike. “The one in Hilton Head is up off the sand on posts to make up for high water,” he says. “Eight of them are right-handed, all the rest are left-handed.
“Right-handed is where you go in the front door and the dining room is to the right.” In soft tones Wilma admits, “I had a bad experience (in New Orleans) with a new restroom. I was going to the right when I was so used to going to the left.”
Ray says, “We got serious about this in the ‘80s. We got eight (Cracker Barrels) in one day.”
I about fall off my country rocker.
Ray continues. “Someone asked, ‘How do you do that?’ and I said, ‘Don’t eat too much at the first one.’ They were out of the way places but we needed to get them in order to claim them with our
bunch. It was along U.S. 17 in North and South Carolina: Maybe a half an order at (the first) one…Then a coffee to go at the next one… By ten o ‘clock we were at the third one, probably the house salad…The fourth one would be noon hour for meat loaf…The fifth one would have been a sandwich. At that time we liked their grilled cheese and bacon sandwich (sixth)…. Even if you waited until nine at night you’d have the grilled chicken dinner…The eighth, final stop,would be the cider float. The waitress would say, ‘Excuse me?’ And I’d say, ‘You have both ingredients. Instead of doing a root beer do a cider. And they would do it. ” Cider floats are not on the Cracker Barrel menu.
Notable Cracker Barrel celebrities start with gospel-soul singer Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul does not like to fly. She travels to gigs in her luxury coach bus. In 2012 Franklin told me how much she loves
the chicken and dumplings at Cracker Barrel. In 2011 she signed a plate at the Cracker Barrel in Lakeville Mn. before a performance at the Mystic Lake Casino near the Twin Cities.
“Never met her,” Ray says. “Timing was off I guess. Did she come during the lunch hour? Some of them put on baseball caps and you never know.” Cracker Barrel employees have come to know Ray by his white cowboy hat.
Ray and Wilma’s daughter Doris Copenhaver works at the BMV (Bureau of Motor Vehicles) in Goshen. In a phone conversation she says, “We didn’t realize how serious they were until the early 2000s. We were amazed. The meat loaf is what got Dad started. What’s weird is going to one without them. Its like, ‘Well, I know they’ve been here before.’ We also used to go with them when they delivered motor homes. They go to Sarasota (Florida) in the winter so we would eat in the ones near there too.
“This keeps them young.”
The nearest Cracker Barrel to Goshen (pop. 33,000) is at I-80 and Cassiopolis Street in Elkhart. “We go to that one, sometimes for family get together,” Ray explains. “The lady who runs the cash register there, her and her husband used to run the Greyhound bus station across the street. She always knows us.”
Ray maintains the Amish population birthed the RV industry in Elkhart. “They don’t worry about unions,” he says. “One Amish guy will know a neighbor down the road looking for a job and they bring them in. You go to work at four in the morning and work hard at it. And make pretty decent money. Why pay ten when you have five who will do it? I’d say about 80 per cent of the workers were Amish when I started in the RV industry (in the late 1960s).”
Indeed, in June, Allison Yates of Atlas Obscura wrote a story “Why the Amish are Building America’s RV’s (They’re forbidden from driving them, but not making them)” and pointed out the Amish of Northern Indiana have never been as isolated as other Amish communities in America.
Ray celebrated his 81st birthday on August 28. As a surprise, Cracker Barrel flew Ray and Wilma to the Cracker Barrel grand opening in Tualatin, just outside of Portland, Or. It is the first Cracker
Barrel on the West Coast. The Nashville-based chain previously had only ventured as far west as Boise, Id.
“All the employees were waiting for us to make our appearance,” Ray says. “It was different
for two little country kids. I told them I could drive to O’Hare airport (in Chicago.) I’ve done that before. But they came with one of those limo cars and took us to O’Hare.”
As a 17-year-old, Wilma was attracted to Ray for his homespun values. He once ranked third in the Indiana State Table Tennis Tournament and these days he travels to Branson, Mo. for checkers tournaments. “He was a nice person,” she says. “Other boys didn’t have as much character. I thought he was better looking.”
Ray continues, “I was never into alcohol. Not that needs to be brag, but I did enough other things. I had my part of excitement in life. In mid-life you have two or three jobs, you have a little family and you have to work at that. We did that, too. There were no divorces in the Amish church. You pick them and you stay together.”
And that has been the old country creed for Ray and Wilma Yoder as they seen America through the wide open windows of an RV and the comforting heart of a Cracker Barrel.