The Plain People

Posted August 13th, 2009 at 7:27 pm (UTC-4)

Carol and I recently visited the land of the Plain People in Holmes County, Ohio, just down the road from the ordinary, middle-sized cities of Akron and Canton.

These neatly tied shocks of barley epitomize the look of the countryside in Ohio’s Amish country

This is “Amish country,” the largest, if not richest, concentration of Old Order Amish in the world. It is a serene place, full of rolling meadows, vibrant fields of corn and grain, and the Amish people’s tidy farmsteads. Serene, that is, until you’re stuck behind lines of tourists’ cars, funneling into quaint villages with even quainter names: Charm, Birds Run, Nellie, Seventeen, and Blissfield, to name five. There’s a Berlin, a Schoenbrunn, and a Gnadenhutten, too, giving a clue as to the German heritage of many folks thereabout.

Gnadenhutten. Gesundheit!

You can ride in Amish buggies, gorge yourself at smorgasbord restaurants and Amish bakeries — just try eating a couple of whoopee pies and then tell me the Amish aren’t sinful! — and watch Amishmen make cheese and furniture. You can walk through an authentic Amish home, too, run by non-Amish but with the Plain People’s blessing. It’s a way that the Amish can satisfy the curious while keeping outsiders from prying too deeply into their lives and affairs.

This town-limits sign says it all about one little Holmes County community.

Like the more famous, and much more touristy, Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – replete with its own odd place names (Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse, Blue Ball) – Holmes County is an unusual juxtaposition of cultures. The Old Order Amish’s distinctive 19th-century lifestyle endures alongside, and within, the 21st-century world. These people cheerfully acknowledge that they are living in a time warp as they drive horse-drawn buggies, open carts, and mule- or horse-pulled farm machinery. Their farms, located in the rural parts of 22 mostly eastern and midwestern U.S. states and eastern Canada, are often the largest, best-kept, and most prosperous in their counties. Their homesteads are characterized by well-manicured gardens, windmills, and long rows of hanging wash on clotheslines, as well as one, two, or more additions to their farmhouses to accommodate large, extended families.

And what makes these places especially easy to spot are the plain window shades – that “plain” word again – and the absence of electric wires, frilly curtains, or any other kind of adornments.

Three especially memorable stops marked our visit, not counting dozens of screeches to a halt so that Carol could photograph the alluring countryside:

These are just a few of the lamps on display at Lehman’s General Store. Kerosene lamps are the principal form of illumination in Amish homes.

Lehman’s General Store in Kidron, Ohio. It was founded by a former Mennonite missionary in 1955 to serve the Amish but has evolved into room after room of old-timey and non-electric products that my mother knew well growing up “back in the country” of rural Pennsylvania. This is the place, in a series of refurbished old barns that Jay Lehman moved to one location and joined, to find butter churns, sauerkraut crocks and pickle kegs, oil lamps and cookie cutters by the hundreds, farm bells, noodle makers, potato mashers and other “hand-powered kitchen appliances,” jump-ropes and jack-in-the-boxes, washboards, straight-edge razors, cider presses, hand-cranked radios and ice-cream makers, and something called “granny-ware.” That’s a “water-bath canner” – a metal tub with handles to heat jars of fruits and vegetables like those that my mother “put up” for the winter, even in our suburban basement. Lehman’s carries books like Living With Chickens and Basic Butchering of Livestock and Game. Walking through the place, I felt like I was inside a living Sears & Roebuck mail-order catalog from 1905.

This is the Homestead Furniture “floor lamp” of which I speak. It’s more like a ceiling lamp, though.

Homestead Furniture in Mount Hope, where I was perplexed by floor lamps that rose – and rose and rose – all the way to a very high ceiling. That’s because the owner, Ernie Hershberger, is Old Order Amish, and these lamps, powered by batteries secluded in drawers at their base, take the place of overhead fluorescent electric lights.

And the Gutisberg Cheese Factory in the town of Charm. Now in its 60th year of making cheeses, it invented the “baby Swiss” variety, milder and creamier than typical Swiss cheese, and with far smaller “air” holes. Amishman Abe Mast walked me through the cheese-making routine

The baby Swiss rounds will soon rise to fill the molds at the Gutisberg Cheese plant.

– at least the part that begins once horse-drawn Amish wagons have dropped off tanks of fresh milk. The process is full of vats and enzymes, brine racks and cultures, curds and (of course) whey. Something called “renet,” too. Are you sure you want to know what that is? If not, skip to the next paragraph. Renet, as the Gutisbergs spell it, or rennet, is the extract of the fourth stomach of young ruminants like cows and goats. It helps them digest their mother’s milk, and it causes milk in the vats to coagulate into the beginnings of cheese.

Naturally we also saw what we came for: Amishmen and women and their children, the men and boys in straw hats and the women in bonnets. Their homes and buggies and horses, too.

An Amish farmer heads home with his team after a hard day in the fields. Every day is hard there.

Amish, you see, unlike odd societies that keep their distance from the rest of us, are not separatists. They do not live in communes. Their handsome farms are spread alongside those of their non-Amish neighbors. The most noticeable difference is that their neighbors will plow their fields with motorized tractors, while the Amishman – or just as often, the Amish boy – will plow his with a team of draft horses or mules. (Some of the strictest, Old Order Amish will not allow the use of mules, though, because they were created by human cross-breeding of a donkey and a horse, and not by God.)

Tobacco and cattle were once the Amish’s chief cash crop. The manure from cattle fertilized the tobacco fields, and stockyards and gigantic tobacco warehouses stood on the outskirts of towns near Amish farms. Today dairy cattle, corn, and soybeans are the most prevalent cash crops.

This day’s crop is certainly bountiful, as are most in Amish country.

The demand for land, certainly in Pennsylvania and to a growing degree in Holmes County and surrounding east-central Ohio, is so great that Amish farmers as well as non-Amish developers routinely bid against each other for available parcels. Since the Amish live simply and frugally, the wealthy among them do not spend their money on baubles, cruises, or fancy homes; they buy more land! And they put their money in the bank to save for future generations. The Amishmen are also always in search of more land to meet their obligation to provide farms for their male offspring.

The current U.S. recession has not entirely bypassed the Amish, however. Many of their young people, working in stores and factories in town, have been laid off. And sales of Amish people’s goods have dropped commensurately with a decline in consumer spending. But there’s no such thing as a homeless Amishman. There’s always a large and welcoming place to go home to.

Communities of Amish can be found as far west as Montana and as far south as Texas, and many Amish keep track of other clans’ doings through a chatty newspaper called The Budget, published in nearby Sugarcreek, Ohio. For more than a century, it has printed letters that are the antithesis of racy tabloid fodder. An example from Hillsboro, Wisconsin:

The spring peppers are really enjoying this fine weather, their first outing, and during the day the chirping sparrows’ song fills the air.

There’s plenty of work for man and beast at this Amish sawmill, whose blades and belts are driven by steam engines.

The U.S. Amish population is estimated to be near or above 165,000. This number includes groups of “New Order,” or “Beachy,” Amish – named for Amishman Moses Beachy from Somerset County, Pennsylvania, who led a walkout from an Amish community over the issue of shunning. (More about that in a bit.) Beachy Amish have incorporated some vestiges of modern technology, sometimes even driving cars – albeit black ones with plain black bumpers.

To further confuse visitors to Amish country, members of strict Mennonite orders also drive buggies and eschew electric appliances in their homes. And many Mennonite men wear beards and plain clothing. And there’s a fourth group of Plain People in the mix, too. They are “Dunkards”: German Baptists or “Brethren,” whose baptismal ceremonies include immersion – dunking – in water.

This “Amishman” didn’t mind having his photo taken. In fact, that’s the whole idea.

The Amish call their neighbors who live with 21st-century conveniences the “English,” or Englischers in German. They, and many Mennonites, refer to themselves as “Dutch.” Together, the Plain People (even in Ohio) are often called “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which English Quaker settlers corrupted from the word Deutsch – the German language spoken by many immigrants. Old Order Amish are in fact trilingual: They speak High German at worship; English at school and in dealing with the Englischers; and, at home, a German dialect peppered with words borrowed from English and softened by French influences from their people’s time in Alsace.

Both the Mennonites and the Amish are part of the Anabaptist movement, which began in Switzerland in the early 1500s at the time of the Protestant Reformation. The name means “twice baptized,” as their members – already baptized into the Roman Catholic Church as infants – were baptized a second time as adults. Later, Anabaptists rejected infant baptism, believing that the individual should make a free choice to accept a life with God. At that time, adult baptism was considered a criminal offense that was punishable by death, and many Anabaptists were imprisoned and tortured for their beliefs. Amish songs and books keep stories of their persecution alive and contribute to ongoing Amish distrust of society at large. A favorite Amish story tells the fate of Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems, who pulled to safety a pursuing sheriff who had fallen through the ice on a pond. For his kindness, Willems was arrested and burned at the stake.

One of the reasons Amishmen wear no moustaches dates to this period, for the soldiers who tormented them often wore long, florid ones.

Simplicity — and piety — are the watchwords of Amish life. There are a few Amish trades that you won’t find much in the “English” world.

To avoid detection, Anabaptists fled to the mountains or distant rural regions, where many became farmers. In 1693, Anabaptists in the Alsace region, now part of France, broke away from the larger church. Jakob Ammann, their leader, believed the Anabaptists had become too liberal in their lifestyles, straying from strict biblical teachings. Thereafter, Ammann’s followers became known as the Amish, and Swiss Anabaptists as the Mennonites, a name derived from their leader, Menno Simons.

In the early 1700s, the Amish accepted the invitation of William Penn, Pennsylvania’s founder, to Europeans of all religions to come to “Penn’s Woods” and enjoy a life of freedom and religious tolerance. The Amish from Germany and Switzerland arrived in Philadelphia, and true to their history, promptly headed far into what was then the wilderness, where the “world” could not follow. Such a notion seems preposterous today, as the “world” has built a jumble of outlet centers, strip shopping malls, and quasi-“Amish” attractions, right next to Amish farms. There are some, but nowhere near as many, such startling contrasts in Ohio Amish country as well.

No Amish congregations remain in Europe.

There are no Amish church buildings and no religious icons other than the Bible – an edition originally translated into German by Protestant reform leader Martin Luther. There’s no special Amish creed aside from following Christ’s example by living simply and humbly and helping others. Even personal Bible study is discouraged because it might lead to individual interpretations outside the accepted understanding of God’s word.

There’s nothing religious, or even Amish, about the “hex” signs that one finds in Amish country. They appear on some barns to inspire hearty crops and ward off evil, but they’re more of a tourist trinket than an everyday part of Amish life.

The Amish believe that working the soil brings them close to God. Their worship is organized into districts of about 25 households, led by a bishop. Services are held every other Sunday in each other’s homes. Thus Old Order Amish are sometimes called “House Amish.” In rooms cleared of household furniture, men and boys sit on one side, and women and girls on the other, both facing a central area where leaders are seated. Home worship harks back to the days in Europe when persecuted Anabaptists were forced to worship secretly. It reinforces the Amish belief that worship and daily life are inseparable.

The 3½-hour service begins with about 35 minutes of singing from the Ausbund, an 812-page German-language hymnal written by Anabaptists while they were imprisoned in the 1530s. There are no musical notes for the 140 songs within it, and no instruments accompany the singing, which is delivered slowly in a chant with no harmony. (Thus I, a shower tenor and choir lover, could never be an Amishman. Not that I’m big on plowing, either.) Some hymns have as many as – are you ready for this? – 60 verses!

These buggies are lined up outside an Amish house in which a church service, or at least hymn-singing, are probably going on.

Then comes a series of New Testament scriptures read from a booklet that lists 26 texts appropriate to the time of year. A second speaker, chosen by the congregation’s leaders only moments before he begins speaking, then preaches the main sermon that lasts an hour or more without notes of any kind. Talk about pressure! More scriptures and comments from the assembled, called “witnessing,” follow, then a prayer from a German prayer book and a benediction. And they’re not done yet! Announcements from the deacon and a final hymn bring the service to a close.

Then the women, who take no leadership role in any religious service, prepare a light, cold meal. Offerings are collected only twice a year – at Eastertime and at a fall communion service that can last seven hours or more. (The Amish are certainly a patient, unhurried lot.) That service is followed by ritual foot-washing and the sharing of bread and wine, the latter made from grapes by the bishop’s wife.

Religious holidays are solemn occasions. The Amish exchange small, practical gifts at Christmas, but there are no Christmas trees, lights, or Santa Claus figures, stories or songs. Nor does Peter Cottontail hop down the bunny trail around Easter in Amish country. Bunnies are sometimes served at mealtime, however.

This could be a “courting buggy,” although it looks like it’s had a lot of other uses. Note the rear reflector, required by law but a slim slice of protection for driver, passengers, and horse.

Sunday afternoons are a time for play and socializing. Baseball and softball are passions among Amish youth, even though they do not listen to games on radio or watch them on television. Young singles, who, together, are called “gangs” by the Amish, travel to other homes on Sunday evenings for more hymn-singing. A “date” will often consist of singing hymns (you may be detecting a trend here) or perhaps a spirited game of volleyball. It is to and from these events that a young Amishman will often drive a single Amishwoman in an open “courting buggy.”

An enclosed family buggy, sometimes laughingly called a “cheese box” by the Amish themselves, costs about $7,000, its single horse about $2,000, and harnesses $1,000 or more. In communities with large Amish populations, buggies, which must have lights and triangular rear reflectors, are sold at dealerships, just like cars. I can’t say whether they take test drives and haggle over the price there.

A common Amish country scene. Heavy traffic on both sides of the road, but one side crawling behind a slow-moving buggy that has nowhere else to go on the narrow roads.

Those reflectors are meager protection against onrushing automobiles, although the Amish keep to the side of the road whenever possible. Nevertheless, there are many gruesome accidents in which the Amish and their horses almost always get the worst of it.

Amish elders often “look the other way” as many of their young people “sow their wild oats” and taste worldly pleasures for a period. In this time of modest rebellion, it is not uncommon for Amish teenagers and young adults to obtain driver’s licenses and drive cars, change from their simple clothes into Englischer garb, and go dancing and bar-hopping in big cities like Philadelphia or Cleveland. Young Amish have occasionally been arrested for drunken driving of buggies as well as automobiles. Such rascally behavior is tolerated because the young people have not yet joined the church. But once a person accepts baptism – often at the time of marriage – all such worldly dalliances are banned forever. At baptism, the young Amishman or woman accepts the Christian faith and the authority of the group, and the penalty for deviation is lifetime shunning by the community, parents and siblings included.

Young Amish people are adept at making whoopee . . . pies out of oatmeal, chocolate, butter, and the creamiest filling in the land. They also are free, briefly, to make the other kind of whoopee: exuberant fun.

The excommunicated person may remain with his or her Amish spouse, but sexual relations are forbidden until and unless he or she renounces wicked behavior and returns to the fold.

Elizabethtown College professor Donald Kraybill, who has written several long backgrounders on the Amish, estimates that four of five young Amish people accept baptism and remain in the fold. After all, temptations to stay are surprisingly strong. Within the community there is love, support, security, and what I would call a degree of certainty that the harsh “real world,” with its unexpected twists, cannot guarantee.

Marriage is encouraged by the Amish but by no means expected. Unmarried Amishmen work farms or get jobs as carpenters, buggy makers, or mill employees. Amishmen are enthusiastic participants in volunteer fire departments, whose efforts obviously benefit Amish homes and barns. But the Amish do not participate in other community or professional organizations, organized sports, or political parties. They do vote in local elections, but usually not in state or national contests. Amishmen will not serve in military services; in wartime, they have traditionally been exempted from service as conscientious objectors and given noncombat roles. Some Amish do, though, keep rifles for hunting and even share hunting cabins in the mountains.

You know this is an Amish farm. You see no electric wires, but a clothesline getting lots of use.

The Amish buy goods that they cannot make or grow – especially raw materials, fertilizer, and farm machinery – from Englischer merchants, they bank at town financial institutions, and they hold public auctions. Unmarried Amish women often leave home to run quilt, bake, or craft shops, or to work in Amish butcher shops or health-food stores. Married Amish women also sometimes work outside the home, and two-income Amish households are becoming almost as common as in the community at large.

The Amish are never ostentatious, but the Plain People do express themselves exuberantly in their exquisite quilts.

Obedience – children to parents and teachers, wives to husbands, and all to God’s word – is central to the Amish way of life. So is the glorification of God and the community, not the individual. Arrogance, pride, publicity, and adornments that call attention to oneself are forbidden. You won’t see Amish people with nose rings or tattoos.

It is therefore apt that Amish appearance and dress are plain and utilitarian. Amish girls and women wear their hair parted in the middle and pulled back in a bin; the hair is never cut! They wear prayer coverings at all times in public due to a biblical dictate from 1st Corinthians. When they travel, Amish women and girls also wear bulky black bonnets that are almost as big as hoods.

Unmarried men are clean-shaven, and boys often are given bobbed “Dutch cut” haircuts. Married men grow beards, which, for the rest of their lives, they never trim. They wear straw hats to keep the sun off their necks in warm weather but switch to black felt hats for worship and on cold days. From the moment they are potty-trained, boys wear the same clothes as men, including suspenders.

If you’d ever shake hands with an Amishman, you’d remember it, for work on an Amish farm is hard, and an Amishman’s hands are tough, callused, and extremely strong.

There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place, in an Amish home.

Amish homes are generally devoid of decoration, although the Plain People will hang calendars, dried flowers, colorful quilts, and photographs . . . of scenery – never themselves or others. They believe that only the vain pose for photographs, and they do not take kindly to close-up photos snapped by others. Distant shots don’t seem to disturb them, though, and anyway, the most you’ll get for popping one is a shaken fist, since the Amish don’t believe in lawsuits!

This is an Amish “washing machine.” Actually, some homes have mechanical ones, powered by oil or gas.

Often the kitchen is the only heated room in an Amish house, and the sick are sometimes tended to there. Most kitchens do have modern-looking appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines – run by kerosene or propane gas. But you won’t find dishwashers (except the women and girls), toasters, microwave ovens, or, indeed, any electric outlets in which such contraptions could be plugged. Few Amish have deep freezers, but they get around the problem by bartering produce in exchange for freezer space at a non-Amish neighbor’s farm.

The aversion to electricity, by the way, has nothing to do with the modernity of it all, and certainly the Bible was silent on the practical use of electrons. Rather, the objection is that wires from the street into the house or barn are a tangible tie to the outside world that the Amish wish to avoid. Modern plumbing is readily accepted, and many bishops allowed telephones in Amish homes for a time until people were found to be gossiping; pay phones can now be found at the end of country lanes on some Amish farms.

A horse and “cheese box” buggy fittingly pass in front of the Gutisberg Cheese Co. factory and Swiss-inspired showroom. The founder was hired from Switzerland by local Amish looking for a cheese-making master.

You won’t find Amish people going door to door looking for converts. They believe that their good works and piety speak for themselves. They welcome converts, but
find it difficult to renounce modern conveniences (“No I-Pod? You’ve got to be kidding me.”). One Amish woman told me that potential converts find it especially wrenching to give up their automobiles. Who would trade tooling along at 100 kpm in a luxurious sedan for clip-clop, clip-clopping behind a moseying horse?

The Amish do not practice birth control, and families of seven, eight, or, for that matter, fifteen children are not unusual. Several siblings of the same sex often share bedrooms. Offspring are needed, of course, to support large Amish farms, though prosperous farmers will also employ non-Amish labor, especially during the harvest season.

To give you an idea of the size of Amish steam engines, that’s good-sized me standing in front of one of them.

You’ll find mechanized equipment on the farm and in mills, but it’s powered by steam, not internal-combustion engines, and is pulled by draft animals just like a farm wagon. And Amish farm equipment may have only steel or wooden wheels for the same reason that Amish allow tricycles, roller skates, and push scooters but not bicycles: rubber wheels on vehicles would make travel away from the community and into the temptations of the world too easy. The Amish do, however, accept rides, and “English” taxi services do a lively business. The Amish will also hire non-Amish drivers to move products and take them to visit far-off relatives. Train and intercity bus travel is allowed, but air travel is rarely permitted.

A young Amishwoman and her even younger siblings sell baskets by the side of the road in Charm, Ohio.

The Amish may be modest in most realms, but they are ambitious in business. Common at the end of an Amish family’s driveway are tiny, hand-printed signs announcing “bunnies for sale” or “quilts – no Sunday sales.” No other signs will be found. No beer or cigarette advertisements on billboards, for sure. Like Englischers, the Amish take advantage of tourism, as we saw in Holmes County. They want strangers to come, see, and buy – but not pry. “Yes, we’re different,” they’ll tell you. “But you’re different, too. We could certainly ask why you dress the way you do.”

Amish children may attend public school, but more common in heavily Amish areas are one-room, English-language parochial schools where, once again, girls sit on one side of a central aisle, boys on the other. It was such a school in Bart Township, Pennsylvania, that brought worldwide attention to the reclusive Amish in 2006, when a deranged non-Amish gunman shot and killed six girls after lining them up against a chalkboard. What staggered the outside world even more than the heinous act was the Amish response to this tragedy. The grandfather of one of the girls told his fellow Amish, “We must not think evil of this man.” An Amish neighbor comforted the killer’s wife and children, and the Amish set up a charitable fund for them, and offered them the community’s forgiveness.

Amish furniture is prized for its quality and craftsmanship.

Amish life is quaint but by no means idyllic. They are plain, not perfect, people, and very much a people apart while still in our midst. They cling stubbornly to old ways, resist new ones, and keep to themselves. There are jealousies and feuds as in any community. Births out of wedlock, mental illness, family violence, and suicide are not unknown among them. But the Amish by all accounts are also loving and supportive, though strict, parents. Their homes are “safe houses” for old and young. The “information age” may be passing the Amish by, but so are many of the stresses and dangers that grip the outside world. The Amish can and do fairly ask of their worldly neighbors, “Where is all your ‘progress’ taking you? Are you happier? More loved? More fulfilled?”

Seen in this light, the wholesome life of North America’s Plain People does not seem backward at all.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Dalliance. A frivolous use of time. “Goofing around” rather than working.

Mosey along. To dawdle or take one’s sweet old time about getting somewhere.

Perplexing. Confusing, lacking clarity.

2 responses to “The Plain People”

  1. Kaylee Sonka says:

    Interesting info thanks

  2. Nicolette Doroff says:

    Teri, Thank you! I hope you enjoy your day with the donkeys.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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