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Trip back in time: the Amish in Ohio

Trip back in time: the Amish in Ohio

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The drive from St. Louis back in time to 1850 takes 8 hours.

I discovered how to travel to the past by visiting Holmes County in northeast Ohio. The town of Berlin (population 3,850) is the center of a five-county area that is the home of 37,000 Amish people, one of the two largest concentrations in the world. About an equal number live in Lancaster County, Pa.

The drive takes visitors past tidy farming communities with names such as Charm, Walnut Creek and Sugarcreek. Then yellow road signs with silhouettes of a horse-drawn buggy begin to appear, and within a few minutes the black carriages themselves — a symbol of the Amish way of life — are rarely out of sight.

The carriages are just one example of how the Amish reject most labor-saving devices in order to maintain a life that values simplicity and family values. Modern technology such as gasoline engines and electricity are thought to encourage families to be less dependent on each other and promote competition for goods that connote status.

The Amish reject worldly fashion, too. The men wear black pants and coats, suspenders and straw hats. The women wear bonnets, dark ankle-length skirts and one-color blouses without any pattern or adornment.

The Amish value their privacy; a friendly wave may not be returned, and attempts at prolonged conversations can be cumbersome.

For visitors willing to explore this culture on their own, or for those more comfortable on a guided tour, a visit to learn makes for a captivating and educational vacation.

With colorful fall foliage illuminating the countryside, and nature's end-of-season bounty for sale at almost every farmstead, the months of September and October are the ideal time for a visit.


Talking to someone who has an in-depth understanding of the Amish is vital to get the most out of a trip, so the perfect first stop was the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin. Mark Oliver, our Amish guide, enthusiastically led a narrated half-hour tour of a vividly colorful 10-foot tall, 265-foot mural-in-the-round that details the hundreds of years of persecution suffered by the Amish.

Oliver explained that his religion is an outgrowth of the Anabaptist movement in Europe. At the time of the Swiss Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, the forerunners of the Amish were considered radical for rejecting infant baptism and mandatory military service. Religious persecution continued, and in 1720, the first group immigrated to America seeking religious freedom.

The Center also has an Amish buggy that tourists can climb aboard. We were surprised to discover an electric style switch inside. "It turns on the horses," Oliver said laughing, before explaining it turns on battery-operated lights for nighttime use.


Ten Amish sects coexist in the area, said tour operator La Vonne DeBois. "Church elders of each sect have their own interpretations of how their members should conduct their lives, and interpretation is constantly changing," she said.

As we drove down a farm road, she pointed out a nondescript, windowless building wired for electricity. "You always have to know what you are looking at," she said. "That shed is filled with freezers. They are used by the Amish, but the building is an English business, and thus so is the electricity."

Livelihood for the Amish largely depends on farming, and teams of horses plow their fields. Their neat farm fields are filled with shocks of barley, wheat and oats gathered and stacked by hand in rows that create a scene reminiscent of an Old Master painting.

However, the Amish have increasingly been supplementing their income by making goods for sale. Family businesses are indicated by white signs with hand-painted black letters, usually hanging from a pole or tree limb in the front yard. The signs along one half-mile stretch advertised brown eggs, oak furniture, buggy repairs, leather goods and bar stools.

One sign read: "Farmerstown Broom and Book." DeBois ushered us inside an outbuilding where we met Clara Hershberger, 79, who has been making straw brooms most of her life.

In a room that served both as a store and one-person production line, her materials and supplies were neatly arranged along a wall. A huge ball of heavy blue string that stitches the broom straw together hung from the ceiling. A single strand snaked down and was attached to her sewing machine, which is powered by a pedal.

The success of Amish cottage industries has lead to a need for the Amish to be more closely connected to their customers. How they have adapted varies by sect. DeBois pointed out tiny buildings with an electric line attached to the roof that were phone booths. She explained that the use of a phone is so important to operate a business that they are allowed by some sects.

However, phone booths are community phones, and most have answering machines. Call an Amish business and you might get a message to press '1' for Miller furniture, '2' for Yoder Brooms, and so on.

Old Order Amish allow the use of cell phones, which can be operated using solar energy. New Order sects do not allow the use of cell phones but do permit phones in the home.

A business common to the area is an "Amish Walmart." That is a nickname for the approximately 100 country stores that sell a wide variety of products needed for everyday life. They are essential to a society when travel by horse is limited to about 10 miles a day.

The Budget was on sale at the Hershberger Country Store. This nationally distributed Amish weekly newspaper has been published in Ohio for 121 years and sells for $1. Approximately 50 large newspaper pages are devoted to letters from Amish communities throughout America and overseas.

Several hundred letters appear in every issue, all written as though addressed to a friend. About 90 percent are submitted handwritten before being typeset by the Budget staff. Each missive highlights recent visitors to their home, the status of crops and what is new with the letter-writer's family or in the community.

A mid-July issue of the Budget included letters from 36 Missouri communities, including Boonville, La Plata and Salem. There were letters from 12 Illinois towns, including Arcola, Ava and Olney.


DeBois told us that after 20 years in business she has developed friendships with families that allow her unusual access to the Amish community. "We have arranged for people to spend a day making a basket with a family, or doing farm chores," DeBois says. "We arranged for a school group from Cleveland to dress like the Amish and spend a day with a family. We also have a tour that includes meals at an Amish home."

But DeBois acknowledges viewing some elements of Amish life would pose a problem even for her. "It would take some doing to arrange for a tourist to attend church services, which are held in a different home every other Sunday from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m.," she said. "Baptisms, which take place around the age of 22, would pose a similar problem."

"We have the lowest crime rate and divorce rate in Ohio, the most single businesses in any county in the state, and the most people with only an eighth-grade education," DeBois says. "That says a lot about the Amish way of life."

Her reference to education concerns a 1972 unanimous Supreme Court decision that the Amish were exempt from compulsory education after the eighth grade. School is conducted in more than 200 one- or two-room schoolhouses that dot the countryside.

Classes are held in English, but the Amish converse among themselves in Pennsylvania Deutsch, a dialect common in southwest Germany dating to the late 1600s, said Mark Oliver, the guide at the Heritage Center. High German, a German dialect common in commerce and universities, is taught in schools and is the language used in religious services, he said.

After graduation, students join the family business, but that only occurs after a period known as "rumspringa," or "running around." Amish youth between the ages of 17 and 22 may live life according to their own choices, free from the customs of their sect, until they have made a commitment to join the Amish religion. As many as 90 percent return to the Amish faith.

Near the end of our tour, DeBois asked if we had noticed the repetitious names on the mailboxes. "The entire Amish community only has 52 different surnames," she said.


After we left DeBois we explored on our own. At one signpost advertising "maple syrup," I turned into a driveway that led into the barnyard where an Amish man peeked out of a mammoth red barn. From inside the car, I inquired about buying maple syrup, and he hesitantly came forward and said he had a few gallon jugs left at $24 each. I told him that was quite a bit more than we needed. "Well, I hope you left some dollars behind elsewhere," he answered with a smile and a friendly laugh.

Noticing our license plate, he asked about Missouri and mentioned he had driven by the Arch. His statement would have been a surprise, but at the Heritage Center we had learned that while flying is forbidden, many Amish have traveled around America. Excursions are made by hiring non-Amish people — known as the English — to drive them. "Usually they wait until they have 10 people who will all do their errands together," DeBois told us.

"Plenty of locals make their living driving the Amish, even taking families on long sightseeing trips around the United States and into Canada. People in town are so busy driving them, we like to say 'they will drive you buggy!'"

Loretta Coblentz, the innkeeper at The Barn Inn, where I spent a night, recommended visiting the Gingerich family, who make baskets. "They work at home, and it is a rare chance to go inside a Swartzentruber home," she said, adding that the sect's interpretation of the religion is the strictest of all. "They are not even allowed to have someone drive them, so they only travel places they can reach by horse and buggy. Other than a mattress, they do not have upholstered furniture in their homes, and their wagons cannot even have rubber on the wheels."

We found the farmhouse, identified by a small black and weathered "handmade baskets" sign dangling from a tree in the front yard. I parked in the barnyard between two black Amish buggies, near an arrow leading to a back screen door where Anna Gingerich was busy sweeping a wooden floor that already appeared spotless. "Come in, the baskets are in there," she said pointing to the next room. "I'll be with you as soon as I finish."

While my wife explored the basket room, I peeked into the doorway leading into a large kitchen. The only appliances were a wood stove and a sink that had water supplied from a pump handle that needed to be cranked. A few utensils hung from wooden pegs on a narrow strip of wood that encircled the room at eye-level. Every piece of furniture, including the long kitchen table, was pushed flush against the wall, leaving the center of the room empty.

Another room leading off the basket shop had a desk and wooden bench pushed against the wall, and a black wood-burning stove in the center. Straw hats, bonnets and black coats hung from the wooden pegs.

Like the rest of the home we could see, all the wood other than the honey-colored wood was painted a pleasing blue-gray. Later when I asked Gingerich about the color, she told me that the color was used on the wood in every Amish home.

As we left Ohio, we recalled what Mark Oliver had said when he concluded his tour at the Amish Heritage Center. It was a meaningful insight into yet another aspect of the Amish way of life: "Our beards, bonnets and buggies are reminiscent of days gone by, and commercialization of our way of life makes it appear quite idyllic and different than yours. But please understand we are people just like you," he had told us earnestly.

"We have family celebrations, but we suffer the same diseases we wouldn't wish on anyone. We have troubled marriages, mental illness and rebellious children, too. Do not hold us to too high a standard. Please remember we are just as human as you."

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