I am sitting on the back porch of an Amish couple’s home watching fireflies dance in the backyard.
The sun’s last rays are illuminating the low clouds just over the next hill, and the crickets are providing a lively chorus. We’re enjoying kettle corn and conversation, and it’s one of those times you want to savor.
“What’s it like living in Europe?” Eli wants to know. He’s very curious about the continent, and is interested in everything from the train schedule to the types of manufacturing in each country. He has so many questions for me that I ask in jest if he’s planning on moving. At first he’s a little surprised I would ask such a darn fool question. Finally he grins and says simply, “No, I’d just like to know, is all.” I’m not surprised, since both he and Mary were born within 10 miles of the spot we’re sitting on, and all of their 8 children (6 boys, 2 girls) can be reached within 1 and ½ hours by horse-drawn buggy.
We’ll come back to this little chat in a moment, but first I’d like to tell you a little bit about this picturesque slice of Americana. We started out from Sandusky, Ohio, and headed southwest toward Berlin (Amish pronounce it with the accent on the first syllable-BERlin), and if you’ve been following this on the map, you know we’d have been a whole lot better off just seeing Amish Ohio while we were already in Canton a couple of days ago, but that would have been too easy. Anyway, we take a lot of backcountry roads going through small towns that aren’t on most maps, and each of them looks like it could have been the inspiration for a Norman Rockwell painting. They all feature a stately City Hall prominently situated in a town square or directly on main street, the dry goods or general store still caters to most of the shopping needs, and the Stars and Stripes hangs from the front porches of the white clapboard homes lining the roads. It’s a great way to see America, and the road beckons with lots of gentle curves over rolling farmland.
Our first stop in Berlin is the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center, which has a small gift shop, but the main draw is a giant mural painted by a relatively unknown German painter named Bebalt. This is displayed in a round gallery and is accessible only if you pay for a tour ($17), and I highly recommend this attraction if you are a history addict like me. Otherwise, you’ll be disappointed, because I hate to say the painting itself, which took this poor guy years to do, is really a pretty amateur effort. But it does effectively tell the story of the Anabaptists, and in thirty minutes you’ll be told everything from the first adult European baptism since Constantine (Zurich, late 1500’s) to the cultural differences between the Amish, Hitterites, and Mennonites today. If you just want to see a living museum and watch these people at work and play you can skip this and go for a ride, but for a deeper understanding it’s worth your money and time.
Holmes County has the highest concentration of Amish and Mennonite peoples in the world, so we spend a little time just driving on small county roads and enjoying the scenery. We spend an hour or so browsing through the shops in town, where you can buy hand made quilts for about $1000. They take four months to make, and they’re splendid. The furniture seems like a bargain. There is a 3 drawer, legal size, solid oak file cabinet for sale for $285, or a beautiful china buffet for less than $1000. But I’m just kicking tires, really, and spend most of the time cruising. This country is not spectacular, but it’s breathtaking all the same in its bucolic splendor. Here you see a farmer plowing his field behind two big draft horses, there a farmhouse with cows grazing nearly at the front door. Horse drawn buggies are everywhere, but, as these people are shy of cameras, we are careful to only take pictures from behind. As we crest a hill the farmland spills off into the distance in every direction like a green and yellow quilt The sun’s last rays are glinting off of the metal roofs of barns and silos that dot the landscape, and the smell of freshly mowed hay and grass remind you that this land is as fertile as any on earth. I get out of the car to breath it all in. In the distance, a small group of children are playing a game I can’t make out. The boys are dressed like their fathers in suspenders and straw hats and the girls are wearing bright pink and green ankle-length dresses and distinctive white Amish caps. When they see us they eagerly wave and smile like the sun. It’s a scene from a 19th century woodcut, and it makes you wish you could be part of it. I wonder how it’s possible to maintain this kind of peaceful and simple lifestyle all the way into the 21st century.
I ask Eli that question when I meet him. Eli is a spry little gnome of a man, about sixty or so, with of course the trademark Amish beard sans mustache. He’s wearing blue jeans with suspenders and a work shirt. He sports a straw hat most of the time. “It’s not easy”, he’ll allow. “Especially the young men, y’know. The thing is if they get a girlfriend, they’ll stay.”
Eli and his wife are living in what’s called a “Dawdy House”, which is where the grandparents live when the children grow up, but in this case they built it for a family of 10 and just decided to stay. They remark occasionally on how big it seems now that the kids are gone. It’s very simple and solid, with white vinyl siding and a dark shingle roof Eli wants to replace with brown steel. It’s a pretty and unpretentious two story country home, positioned on the slope of a hill and backing up to one of his son’s houses. The kitchen is enormous, the size of most living rooms, and has solid oak cabinets spanning two walls. There’s an oversized gas range and a large oak dining table centrally located, and the place is decorated with frilly country things.
We meet Mary in the there cooking, and it’s almost pitch black inside by this time of day. Eli lights up the gas lamps over the kitchen table. I didn’t know they made such things. They look like a fancy Coleman chandelier. I’m not sure if they do this just for me.
Mary’s a tiny thing also, and she has a perpetual grin. “I just finished doing some peaches. Your room is downstairs. Let me show you.” She walks us to our very simple but clean lodging. There are two quilted beds, and, much to my relief, hot and cold running water and indoor plumbing. I didn’t know what to expect. “I made you some cookies and muffins and take as many as you like. There’s orange juice in the refrigerator.” I note that we have conveniences like electricity that are lacking upstairs. The room is way overpriced by hotel standards at $120, but I’m not paying for the room. I’d like to learn more about the lifestyle.
One of the surprising things to me was to see them using so many power tools and appliances, like Weedeaters, lawn mowers, tractors, and electricity. Yes, they lead simpler lives than us, but they also allow for change. When I asked about it, I’m told that they don’t mind change, but they want to control it, instead of the change controlling them, so they’re slower to adapt. Eli tells me it’s generally considered to be OK to use tools if they are directly related to work. I should note here that there are different Amish sects that allow for varying degrees of modern convenience,
and there’s quite a bit of individual leeway. One of his sons has a (gasp) car! Eli says he could force him to leave the Amish for this, but then he’d never see him. Very pragmatic. I’m surprised by the answers I get. Actually, I’m surprised quite a bit by these people.
Eli and Mary Raber have been married 49 years and are about as cute a couple as you’ll ever hope to meet. Eli works from 6AM to 3:30PM as a carpenter for a furniture maker, and Mary takes care of the house. Mary suggests we sit on the back porch and chat a while, and that’s where we picked up this story, with the fireflies and conversation. I found it quite illuminating, but I’ll paraphrase here for brevity.
Me: “I’m surprised you work a 9-5 job. I thought everyone here was a farmer.”
Eli: “That used to be true, but you just can’t make any money at it anymore, y’know. Only one of my sons is a farmer. He has dairy cows.”
I’m amazed by this since all I see is farmland around me, and I can see they have fresh vegetables from the garden.
Me: “Do you go everywhere by horse?”
Eli: “Yes. I have one horse, y’know, Mike, and he pulls my buggy. During the winter we used to use sleighs, but now the roads are cleared too fast. The kids take a pony to school most days. The furniture company picks me and the other Amish up by van because it’s so far away.”
We take a few minutes to water Mike, who looks like a fine animal to my untrained eye.
Me: “What about the draft? Did you serve?”
Eli: “No, my number didn’t come up. But I knew some who did. They didn’t have combat duty because of conscientious objector status.”
Me: “What about school? Do your grandkids still go to a one room schoolhouse?”
Eli: “Yes. There’s an average of maybe 30 in a class and they have an Amish teacher. Sometimes they have two and put a curtain up between the classrooms. They finish school in the 8th grade, but continue learning about agriculture through their teen years.”
Me: “I know kids have a choice about living here. Do you have trouble with them?”
Eli: “We have drug problems.”
Me: “Really? Where do they get them?”
Eli: “They come into town. The English.”
“English” is a term for outsiders.
Eli: “Plus they have these phones! They’re terrific! They’re on them all the time! Terrific!”
Me: “Is terrific bad?”
Me: “How about worship? Is that in a church?”
Eli: “We have services in someone’s home or in a meeting hall. We elect bishops and deacons from the community elders. The positions are not paid. They have a sermon every Sunday, and everyone is there.”
Me: “You seem inquisitive about my travel. Have you ever travelled?”
Eli: “We went to Sarasota a couple of years ago, just for vacation. And we’ve been to Indiana for funerals and weddings.”
Me: “Can an English person become Amish?”
Eli: “Some have tried, but it doesn’t usually work out.”
Me: “I know you think you have a lot of problems here with drugs and cell phones and keeping kids here. Can you imagine living anywhere else?”
Eli and Mary: “No.”
We sleep early because there is no electronic entertainment. In the morning when we awake, Eli’s already gone. Mary’s daughters are visiting, so we say a quick good bye and are soon on our way.
I like these people. They are honest and direct, simple but not stupid, loving but tough. In spite of all the considerable odds stacked against them, they’ve managed to maintain their own cultural and spiritual identity for over 400 years even as the world around them grows increasingly crazy. They understand the problems they face from the English but they don’t hate us and just want to quietly live their lives in peace. It’s easy to understand the allure of a country life filled with the joys of living in a like-minded community of spiritual brethren. They work very hard, yes, and they have very human problems just like we do, but somehow I think they’ve found a better way to handle them and maybe we could learn something from that. Community ties, family bonds, love your neighbors. Who’d have thought that would work?
But at the same time what does it say about the state of America when even these thrifty and independent people must punch a clock because the family farm just doesn’t pay the bills anymore? When a sixty plus year old man must leave his own land and work for the English just to get by, and has to worry about the human filth that will contaminate his granddaughters in spite of living in a remote enclave, what does that say about our country and its future? Jefferson believed that a republic was best served by an agrarian society. I wonder what he’d have thought of a country that only found profit in financial speculation and war? I look at these people and I wonder if even the Amish can survive long in the current economic and social climate, and I hope they can, because if we are to ever come back from the abyss we’ve been dancing on as a nation, it’ll be through manufacturing, and small farms, and community service like I saw here in rural Ohio, not by floating derivatives in New York and starting wars in Mesopotamia.
ps-Yes, we felt the earthquake in Virginia all the way over here in Ohio. Either that, or my stomach is acting up again…:)