Can a centuries-old way of life exist side by side with modern life? A good question. The Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania provide a good case study.
We were badly in need of a vacation, a change of scenery, a place to relax and recharge. Was there such a place within a short drive? I went to the local AAA office and had a chat with an agent. “Lancaster County or the Land of the Amish,” she said. “Perfect,” I thought.
The history of the Amish began with a schism in Switzerland within a group of Swiss and Alsatian Anabaptists in 1693. They were led by Jakob Ammann. Those who followed Ammann became known as Amish. In the early 18th century, many Amish immigrated to Pennsylvania and settled there. The area around Lancaster county had a large number of Amish settlers.
Their life is very simple. They believe in humility, hard work and placidity. They reject haughtiness, pride and arrogance. This is reflected in their attire. The men wear dark shoes, trousers with suspenders, long sleeved shirt and a hat. Married men do not trim their beards which gives them a distinctive, old world look. The women wear long, modest dresses and cover their hair with a prayer cap or bonnet.
They shun many modern day practices and utilities that we take for granted e.g electricity, automobiles, TV, radio and even telephone and internet. Horse drawn buggies are a common sight in Amish country. Children are often taught by a single teacher in a one-roomed school house up to grade 8. They believe that is all the education they need to live the simple Amish life.
At home, they speak “Pennsylvania-German” or “Pennsylvania-Dutch” which is closer to German then English. This is taught in school including the Gothic German script. The family is at the core of their lives and they often have many children which they accept as God’s Gift.
The Amish are hard workers and their farms are immaculate and often prosperous. One can buy fresh produce and baked goods at many of their road side stalls. “Shoofly pie” is an excellent and well known Amish dessert. In the old days, the sweet, hot pies were kept on the window-sill to cool attracting hordes of flies. Someone would have to shoo the flies away, hence the name. A winning bumper sticker sponsored by the Pennsylvania Tourism Office reads, “I break for Shoofly Pie”.
But with time comes change. The unique simplicity of Amish life regularly draws busloads of tourists. A whole industry has sprung up to cater to them; hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, often on land owned by the Amish. This has led to a rise in land prices. As a result, many Amish have been forced to sell their land and move to other states where land is cheaper. Others have chosen to leave the Amish way of life and have been assimilated into the modern world. It is a question of simple economics, “too many children, too little land”.
We greatly enjoyed our visit. We stayed in Intercourse, PA, within walking distance of The Kitchen Kettle Village, a delightful collection of shops, restaurants and lodging catering to the Amish experience, set amidst rolling farmlands (www.kitchenkettle.com). We bought local jams, relishes and cheese, ate quiche, chicken corn soup and ice cream made almost next door. We toured a model Amish farm (www.amishfarmandhouse.com). It was next to a modern shopping mall. Dinner was at the Plain and Fancy Restaurant (www.plainandfancyfarm.com) which had just the right Amish ambience, a great menu and excellent service. As a bonus, we found a store selling wines from a local vineyard, did some wine tasting and bought a few bottles (www.waltzvineyards.com). The wine had nothing to do with the Amish.
It is sad that their simple, modest way of life is getting harder and harder to support in the modern world. A time may come when we only know of the Amish in history books. I hope that day is far, far away.