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Beyond Buggies

By Barbara Wayman
Home & Away Magazine, Ohio Edition, September/October 2006

New Cultural tours offer a behind-the-scenes look at the world’s largest Amish and Mennonite community.

Two years ago my husband, Jim, and I were driving though Ohio’s Holmes County when we came across dozens of buggies parked along the road. Wondering what was going on, we parked our truck and found a crowd of more that 100 Amish, who had gathered for an annual dog dipping. As the dogs were dunked into a galvanized tub of yellow flea killer, the owners socialized with neighbors. Even the local police canine unit came to take part. The experience got us thinking about how much we didn’t know about the Amish way of life. Twenty-one states have Amish settlements, but Ohio has the most. In fact, of the 100,000 Amish in the world, 40,000 live in the Buckeye State, mostly within the area of Holmes, Wayne, and Tuscarawas, Coshocton, Ashland and Stark counties.

Each year this region attracts more than 4 million tourists. People come to drive through the beautiful countryside, shop for handmade furniture and crafts, and savor the country recipes that are the epitome of comfort food. But visitors often leave with little understanding of Amish history and culture.

Until recently there were few opportunities to learn more, but now tour operators are changing that. They’re organizing Amish heritage tours that get visitors into Amish homes or let them take part in mock Amish rituals, so that a dog dipping doesn’t seem like an odd event but a logical way to mix farm businesses with social pleasure.

An Amish Primer

“There are a log of misconceptions about the Amish,” said Jo Ann Hershberger, who runs the Real Amish Experiences tour company. “It’s a closed society and operates by different rules.” Hershberger’s grandfather was Old Order Amish, but her parents left the church when she was 3. Growing up near but not part of the culture has given her a valuable perspective on the Amish way of life.

“If someone leaves the church, we say they ‘jumped the fence,’” Hershberger said. “The Amish average six children per family and about 80 percent stay within the church.” Those who leave must make do with an eight-grade education, which would seem to be a deterrent to striking out on one’s own.

For some historical perspective, Jim and I stopped at the Behalt/Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center east of Berlin. We learned that the ancestors of all of today’s Amish originated in Switzerland in the early 1500s. Part of the Reformation, their core beliefs included adult baptism, nonresistance to aggression, and the complete separation of church and state. Because these beliefs ran counter to majority views, the Amish, or Anabaptists as they were then called, were driven into the mountains where they adapted to an independent, farm-based way of life.

As recently as 30 years ago, three-quarters of the American Amish were either farmers or retired farmers. But as the Amish population doubles every 20 years, the scarcity and cost of farmland has driven many into other jobs, such as tourism, woodworking, or manufacturing.

A Wedding Feast

“We do not want you to leave hungry. It is not our fault if you do,” intoned Hershberger at the start of the three-hour Amish Wedding Feast, held by Real Amish Experiences at the Dutch Harvest Restaurant on U.S. Highway 62 in Berlin. Soon the table was covered with platters of meatloaf, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, stuffing, noodles, green beans, coleslaw and rolls. After a silent prayer in the Amish tradition, we dug in and learned what a typical Amish wedding is like.

“We developed this as a way of helping visitors experience the many different elements of Amish life,” Hershberger said of the program. She asked two guests if they’d mind dressing in Amish wedding clothes. When they reappeared, they had stepped back in time. The bride’s dress wasn’t white, it was navy. And her cap was black. “A single woman wears a black cap, but after the wedding she’ll wear a white one from then on,” Hershberger said.

We learned that Amish weddings usually take place in a barn (typically the largest structure available), and aside from saying vows in German, the church service remains standard. There are no flowers or special decor for the occasion. All the money is spent on food.

Amish weddings typically have between 300 to 500 guests and include a feast, which means a lot of cooking.

“Weddings are usually on a Thursday of Friday in the spring or fall,” Hershberger said. “The don’t work on Sunday, so this way they can prepare all the food from Monday through Wednesday and clean up on Friday and Saturday.”

Off the Beaten Path

Hershberger’s cousin, Floyd Mullet, was our driver for a backroads tour the next day. He takes small groups by van through the countryside to watch the Amish go about their daily routines. As we passed one-room schoolhouses, Mullet told us that Amish children learn the importance of work from an early age. They start with small chores and are progressively entrusted with larger duties.

“The Amish speak Pennsylvania Dutch,” Mullet said. “It’s similar to German. Amish children learn English at school and are taught some high German there, too.”

Floyd pointed out the Amish library, which was unmarked and looked just like a simple one-room house. “It’s unstaffed. You get the key to the building from the house across the street. You sign your name to take out a book. It’s the only library I know of in this area.”

He then took us to a small shop run by an elderly Amish couple. Although the husband is almost totally blind, he is a skilled broom maker, and we watched his technique and chatted with him and his wife. We later stopped near a farm to see a father and son team unload thousands of ears of husked corn into a giant crib.

Having Mullet along to shed light on what we were seeing gave us new insights. The first Amish house built in the area is still standing, but typical of the Amish way, no signs or plaques mark its significance. If weren’t with Mullet, we’d have had no way of knowing the building’s place in local history. The backroads tour lasts three hours. The stops vary with the seasons but always include the area’s most scenic places and hidden destinations.

The Simple Life

Later, while exploring on our own, we lunched at the counter of the Boyd and Worthman Restaurant in Berlin. Boyd and Worthman is a local institution known for hearty family-style meals. We were among the few non-Amish there. The restaurant’s two dozen pie selections included grape cream, shoo-fly, raisin, black raspberry and custard.

Our first shopping stop was Lehman’s, a unique hardware store in Kidron filled with thousands of practical, nonelectric items. Kerosene lamps, glass milk bottles, copper kettles and pickle kegs were some of the old-fashioned items found lining the shelves. Part of the fun of visiting Lehman’s, which has been family-owned and operated since 1955, is guessing what some of the tools are used for. Nearly every Hollywood movie set between 1800 and 1950 has relied on Lehman’s for authentic period woodstoves, hand tools, kitchenware, and nonelectric appliances.

Heine’s Cheese Chalet, just north of Berlin, was hopping during our visit, as busloads of tourists were scouring the racks filled with more that 50 kinds of Amish cheeses, as well as smoked meats, candy, ice cream and canned homegrown Amish vegetables. Heine’s gives lots of samples, and visitors can see vats of cheese being made behind glass walls.

It’s always Christmas at ‘Tis the Season, Ohio’s largest Christmas shop, which is open year-round. We browsed the incredible selection of ornaments, artificial trees, stockings, and seasonal decor items. There are scores of shops in the area’s small towns such as Berlin and Charm—just be sure to get cone shipping during the daylight hours, as stores shut down around nightfall.

To be close to all the area’s attractions, we stayed at Hannah’s house, a Victorian-style bed-and-breakfast located just behind the Dutch Harvest Restaurant on U.S. 62 in Berlin. The lovely house offers vaulted ceilings in the main room and gorgeous stained-glass doors and windows. We enjoyed the pink-and-green master bedroom, which included a private deck and whirlpool tub.

“Over the holidays, we’ll have families rent the whole place, just so that can all be together and really relax,” said innkeeper Barbara Erb. Her homemade breakfast dishes were fabulous, and we loved taking morning walks, where we’d be passed by Amish buggies, whose occupants always returned our smiles and waves.

Modesty, Simplicity, Self-Sufficiency

I came to Holmes county intrigued by the ways of the Amish, and I left with a better appreciation of the beliefs that underlie their lifestyle. They have a strong sense of identity, community and a self-sufficiency. One of the surprising thins I learned is that anyone can join the Amish church; people don’t have to be born Amish to become one.

Jim nudged me when Mullet pointed out that Amish women do all the yardwork and gardening. The next time I visit the area, I’ll take note of the pristine yards and realize the rows of flowers represent one woman’s humble creativity, as do the row of fabric squares on quilts drying on clotheslines. It’s a distinction to appreciate, as much as the clean country air, the generous portions of home-cooked foods and the simple ways of one of Ohio’s most unique communities.

Plan Your Trip

  • Real Amish Experiences: (877) 893-3232 www.RealAmishExperiences.com
  • Behalt/Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center (877) 858-4634
  • Amish Wedding Feast: (330) 893-3232
  • Back Roads Driving tour: (877) 893-3232
  • Holmes County Tourism: (330) 674-3975
  • Hannah’s House Bed & Breakfast: (800) 329-9434
  • Lehman’s Hardware: (330) 857-5757
  • Heine’s Cheese Chalet: (330) 893-2131
  • ‘Tis the Season: (330) 893-3604

Additional Amish Experiences

Amish Culture Tours – If Amish food is what you’re after, sign up for this daylong excursion that features stops at four different Amish homes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. In between meals, you’ll be taken to area shops and museums. Contact (330) 893- 3248 of www.AmishToursofOhio.com

Yoder’s Amish Home – Knowledgeable guides lead visitors through two Amish houses and a barn full of animals on a 116-acre spread located in Millersburg. The tour includes buggy rides, a girt shop and a bakery. Contact (330) 893-2541 or www.YodersAmishHome.com

Schrock’s Amish Farm and Village – This includes a guided tour of a former Amish home and a slide presentation called The Amish Way. The Schrock family was born and raised Amish. The village is in Berlin and includes several ships, and animal petting area, and buggy and train rides. Contact (330) 893-3232.

Barbara Wayman is a regular contributor from Dublin, Ohio