The northeast corner of Indiana is home to a large number of Amish families. In towns like Nappanee and Shipshawana these quiet and humble people live in simple ways that are reminiscent of times past. Yesterday Mike and I decided to follow the Heritage Trail that loops through the land where they work and worship. It was a memorable experience.
There is much talk these days about religious freedom. That is a topic that is near and dear to so many Americans. In fact, many of the earliest colonists in the New World came because they were being persecuted and often times jailed in Europe for their spiritual beliefs. The Puritans who traveled on the Mayflower had been chased out of one country after another. They dared to cross the Atlantic to the unknown out of desperation. Essentially they had no place else to go.
Among the religious folk who were often misunderstood in their European homelands were the Anabaptists, those who believed that baptism was only relevant if it took place by choice in adulthood. The term anabaptist was a derogatory term used by those of the more accepted and established Protestant sects. Among those who were known as Anabaptists were the Amish and the Mennonites. Just as with so many faith filled people who did not quite fit the prevailing standards, the Anabaptists were treated as outcasts and sometimes even jailed. It is little wonder that they were drawn to the possibilities and the promise of a land where religious freedom seemed to be more than just a dream.
In 1683, thirteen German Mennonite families arrived in Pennsylvania seeking a more tolerant atmosphere in which to follow their faith. They founded Germantown six miles from Philadelphia. By 1737, the Amish followed suit with twenty one families making the trip. Within thirty years more than one hundred families had chosen to come to America. By 1857, more than three thousand more Amish families had decided to join their brethren. Many of them settled in Ohio, farming side by side with the Native Americans. Over time disputes resulted in a split between those who chose to follow the old order of Amish rules and those who were more progressive and joined with the Mennonites. Today there are more than two hundred sixty one thousand Amish living in communities all across the United States. Ohio and Indiana still boast about two thirds of the Amish population in America.
The Amish are often associated with the simple life that is displayed in their plain dress and resistance to adopting many of the ways of the modern world. In Indiana the women all wear dresses that appear to have been cut from the same pattern. The only sign of individuality is in the lovely colors that they choose to wear. We saw bright shades of purple, lilac, blue, green, and pink on the women and girls. All of them wore white caps over their hair. The men generally donned work clothes and sported straw hats or stocking caps. The adult males all had long beards.
It appeared to be washing day when we visited. Linens and clothing dried in the warm sun on clotheslines that reminded me of my youth when few women had dryers and washing and drying clothes was an all day affair. Virtually every home had a number of items hanging from the lines. Perhaps the ladies do a bit of washing every day or maybe they were just taking advantage of the balmy weather.
The homes and yards were impeccably manicured and we often sighted the men in the fields using huge draft horses to pull their non-mechanized farm implements. All along the roads the people went about their errands in black buggies or on bicycles, ignoring the cars and trucks while skillfully guiding their horses. We tried not to stare and I didn’t take photographs of the people because I did not want to intrude on their privacy. I suspect that they sometimes grow weary of tourists gawking at them. Still, I got a few good photos of the carriages.
Perhaps the sweetest sight of our day came when we passed by an Amish schoolyard. It was recess time and the children were outside playing catch. The little girls wore brightly colored frocks and many of them had no shoes, allowing their feet to caress the cool soft grass. They watched us with a bit of suspicion as we drove past. I could not help but think of the Pennsylvania tragedy in which a crazed killer invaded a schoolroom and killed many of the students before committing suicide. My grandson, Jack, performed in a gut wrenching play about that incident. On this day, however, I only saw the innocence of those sweet little faces and laughed at the sight of all of their bicycles lined up in front of the building.
We enjoyed some Amish delicacies while we were in the area. I had a bowl of ham and bean soup and Mike ate a chicken pot pie made the old fashioned way. We visited Yoder’s department store which had the largest selection of sensible shoes that I have ever seen and a fabric department filled with quilt patterns and cloth suitable for making the beautiful Amish blankets that are so coveted. I would have bought a ready made kit but I found it doubtful that I would ever be able to reproduce the intricate stitching that I saw in the sample quilts. I found myself wishing that I had paid more attention to my Grandma Minnie when she vainly attempted to interest me in the art of quilting. I wasn’t able to purchase one that was already sown either for the lowest price was at six hundred sixty five dollars!
We did visit Yoder’s Meat and Cheese Market where we bought some bourbon and peppercorn glazed pork along with a loaf of bread, some swiss cheese, and a round of rolled butter just like my grandmother used to make. After a stop at a bakery we had rounded out our stock of Amish food with an apple walnut strudel, a beef and barely soup mix, some homemade egg noodles, and a loaf of pumpkin bread. Needless to say we had a remarkable dinner last night especially after I paired some vegetables with the pork. We tried the strudel for dessert and it was the best that I have ever eaten. I’m looking forward to making the soup and enjoying another slice of the bread. The meal was so much akin to the feasts that my grandma used to make.
Our day with the Amish was quite relaxing. I found myself harking back to times when we all opened our windows to the fresh air and hung our laundry on lines in the backyard. I also realized that without modern conveniences the hours of labor increase each day. Theirs is a quaint life style but not one that is without its own sets of problems. Women are still subservient and rules must be followed to the letter. There isn’t a great deal of room for rebels like me who like to question virtually everything. I suspect that there are those who are quite content with the slower pace of their lives and some who dream of escaping the rigorous lifestyle. As with any philosophy and set of beliefs there will always be those who believe with all of their hearts and those who wonder if there is indeed a better way. Mostly though my trip through the heartland of the Indiana Amish people reminded me of how great this country truly is. There are few places on earth where everyone enjoys the freedoms that we have. We may criticize the various religions that exist in all their variety but in the end we stand up for the rights of each individual to believe as he or she sees fit. That is the true wonder and glory of the crazy quilt of religion here in the United States of America. It is a place where men and women and their children are free to enjoy a faith for which they had once been persecuted. I can’t think of anything quite as wonderful as the way we manage to live side by side with our brothers and sisters of all faiths. God bless America!