April 2006 Issue
Amish Country: A Change of Pace
It's too bad the Standardbreds can't talk. If you want to understand the mystique of Amish Country, why it is that each year several million tourists from around the globe abandon the luxuries of home or big-city vacations to trek to one of Ohio's most bucolic communities - a society defined by swaths of farmland, slow-moving buggies and a plain-clothed people - it's the Standardbreds that hold the key.
But even if the horses can't talk, their hooves speak volumes.
That melodic clip-clop echoing across Holmes County (a noise so ubiquitous, it could be the soundtrack to life here) is a far cry from the thundering gallop these retired race-horses were so accustomed to at harness-racing tracks around the Midwest. It's certainly a dramatic transition: One day you're in the city, kicking up mud at a breakneck pace beneath the glare of bright lights and screaming bettors; the next, you're auctioned off to an Amish family, trotting along serene back roads and breathing country air, with white farmhouses and wheat shocks in the fields serving as your quiet audience.
It's surely a culture shock - but no less a welcome change of pace.
For so many people, too, accustomed to leading harried lives, tethered to technology that seems to keep them perpetually either on call or on the go, that change of speed symbolizes the allure of Amish Country.
"A lot of visitors find it intriguing that with all the toys and gadgets available today, there's still this group of people who would choose to live simply. It makes you think, 'Maybe there's something we're overlooking in life,'" says Joanne Hershberger, a woman whose strong roots in the Amish community run far deeper than the assortment of businesses she and her family own in Berlin.
For four days last October, Hershberger guided a group of curious journalists to some of her favorite haunts around Holmes County - spots that reflect the diverse personalities and talents of the nearly 18,000 hard-working Amish people who account for almost half of the area's population, and whose expert craftsmanship and homemade comfort foods are just as sought after as the community's leisurely pace.
Hershberger, perched at the helm of the large white van she uses to ferry passengers around on her Off the Beaten Path Back Roads Tour, has traversed it all: from the well-traveled main streets that offer lovingly stitched quilts and finely crafted furniture, to hidden gravel lanes in the hills that lead to quaint home businesses advertising wares on hand-painted signs. These roads have been her stomping grounds for the past 50 years, and Hershberger's blend of knowledge and genuine enthusiasm make her the perfect guide for the area's many wide-eyed visitors.
However, she quickly points out, Amish Country is not some mere tourist trap.
"You know what? I would do this even if I didn't get paid," she says, her voice still carrying the trace of an accent from when she spoke Pennsylvania Dutch (a dialect of German) as an Amish child - a reminder of her unique history with the faith.
For Hershberger, her various tours are more than just jaunts to the best attractions of Holmes County, and they're certainly not about gawking at these modest men and women who shun modern conven-iences. Rather, she's interested in creating an appreciation for the Amish lifestyle and values, which include a steadfast focus on family togetherness that she's proudly passing down to her four children and six grandchildren.
"I have a personal connection to this community, so when I talk to groups about the [Amish] people here, I'm talking about relatives and intimate friends of mine - people who I love and respect," says Hershberger. "I want [visitors] to know them, to get a good education and to understand why they do things differently so when they go home, they'll think, 'Perhaps we should simplify our lives a little bit, become less focused on all the extra things in life.'
"The Amish know that it's people that make life important."
Family, friends, food
For the journalists on the trip, Octo-ber couldn't offer a more perfect time to visit this section of northeast Ohio. Of course, Amish Country's pastoral landscape, complete with one-room schoolhouses and white picket fences, ambling black buggies and Belgian horses pulling plows in the fields, makes for scenery worthy of a postcard at any time of year.
But the burst of vibrant foliage on display here in autumn - countless species of leaves brandishing every shade of the rainbow, colorful treetops rising from the hills like upturned paintbrushes - serves up vistas that make both the Amish people and their surroundings seem transplanted from another century.
"[It] is basically a living history museum of how life was 100 years ago," says author Peter Gail, whose Cleveland-based company, Goosefoot Acres, publishes books by and about the Amish.
Over the past 35 years, the non-Amish author has built working relationships, sparked close friendships and even bought an 18-acre farm in Geauga County's Amish community, the fourth largest one in the world. (Holmes County is No. 1, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Shipshewana, Indiana, are second and third, respectively.) However, while located two hours north of Joanne Hershberger, the strong values that first attracted Gail to the community as a college student, in search of "a society that had standards that kept them together, happy and functional" (see page 52), are the same ones Hershberger tries to convey to people visiting Holmes County today.
Not that they have to travel too far before seeing those standards - not to mention those Standardbreds - in action for themselves. One of the most recognizable aspects of the faith, its rejection of cars and electricity, is regularly on view in Amish Country. The sight of a farmer being pulled at five miles per hour behind his happily trotting horse as a string of hulking sport utility vehicles patiently wait to veer around it, speaks to the discipline required to maintain such old-fashioned customs in the midst of contemporary life.
(Of course, it must be a pleasant surprise when the 21st-century occasionally conforms to Amish needs: Those hitching posts in the parking lot of the Burger King in Berlin certainly weren't erected for the tourists.)
Nowhere is their commitment to tradition and solidarity more on display than during an Amish wedding feast, an all-day gathering of family, friends and food that is routine in Holmes County, but is so novel to tourists that Hershberger regularly packs dining halls with her re-created event.
"I have definitely found out that when there is a [real] Amish wedding going on in the community, my Amish employees are going to go. Period." That explains, she adds, why the gatherings can easily have 500 guests. While visitors to the re-created gathering are spared the three hours of preaching, singing and exchanging vows in German, they do get to indulge in one of the most beloved features of the occasion.
"The amount of food is just extravagant," she says. "They're not buying flowers, they're not hiring a DJ, they're not booking a photographer - all the money for their weddings goes into that feast." In a dining hall decorated with a stage and nearly a dozen tables draped in white linen, Hershberger and her crew lay out a gut-busting spread for the mix of hungry tourists, non-Amish residents and the group of reporters in the room, leaving no doubt as to why everyone RSVPs for an Amish ceremony.
Fried chicken, slabs of meatloaf, heaping bowls of mashed potatoes, noodles, homemade dinner rolls, fresh apple butter - the guests gorge on the traditionally served fare, as Hershberger's father, John Schrock, circles the room shaking a pot, enthusiastically collecting change to dole out as tips to the servers. "That's something still done in the Amish communities, though it was probably done more often years ago when he was growing up," says Hershberger.
Like so many Amish children, both John and Hershberger's mother, Marie, were raised here in Ohio, the result of their Swiss-German forebears fleeing religious persecution in Europe in the 18th century. Bringing a more strict interpretation of the Bible and a belief of living together in a close-knit community with them, the religion's followers eventually settled in 22 states and Canada, and it's estimated their population is around 134,000 today.
However, despite their close ties to and long standing with the faith, Hershberger's parents chose to leave the Amish church after they were married.
"They wanted to leave, not because they didn't believe in the upbringing, but because they just had a bigger vision for their lives," she says, noting that while they left the church when she was 3 years old, the family wholeheartedly decided to stay in the community that Hershberger today warmly introduces to out-of-towners. Even if it's just filling up the bowls of non-Amish folks at the re-created wedding feast with spoonfuls of date-nut pudding, this connection to her heritage - a roomful of people socializing and enjoying each other's company while surrounded by traditions, but without outside distractions - keeps her connected to her roots, and makes clear why people continue to be attracted to the faith.
"I have very good friends who are Amish, even though they don't necessarily believe that they have to be Amish in order to be Christians," says Hershberger. "They choose to be because in addition to being raised that way, they just enjoy the simple things that this lifestyle offers. They see how easy it would be to be involved in the rat race of life. This calmer, more serene existence is just a lot more appealing."
From the tree-lined lanes of Farmerstown, where a blind Amish man named Syl Hershberger and his wife make brooms by hand, to the purple martin birdhouses and tidy homes of Becks Mills, where Elva Hochstetler churns out artistic candles at a seemingly record-setting pace, Joanne Hershberger takes her visitors through a labyrinth of small Holmes County towns that occupy scant space on a map, revealing why she calls one of her tours, "Off the Beaten Path."
"I like to take people to this one shop that's on a farm and sells games for kids, horse supplies, you name it; people in the area call it the Amish Wal-Mart. But a tourist would never even know it's there," Hershberger says. "There's just this tiny little sign out by the road, a long driveway that leads into it, then you have to go way back between the house and the barn." It's the type of place Hershberger had in mind three years ago when she employed her familiarity with the back roads and connections in the community to scout out places that the average tourist wouldn't be able to find by simply taking a leisurely Saturday drive around Holmes County.
It's also the sort of establishment that blends the scenery and seclusion Doyle Yoder loves to capture in photographs and transform into calendars and postcards - works that he's been surprised to see in more than a few Amish houses.
"I've been to things like viewings for funerals in people's homes, and when I go looking around the house a little bit, there's one of my calendars hanging on the wall," says Yoder. "And it seems like every shop has one of the perpetual calendars."
Although Yoder wasn't raised Amish, unlike his ancestors before him, while growing up in New Bedford he spent more time with his Amish neighbors than in his own home. Today, Yoder can't imagine a lifestyle more satisfying than the one he leads on 10 acres in Becks Mills, where there's only one other house in view outside his window, and where instead of hopping in the car and heading for the supermarket, his daughter asks him for $1 to go buy eggs from the Amish farmer next door. (And the money isn't usually even necessary: Yoder gladly hauls his non-driving neighbors into town in exchange for some of their dairy and produce.)
"There might be some other places where I could see myself living, but if there's definitely one place I could never live in, it's the city," says Yoder, 48. He laments that on a recent business trip that took him through London, Ohio, a landscape that once yielded lush fields now sprouted house after house.
"It's amazing, but for a very long time, we only had four stoplights in all of Holmes County: three in Millersburg and one in Nashville," he says. "One time, me and an Amish friend of mine had to make a trip out to Cleveland. So I was driving, and there's all this traffic, and I turned after I stopped at a red light, and immediately around the corner there was another red light. I didn't even notice it and sailed right through, and a policeman ended up pulling us over.
"I'm just used to living out here," says Yoder, "where everything moves a little slower and there's really no lights to stop at."
He pauses, thinking for a moment. "Actually, that's not true," Yoder says, correcting himself with a chuckle. "Since that incident, I believe there's been about a 100 percent increase. Now, there are about eight stoplights in all of Holmes County."