I grew up less than an hour from Amish country. When I think about that, it’s hard to believe because I was full-on suburban girl, hitting the mall, the movie theaters and going to sleep-overs on the weekend so we could stay up late and watch Saturday Night Live. It was only 55 minutes, but centuries apart. I was raised in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio; a city which once lost its identity but has returned stronger than the steel it once made. That is a post for another time.
If you traveled east from my house towards the country, Mayfield Road would first be full of clustered commercial storefronts with car dealerships and food joints (including an old favorite Italian restaurant) eventually passing the 271 interchange and just scraping the northern border of a large territory of land where the “old money” wealthy have homes on multi-acre lots.
From there, it would all fall away to landscapes dotted with the occasional store, bar, and a few farmhouses set back from the road displaying lots of open land and grazing Holstein and Golden Guernsey cows. You would even drive past Alpine Valley Ski Area in Geauga County. It wasn’t until you hit Old State Road and turned south when you would begin to see the signature horse-drawn Amish buggy with the “Slow-Moving Vehicle” orange triangular sign warning drivers to use caution…and patience. And soon after, you would arrive in Middlefield, Ohio: the center of the fourth largest Amish settlement in the world.
Middlefield’s population is a mix of both Amish and “Englischers”, their word for all non-Amish. It isn’t based on heritage, but rather on what language you speak. The word is Pennsylvanian Dutch which is an American language developed in rural areas of southeastern and central Pennsylvania during the 18th century and is the first language of the Amish. Its base language is German. In fact, “Dutch” is actually “Dietsch” in German. Also, there are more Amish in Ohio now than in Pennsylvania.
Amish life is governed by the “Ordnung,” a German word for order. The rules vary from community to community. Overall, most Amish groups forbid owning automobiles, tapping electricity from public utility lines, using tractors for farming, owning a television, radio, and computer, attending high school and college, joining the military, and initiating divorce. Photos are banned because they might cultivate personal vanity.
You may remember the movie Witness. Harrison Ford stars as a cop trying to protect a young Amish boy who has witnessed a murder in Philadelphia. They return to the boy’s family farm in rural Pennsylvania to hide. It is an excellent film for many reasons, I refer to it because (with the exception of the completely unrealistic romance) it has many good examples of how the Amish live; and why. Plus, there is an amazing barn-raising scene worth watching. The Amish are known for supporting each other through births, deaths, illness and any farming or building project.
There is another moment in the film I love where the big city (corrupt) cops have arrived at the local sheriff’s office who oversees the rural counties where hundreds of Amish families live and he’s explaining that it’s going to take time to knock on all their doors to find Ford. When the cops ask “why can’t you just get your guys to call around?” the sheriff replies “well, we could do that… if the Amish had phones.” There is a huge gap in awareness of how exactly the Amish live.
The Amish want to live simply. They wear plain clothes (usually with no buttons because they are a symbol of adornment). The women wear the traditional white “kapp” and men grow beards only when they marry. They live by the Gelassenheit philosophy which includes yielding to God, putting others before themselves and leading a content and modest life.
The Amish strive to be a separate society. They want nothing to do with Englischer laws. Everything is always an “Amish matter.” They have their own set of deacons and a “bishop” who is there for guidance and for handling sensitive issues. This is not to say that sometimes the modern world doesn’t come knocking and there are incidences where state laws and ordinances override their internal leadership and the local officials/police can get involved. And as a side note, the Amish are pacifists. They will never fight back if a crime is perpetrated against them nor would they ever be the aggressor. It is simply “God’s way.”
Amish children typically only attend school through eighth grade, mostly at private Amish schools, but a few go to public schools. Their right to end school at age 14 was confirmed by a 1972 ruling of the United States Supreme Court.
Somewhere around the ages of 14-16, Amish youth go through an important period called Rumspringa or “running around.” This is when the restrictions are relaxed and they are allowed to do what kids do: wear teen styles of clothing, drive, use modern technology etc. Of course, drinking and recreational drug use is not uncommon. Once Rumspringa is over, Amish youth must decide if they will be baptized and join the church or leave the Amish community. Almost 90% of the teens choose to be baptized.
According to a 2014 USA Today article, “the Amish sect arose from a late-17th century schism in the Anabaptist church by followers of Jakob Amman, a Swiss minister who believed that adherents should “conform to the teachings of Christ and His apostles” and “forsake the world” in their daily lives. The word “Amish” derives from his name.”
Since then, this community has splintered into smaller sub-groups. The Swartzentruber clan are the most conservative. They split with the Old Order in 1917 regarding the Bann. This is the harshest form of punishment when an Amish person is ex-communicated or “shunned” when they have done something unforgivable. This includes leaving the community.
The Swartzentruber still do not use any modern conveniences like milking machines or indoor plumbing. Their buggies are windowless. The Mennonites are at the other end and drive cars and use electricity. Although the Amish do not own phones, most communities now allow for a central payphone in town. This can be used (in rare cases) for contacting emergency assistance or for contacting relatives who may live in a different state.
And there are other concessions to which the Amish have adopted. In 2005, Wal-Mart opened a Supercenter in Middlefield. In order to cater to the local Amish population, the Supercenter has an expanded parking lot that includes 37 hitching posts for Amish buggies, and the store is stocked with blocks of ice and fabrics for clothes to be made at home.
I find the continued use of horse-and-buggy transportation interesting. The Amish feel that by bringing greater mobility, cars would pull the community apart, eroding local ties. Their choice for transportation keeps the community anchored in its local geographical base. Additionally, Middlefield (and other communities) has created buggy lanes to assist the Amish and the locals with traffic.
Some Amish also have a relationship with the local businesses. They will bring quilts, hand-crafted wooden mailboxes and bird feeders and food (baked goods, cheese, jam) to sell through these country stores. Tourism is a good piece of the economy for these areas and all benefit.
In fact, I was curious, so I checked Middlefield on Google maps and found a few interesting businesses. There is Ida’s Treasures & More, the Rothenbuhler Cheese Chalet, the Byler Harness Shop, Miller’s Country Jams and Mary Yoder’s Amish Kitchen. Here is an excerpt of a recent review from there:
“The food and service were top notch, and the women were so kind when I asked questions about Amish dishes and the Amish lifestyle. This was also the ONLY place that sold handmade faceless dolls. This menu was truly cooked from home despite being a restaurant.” The faceless dolls reference is based on the Amish belief to follow the Commandment “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”
Through the years, I have actually learned a lot about the Amish by reading the Kate Burkholder mystery series written by Linda Castillo. I think she fairly depicts aspects of Amish life in a fictional town in Ohio while taking the reader on a hell of a mystery/crime ride. (I feel I need to forewarn prospective readers that her first couple of books contain some violent, descriptive murders) but the Amish way of life is its own character in the series and I enjoy them and the very strong female lead. Kate is the Chief of Police of Painters Mill.
I have visited Middlefield, although it was a few lifetimes ago. I attended a camp nearby one year which took us to an Amish livestock auction. I’m not sure if the Amish were selling or buying, but we sat on benches in a barn and watched cows and hogs be auctioned off. I remember it being noisy, but a fair-like atmosphere. I have a vague recollection of an Amish furniture store too.
And I have another far distant connection. In 1938, my grandparents (mother’s side) bought a farmhouse on Old State Road close to Middlefield. It had been built in 1831 and had 40 acres of land which their neighbor leased for his cattle. After renovating it, it became a summer home where they taught art classes (my grandparents will be a future post too.) They named it “Grassmere” (after William Wordsworth’s home in England.) Here is a photo of the postcard Natalie would send to new students for directions:
Maybe because I have been re-reading Castillo’s series of books or perhaps because of a recent conversation with someone raised in Indiana (another large settlement area for the Amish) who can’t wait to go back and shop in the country stores and sit on their steps taking in moments of the Amish life, that an interest and sense of connection has been re-kindled. It could be that I’m just an Ohio girl and a piece of their world has stuck with me all these years. Maybe that’s why I like the books. I am not implying that I want to be Amish, I could never live without my computer or the internet, my music, television and appliances but I like their philosophy that one can be content with less not more and shedding “stuff” can always be a goal. Another goal is to travel back to Middlefield. I have come to understand so much about the Amish and I want to witness their goodness and strong community first-hand.
The Amish: 10 Things You Might Not Know USA Today August 2014
Wikipedia: Middlefield, Ohio