[dropcap]H[/dropcap]orses pulling black buggies strike a leisurely cadence on the local country back roads as the straw-hatted Amish men go about their business. The women are visible hanging clothes on the line or working in their vegetable gardens outside their simple farmhouses.
One of the largest Old Order Amish settlements in America is located along the outskirts of Lanesboro, Minnesota. A small historic and scenic community, Lanesboro is situated along the Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway in the southeast corner of the state. The inexpensive farmland and excellent hardwood forests for furniture making are two of the main reasons for their relocation.
In the mid-1970s, three families moved to the area from an overcrowded Ohio seeking a more sedate and reclusive lifestyle. Today, more than 120 Amish families live in southeastern Minnesota.
Who Are the Old Order Amish?
“Old Order Amish” is an American term coined in an attempt to describe “those who resisted innovation both in society and church work”, according to Wikipedia, that distinguished the conservative and progressive Amish.
The ultra conservative Old Order Amish maintain a strict adherence to traditional dress and their use of horses for farming and transportation. They refuse to allow electricity, telephones, televisions, computers and any other modern convenience in their homes, as they believe these temptations will cause vanity, create inequality or lead fellow Amish away from their close-knit community. They have no desire for material wealth.
Children are schooled in primitive one-room, white-framed schoolhouses on private property. Despite a reported strong belief in education, the Amish only provide formal education through the eighth grade. Children are exempt from state compulsory attendance beyond grade eight based on religious principles, the result of a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Farming and homemaking skills are included as an important aspect of an Amish child’s upbringing.
Amish clothing styles – black and dark blue pants and shirts for men and black or dark blue dresses and bonnets for women – encourage humility and distance from society. Women and girls make the clothing. Amish women are forbidden to wear patterned clothing or jewelry. They never cut their hair, and fashion it in a bun or braid tucked beneath a white cap or black bonnet. Men’s trousers are worn with suspenders; belts are not permitted. Sweaters, neckties and gloves are also forbidden.
Young men are clean shaven prior to marriage. Once married, they are required to let their beards grow. Mustaches are strictly taboo.
As you may suspect, the family is the most important social unit in the Amish culture. Large families are the norm – similar to 19th and 20th century farm families of the Midwest – in order for the boys to help work the farm. Chores are divided by traditional roles: men and boys work on the farm, women and girls do the cooking, washing, cleaning and gardening. The patriarchal system is clearly dominant. No intermarriage is allowed, meaning that Amish marry Amish. Divorce is not permitted.
Amish and Technology
As previously mentioned, the Old Order Amish are averse to any technology, which they believe weakens the family system. Therefore, horse-drawn machinery cultivates fields, homes and barns are electricity-free, and transportation is via horse-drawn buggies. Energy-producing windmills turn water pumps. Although not allowed to own motorized vehicles, the Old Order Amish are allowed to ride in them, including airplanes.
Given the opportunity to visit or pass through Amish country, slip away from your comfort zone, and drive along the rural roads for a few hours where farmland unfolds to either side. Or sign up for a tour. Lanesboro, for example, has two companies that offer educational guided tours. Visitors are bussed to a number of Amish farms where you can see how they live and purchase their products. Visitors are encouraged to ask questions and learn about their culture.
Local Amish-made furniture has a reputation for very high quality. When I stopped at a furniture shop on a farmstead, a boy in his late teens was more than willing to explain and demonstrate how he and his father made their furniture. This engaging young man was well spoken and candid, particularly when I asked him if he had ever used a computer or the Internet. He had not; nor did he have the curiosity or desire to, he told me.
It is common to come across roadside stands where local, self-sufficient Amish families are selling excess farm produce, quilts and tasty homemade foods and jellies. Amish women regularly gather in Sylvan Park in nearby Lanesboro on Saturday mornings for the weekly farmer’s market. Food samples are plentiful, and though they may not be particularly engaging, the women are very polite and friendly. Their handcrafts are unique and well made.
Respect the Culture
As with other cultures, it is important to be respectful and considerate of the Amish and their lifestyle. Being very private, they do not solicit or encourage people to take their pictures. If you do take photographs, you should take them from behind and not directly on them unless they give you permission beforehand. For example, a picture of the rear of an Amish buggy traveling down a gravel road would not offend anyone. Most Amish consider posing for photographs to be an unacceptable act of pride and will not allow it. They will, I discovered, encourage you to photograph their homes, farms and buggies however.
A visitor’s brochure sums it up best: “While you talk and mingle with the Amish, please remember that they are not actors or spectacles, but ordinary people who choose a different way of life.”