April 2008 Issue
The View From Amish Country
Forget any preconceived notions you may have of the Amish. Their daily lives and cultures are diverse, and vary according to both their order and "ordnung."
I hadn’t been sitting across the table from some old friends for 20 minutes when the subject of the Amish came up. Their stories went something like this: One friend had hired some Amish to build a small barn. “They’re good workers,” my friend said. “They started early and left late. Had a 10-minute lunch.” Another friend offered this: “A guy I know hired some Amish to work in his shop. They were all on crystal meth.”
What came next is what always comes next. “What’s that crazy party thing they do when the kids don’t have to be Amish for a while?” “Do they go to hospitals?” “Isn’t there a lot of inbreeding?”
Although I don’t want to become an apologist for the Amish just because I wrote a book on a Swartzentruber Amish family in Ashland County, Ohio, I do feel compelled to beg friends and strangers not to generalize about the faith. The Amish are not even the Amish. By this I mean that the Swartzentruber Amish — the most insular and conservative of those who practice the religion — live lives drastically different from the Andy Weaver Amish, the Old Order Amish or New Order Amish. These four orders constitute Ohio’s Amish, and all four have a different “ordnung,” or social template that dictates what they can and cannot do, the rules they agree to follow. It varies from order to order, even within orders and among affiliations. It’s possible that some conservative, modern Americans have more in common with New Order Amish than the New Order Amish have with the Swartzentrubers.
I live in the midst of the largest Amish settlement in the world. Approximately 40,000 Amish live in the Holmes County/Wayne County vicinity, which includes surrounding counties, the nearest being Ashland. When people hear that I live among the Amish of Ashland County, they get excited over having heard the wordAmish. Usually the next thing they’ll tell me is that they know somebody who knew some Amish guys who used electric chainsaws and drank beer at lunch, implying that the whole way of life is some kind of sham — or at least a hotbed of hypocrisy.
But people truly in the know might ask if the Amish being generalized about are Beachy Amish, Swiss Amish, Nebraska Amish, Andy Weaver Amish, New Order, Old Order or Swartzentruber. Even within subgroups, different church districts often have different ordnungs. It seems we all see what we want to see in the Amish. Even the different orders see what they need to see in each other. The Old Order Amish look down on the Swartzentrubers, making fun of them for milking cows by hand and for taking baths only once a week. The higher-church Amish refer to the Swartzentrubers asgruddel vullahs, or “woolly lumps,” for getting cows’ milk in their beards. The Swartzentrubers believe the Old Order Amish, from whom they split in the early part of the 20th century, have become too liberal and worldly, yoking themselves to the English in ways unpleasing to God.
As much as the Amish sometimes disagree among themselves, all, to varying degrees, adhere to the linchpins of their faith: obedience to their church and separation from the world. Beyond these tenets, to generalize about the Amish is to be a fool or worse. As David Weaver-Zercher writes inThe Amish in the American Imagination, “First, the Amish are not a monolithic cultural entity but are a diverse group of people, churches and communities that embrace the name ‘Amish.’ Second, these various Amish cultures are not static entities but are constantly shifting and reformulating themselves. Third, Amish people, even those who live within the same church district, think and act in a variety of ways, sometimes in sharp contrast to one another.”
Within an hour by car from my Swartzentruber-surrounded home in northern Ashland County, Amish use battery-powered lights on their buggies — buggies that have cool-looking faux-wood dashboards and heavy plastic windshields, like the kind seen in the 1985 Peter Weir film “Witness.” And not an hour by car in another direction, Amish farmers might use tractors around the barn, lease cars or ride bikes. The Beachy Amish own and drive cars. The Old Order Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, have gas lights and indoor toilets in their homes, and might as well be English — as the Amish call all non-Amish — according to some of their less modern brethren.
The Amish I know best are the Swartzentruber Amish of Ashland County. My friends, Samuel and Mary Shetler, own simple black buggies with two kerosene lanterns and no windshield, and live in a home with no central heating and no couches or stuffed chairs. To be a
Swartzentruber Amish is to have no indoor plumbing, no refrigerators or freezers, no continuous hot water, no tractors in the field or at the barn, no blinds on the windows, and no wild rumspringa, which is the running around time some Amish orders permit their youth. (The English love to gossip about the period of limbo when Amish 16-year-old boys and girls are permitted, even encouraged, to throw off the heavy restrictions of Amish life and enter the modern world until they decide to join or leave the church.)
Although their more liberal brethren have agreed to allow the slow-moving vehicle signs to be screwed to the backs of their buggies, the Swartzentruber Amish have steadfastly refused to use the sign — despite being thrown in jail and enduring lawsuits in several states. The Swartzentruber Amish reject it, believing it to be too brightly colored and too “of the world.” To them, accepting the slow-moving vehicle emblem would be akin to trusting in a symbol more than trusting in God to keep them safe.
To come upon a Swartzentruber Amish buggy at night is to spy the faint hint of a lantern’s red light, as if your headlights have shone on a reflector stuck in somebody’s front lawn.But as you get closer, and if you’re not going too ridiculously fast — although almost all of the young men in pickups around here do drive ridiculously fast — you’ll catch what look like long silver splinters of something you can’t identify, ostensibly floating independently of anything else. This will be your signal that you’ve come upon a Swartzentruber buggy in the dark. Parents and five, seven, nine of their young children will be riding home from a long Sunday of worship and socializing, perched on benches in the open night, belted to their seats by nothing more than their blankets and prayers, hoping you’ll see them in time to stop or pass.
A visit to Home Depot — via buggy — with my friend Samuel brought home the vast differences among and within Ohio’s Amish orders. After we’d been shopping for a while, I left Samuel to find the lumber he needed for his house. I decided to see just how many things Home Depot carries that Samuel will never have to buy. All electric appliances are out, of course. I imagine lamps disappearing from the store, and with them all electricity-related paraphernalia: lightbulbs, sockets, cords, adapters ... Because all big-ticket items run on electricity, the Swartzentrubers do not need to look at refrigerators, stoves (unless there’s a woodburner around), freezers or air-conditioning units. All the fancy front doors are unnecessary. There’s no need for the aisles of tile, linoleum or carpet. He could buy hammer and nails if he needed them, as well as wrenches and manual screwdrivers. The hardware aisle seems pretty solid for Swartzentruber shoppers. The only paint colors Samuel would ever buy would be white, gray or some shade of dark blue.
If Samuel were not a Swartzentru-ber but were instead a member of the Andy Weaver Amish, he’d be able to have linoleum or varnished floors, couches and cushioned chairs, and an indoor toilet, tub and shower. If he and his family were members of the Old Order, he could have everything permitted by the Andy Weaver Amish plus window blinds, continuous hot water and central heating. And if he were to join an even higher church than the Old Order and become New Order, he’d have everything mentioned plus bottled gas appliances, a gas freezer, and natural gas lighting, which would mean no more kerosene lanterns. But since he is Swartzentruber, none of those conveniences are within reach.
All four of these groups do share something, however. Everybody is allowed to have a washing machine — although a washing machine needs to be stripped of anything electrical and must have a belt that runs to a small gasoline engine. And nobody’s allowed to have carpeting. I like to imagine all the women of the four orders somehow putting pressure on their husbands,
explaining how difficult it is to do the wash by hand for the two of them plus eight or 10 or 12 kids, insisting on making washing machines cool with the ordnung, or else. Maybe they concede carpeting as a compromise.
But that’s not all. Some New Order affiliations use computers and electric typewriters, and the most liberal New Orders can fly in planes, use a garden tiller and have a private telephone. Along with the New Order, the Old Order Amish can artificially inseminate their animals, use power lawnmowers and weed eaters, hire vehicles and ride bikes. Even the Andy Weaver Amish can hire a car and driver and own power chainsaws. But not so the Swartzentrubers.
Swartzentruber farmers have lots of room to complain. The New Order Amish can use everything on their farms, including haybines, hay crimpers, corn pickers, mechanical gutter cleaners and milking machines. The Old and New
Order Amish can use portable feed mixers, forklifts and front-end loaders. Even the Andy Weavers are permitted an elevator in their barns. Although none of the four can use tractors for plowing, the New Order Amish can use them as road vehicles, and even the Andy Weavers and the Old Orders can use tractors around the barn.
Not so the Swartzentrubers.
But generalizing is only a part of the vision problem most of us have with the Amish. For years before living among them and writing my book, I stereotyped and romanticized the Amish, which is something millions of people do. I still do it. Mention the Amish to most folks and you will generally see a smile cross their faces as they recall the barn-raising scene in the movie “Witness,” starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. Ford plays an English detective hiding among “the plain people” to protect an Amish boy who is his star witness in a murder case. In one compellingly gorgeous scene, McGillis, naked to the waist, is washing and preparing for bed when she and Ford catch each other’s reflection in a mirror. She turns to face him. The moment is bathed in a warm, soft, yellow glow as a thunderstorm charges the night. Romantics beware!
Another take on the Amish could be referred to as the idealized tourist view. People who adhere to this
unquestioning perspective see the Amish as somehow preserving what to most of us is a bygone era, a time before cars and computers, when America’s families worked on their farms, a time when they cared for their neighbors and loved their country. If this view of the Amish were captured in an image, that picture would be of a horse and buggy rolling down a country road lined with tall rows of corn, the sun beginning to set, reflecting just enough red light to see the smiling faces of the Amish children glancing out the back of the buggy, no doubt heading home to a haven of love and peace.
These romanticizers of Amish life are nearly as dangerous as those seeking to sensationalize it. These two
opposing views of the Amish have more in common with each other than is apparent at first. They reveal more about what outsidersneed to see in the Amish than about who the Amish actually are. Thus, when some people look at the Amish, they see a religious fanaticism that is about control, fire and brimstone, the heavy hand of patriarchy, and the subjugation of the individual, particularly women. Others see a splinter of some idealized America of a century ago — or at least a hint of a more recent past, embodied in the back-to-the-land philosophy that mirrors the lost ideals of the 1960s.
As he so often does, writer Wendell Berry grinds our faulty perceptions to cornmeal when he writes, “Nothing, I think, is more peculiarly characteristic ... of American society ... than its inability to see the Amish for what they are. Oh, itsees them, all right. It sees them as quaint, picturesque, old-fashioned, backward, unprogressive, strange, extreme, different, perhaps slightly subversive. And that ‘sight’ is perfect blindness.”
A year after researching and writing my book, I sometimes feel that I know next to nothing about “the Amish.” I do know that I’m now careful never to generalize about them. And when I want to feel connected to these unique and wonderful people, I walk over to the home of my friends, Samuel and Mary Shetler, who also just happen to be Swartzentruber Amish.
Who are the Amish? We think we know, based on our trips to Ohio’s Amish Country for a day of shopping, dining and viewing the idyllic countryside. But Joe Mackall, author ofPlain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, encounters many misperceptions and generalizations about the Amish. Mackall lives in Ashland County and has befriended his neighbors, a family of Swartzentruber Amish, the most conservative and insular order.
Ohio Magazine asked Mackall, an associate professor of English and creative writing at Ashland University, to share some of his insights into Ohio’s Amish traditions, lifestyles and beliefs. His observations can help all of us “English” better understand what we see on next tour Amish Country.
And be sure to check out the calendar of spring and summer events in Ohio’s Amish country on Page 82. A day trip can easily become a weekend getaway with an itinerary that includes fairs, festivals and special food and wine events.
In the Country
Through Oct. 25: You’re cordially invited to a Country Cookin’ & Backroad Tour, with stops at Yoder’s Amish home, along with a narrated buggy ride throughout Amish county followed by a home-cooked meal at the Yoders’ in Holmes County.
Satisfy Your Senses
April 12: Enjoy a Taste of Holmes County during a tour that features stops at area attractions, including the oldest working flourmill in the state, the oldest cheese factory in the country, a noodle factory and much more. 330/893-3248
Fine and Dandy
May 2–3: Breitenbach Winery in Dover, Tuscarawas County, wants you to taste –– yes, taste –– the flowers at the 15th Annual Dandelion May Fest and Great Dandelion Cookoff, where your palate will be put to the test with dandelion food and wine. 800/THE-WINE
Into the Wild
May 2–4: Discover what’s in bloom at the Shawnee State Forest’s Flora Quest, an interactive outdoor adventure spotlighting the wild plants that thrive in this 65,000-acre gem located in the heart of Ohio’s largest contiguous forest, near Southwest Ohio’s Amish settlements in Adams County. 877/ADAMS-OH
June 13–14: Activities are churning at Heini’s Ohio Cheese Festival, offering samples of more than 50 cheese varieties, cheese-making demonstrations and a slew of family-friendly activities, at Heini’s Cheese Chalet in Berlin, Holmes County. 800/253-6636
July 4: Experience An Old-Fashioned Family 4th of July in historic downtown Millersburg, Holmes County. Meet Abe Lincoln, feast on water-melon, listen to patriotic music and watch a fireworks display during this festive celebration. 330/674-3955
July 7–13: Enjoy a traditional day out with the family at the 162nd Annual Trumbull County Fair, where you’ll stock up on locally produced products, experience thrilling rides and enjoy mouthwatering food at the County Fairgrounds in Cortland. 330/637-6010
July 24–26: Ohio’s wines are put to the test at the Tuscarawas Valley B&B Wine Tour. Relax as a chauffeur takes you out for an all-day excursion to the area’s wineries, ending with a quiet evening at the Garden Gate Get-A-Way Bed and Breakfast. 330/674-7608
Aug. 2–3: Celebrate the bringing in of the last load of summer wheat at the Annual Harvest Festival, an antiques show and sale featuring more than 60 antiques dealers, horse-drawn wagon rides, live entertainment and more, in Zoar Village in Tuscarawas County. 330/874-2646
A Grand Affair
Aug. 28–Sept. 1: A summer wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Ohio’s oldest fair, The Great Geauga County Fair. This Labor Day weekend tradition offers live entertainment, Amish hi-wheel cart races, skydiving and more in Burton. 440/834-1846
— Ashley Harrington