10 things I learned about the Amish when visiting Dutch Pennsylvania
In less than an hour from Philadelphia you arrive in "Dutch Pennsylvania": the agricultural area around Lancaster county where there is a high percentage of Amish people (as well as Mennonites).
When we were planning our roadtrip through the US, I honestly wondered what we'd do here. It was a region we had to cross, but I assumed it was an agricultural non-touristic area. But it was ok to have a more calm day and I was curious whether we'd get to see some Amish buggies riding through the area.
Turns out that Lancaster is in fact a touristic area. We are not the only curious tourists that would like to see the Amish and therefore there's the Amish Farm and House (museum with tours) or the Amish Village (with tours). There are organisations that offer buggy rides etc. And along the Lincoln Highway, there's also what looks like a very kitsch stereotype filled "Dutch Wonderland" amusement park, etc.
Sure enough while approaching Lancaster, we noticed now and then some buggies along the road or nicely parked outside a store and some traditionally dressed people walking around.
We visited the Amish Farm and House, which strangely enough finds itself in the corner of a commercial area, at a few meters of the Target store (the Amish House was there first...the commercial stores closed in afterwards). We took a 90 min bustour through the Amish country side with some visits to a couple of farms that were open for visits and we had a guided tour in the Amish house.
10 new things that I learned and that I did not know about the Amish before
- They don't live in a separate village/county with only Amish in the area but they truly live in a mixed environment where they make up a high percentage of the population but they live in the middle of all 'the English' as they tend to call all non-Amish.
So they might have 2 non-Amish neighbours, they might live just behind Target or the tacky Dutch wonderland or ... It's clearly not separate communities as I mistakenly believed.
- While the Amish are not allowed to connect to the electricity grid...they do use electricity and they have operating fridges. The rule is about not being connected and dependent on government agencies. Yet it is perfectly fine in most communities to have a fridge that runs on diesel motor or to have an electrical fence with solar panels.
Some Amish also have a little commercial business in the city which can have electricity...but not in their homes.
Laundry is still done manually and a big daily chore, given the fact that they have such big families. The line of "plain" clothes outside the farm is a give-away that there is an Amish family living there.
Similarly the Amish cannot own or ride a car or motorised vehicule...but they can fetch a ride with someone else.
- All movies and books which I've seen/read about Amish featured farmers. Yet a growing number of Amish do not have farms. There is a high pressure on finding affordable good farming land (which also explains that there is more and more Amish communities in new states , moving to the west). But they are also very skilled manual workers (e.g. carpentry) so there is a considerate number of non-farmers among them.
- The Amish population is a growing. They are doubling in size every 20-25 years! Since they all have very big families, child death is low in these decades and since 90% of their youth gets baptised into the community, they have a growth rate much higher than comparable populations in the western world.
Since they are such a big group, they are growlingly attractive to commerce in the area...so they do their best to provide buggy parking next to their supermarkets etc, to attract these customers.
- A church group is formed by approximately 20 families and they gather alternating in one of the homes. So each family hosts about 200 people twice a year on Sunday. They are supposed to serve a fixed simple menu for all these people. Inspirational cooks that want to be a little innovative or overachieving are not appreciated: you are not to be arrogant and place yourself above the others. So ...a fixed menu it is, each Sunday for more than 200 people.
- No one is better than another, so you should not decorate yourself with jewelry, make-up, patterns or prints on your clothes, buttons, ... (=> here you can distinct the Mennonites from the Amish since the Mennonites do have flower dresses etc. Mennonites can also drive and possess cars)
- Lancaster county is a tourist area as I already explained above. The Amish themselves also seem quite commercially minded, inviting tours on their farm, baking and selling live the most delicious soft pretzels, or selling cookies, quilts, fresh ice cream, ...
- Since they are so numerous in the area, they want to contribute to the fire corps. But due to their beard, they do not fulfill the official security requirements for their volunteer corps and hence they do not get official funding. So there are fundraising activities in the area by 'the English' to help fund the Amis fire department. By the way, the Amish men are not allowed to grow a moustache. It is associated with the German military in the 19th century that prosecuted them.
- The buggies have no rubber tires to slow them down: horse power is already fast enough in their society so it does not need to be made easier than it is. They do have some step bikes that do have rubber tires, as that is manual foot power and slower.
- The area is scattered with small one-room schools where the neighbourhood children up to the age of 14 (grade 8 ) attend school in one mixed room of all ages. That's because they can't go far distances with their step or buggy to go to school. After grade 8, they get on the job training.
In school they learn 3 languages: the German-based dialect that is spoken by the Amis, German to read their bible and English to talk to the 'English'.
Not far from Lancaster, we also made a stop in Strasburg that is train-crazy. We had read that we could visit Thomas the Train there, but Thomas only visits a couple of weekends a year. Nevertheless we saw a big impressive steam train and I realised with hindsight that the fire I had seen in the distance when arriving in the area...was the steam train! Boy, what a big dark huge exhaust that had!
We finished our day with shopping in the outlet malls near our hotel and made in in time inside for the big storms that crossed the area that night. We went for dinner 'American style' by car to just cross the highway in the midst of a pouring rainstorm but fortunately we never saw a tornado.