ou've read about it. Perhaps you've even caught glimpses of it in the cropped photos of a magazine or in the images of a movie. But nothing quite prepares you for the sublime serenity that envelopes your senses as you turn off the Interstate and make your way down the two-lane blacktop, bordered on both sides by lush, green pastureland and neat, orderly farms. Occasionally, in the distance, you may see a far-off figure in dark attire slapping the reins behind a hardworking mule, the rich, dark earth turning even darker behind them. And as you continue on amid the rolling, rural countryside where the Plain People live, you roll down your windows to be pleasantly greeted by the sweet smell of newly mown hay. You take a deep breath and sigh. Immediately the tension leaves your body and a feeling of relaxation envelopes the very air around you. You have entered one of the peaceable kingdoms of Amish Country.
Just what it is that makes these places peopled by the Amish so intriguing? What is the key to the Amish's peaceable kingdoms? Is it their religion? Or maybe it lies in their famous work ethic. Or perhaps their secret to harmonious living dwells within them, forever withheld from any worldly "outsider." Perhaps the closest we can come is this: to sojourn in their land for a while and absorb what we can while among them - their sense of peace, their tranquility, and their straightforward honesty. And while we're here, we'll take advantage of them, too, in a way, by indulging ourselves in the fruits of their labor. For the Amish are renowned as some of the finest craftsmen in the world.
It's not just rumor. It is, indeed, true that the Amish are extremely fine craftsmen. They are distinguished for their skills in creating a number of things from wood: fine indoor furniture, cabinetry, gazebos, lawn furniture, lawn ornaments, home accents, and even toys. And when the visitor stops at any large Amish settlement, he or she is sure to be treated to a wealth of expertly crafted wood products carefully made by hand, down to the last screw. Quality, fine craftsmanship, and a personal satisfaction found in a job well done has always been a part of the Amish way of life, from even before they set foot on American soil in the early 18th century.
Since their arrival, the Amish have set forth and applied a way of life that, through its tenets of hard work, self-discipline, and what some may perceive as self-denial, nevertheless emanates an atmosphere of tranquility, contentment, and, if not material excess, certainly material sufficiency. However, what many outsiders view as a difficult, harsh, even austere existence belies what one actually experiences when visiting any of the three major Amish communities of Pennsylvania, Indiana, or Ohio.
Church districts divide the Amish into congregational groups of around 30 or so families living within a geographical area. These families attend services that are held every other Sunday in a rotational order in one another's homes. An elected bishop, along with his ministers and deacons, interprets and oversees the fulfillment of the individual church district's Ordnung - an oral rule set - as well as the church doctrine, both based on literal interpretations of scripture taken from the Bible.
Because of this individual interpretation, each church district may have differing beliefs regarding the use of such things as modern technology. Those of the stricter groups may eschew it altogether, while those of the more lenient groups cautiously welcome such things as telephones, electric generators, and the use of rubber-tired vehicles or equipment. Each church district's leaders must decide on these matters based upon the potential repercussions they feel may be experienced by the church's members and their families. Anything thought to conflict with their unique understanding of church doctrine, the Ordnung, and biblical scriptures will be disallowed. The church districts' differences lie, therefore, in these interpretations.
Immediately upon approaching anywhere near the proximity of the Amish-populated community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, one of the first things encountered may be the unspoken encouragement to slow down. The unhurried, gray-colored carriage in front of your car cannot go faster than the obviously well-cared-for horse with its measured, trotting gait can propel it. The bearded man in sober attire driving the carriage could be one of the Old Order Amish, clip-clopping his way down a 21st century highway, perhaps on the way to a one-day barn-raising to help a neighbor in need. Or on his way home, back from working at his fellow Amish employer's backyard-run carpentry business, where the finishing touches of an exquisitely made Victorian gazebo have just been completed in the barn. Or perhaps he's still working on the collection of outdoor furniture from his own business and is driving to town for supplies.
The driver wears a wide-brimmed, black felt hat if it is winter; one made of straw if the summer heat has arrived. His last name, one of the most common in Lancaster County, may very well be Lapp, Stoltzfus, King, Fisher, Glick, or Beiler, surnames that have denoted families in the Amish enclaves for more than 200 years. You may follow behind him as he traverses one of the 28 picturesque covered bridges in Lancaster County, admiring the beautiful, handcrafted planters he carries in the back of his wagon. He speaks a German dialect identified as Pennsylvania Dutch within his home and when conversing with members of his community, and uses High German during worship services, but if you bid him "Good morning or Good evening," he will return the greeting in American English, tipping his hat politely
These people with their subdued attire, beards without moustaches, and firm resolution to deny technology until they've firmly established its benevolence toward what they consider sacred (God, family, neighbors) manage their communities and their lives in relative peace, tranquility, and harmony based upon the tenets of their beliefs. And stemming from these beliefs, come the Amish characteristics of hard work, honesty, and the personal satisfaction of a job well done in whatever endeavor they embrace, be it farming, carpentry, woodworking, quilting, or any of the many other enterprises in which they involve themselves to make their living.
Originating for the most part from Switzerland, Germany, and The Netherlands, the Amish, from the beginning, have been a people accustomed to hard work. The Amish accept this as a fact of life, not only finding the positive within it, which is considered by most people to be avoided and to overcome in life, but to rejoice in hard work; to view the completed project as a job well done; to consider it, in fact, as a form of worship.
Many Amish businesses include all members of the family - both husband and wife as well as the children - in whatever endeavor is chosen. Not only does this educate the younger Amish in the vocation at hand, but also serves to maintain and strengthen the closeness of the family, an important Amish objective.
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is the site of the second largest community with around 25,000 people partaking in the philosophy of which Jakob Amman laid the groundwork around 1700. The visitor to this southeastern corner of Pennsylvania is treated with the opportunity to see just how adept the Amish are at fine crafts such as quilting, woodworking, jam and jelly making, furniture construction, pottery creation, and toy-making. Back-road excursions taken in and around the towns of Lancaster, Strasburg, Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse, and Paradise yield a wealth of industry amid the quiet interlude of the countryside, mostly from small proprietorships run from the farms and workshops of local Amish families. Some have succeeded to national prominence, particularly in the furniture, cabinetry, and woodworking areas of enterprise, making and selling their finely crafted wares across the United States and a few even to European customers.
A little less than 400 miles to the west, the Amish community of Holmes County, Ohio, flourishes as the largest concentration of Amish followers in the U.S. - and in the world. Because of persecution long ago in Europe, the "Plain People" of Amish belief are today found only in the United States. The 35,000 Amish, nearly half of the county's population, have dwelt in the 420 square miles of Holmes County (spilling over into the surrounding counties of Wayne and Tuscarawas) since 1808, and it's easy to see why they decided to stay when travelers experience for themselves the green hills and fertile valleys, the fresh-scented woods and clear streams of this beautiful - and peaceful, thanks to the Amish influence - countryside. Known as the "Amish Heartland," the Holmes County Plain People worship in more than 160 church districts, and their influence on the area is benevolently positive.
Although farming has been the backbone of Amish life in the past, the scarcity of available farmland not only in Holmes County, but in all Amish communities, has compelled many families to take up other vocations in order to maintain their family-oriented, stay-at-home lifestyles. Most have turned their talents toward the fine skills of cabinetry, wood crafting, and furniture-making. The Amish begin training their youth as apprentices from their early teenage years to learn the techniques of these professions which encompass, among other things, how to select the best woods, the intricacies of quality carpentry, and how to achieve the real art of finishing pieces that require it to glass-like smoothness. Their many years of training are apparent in the workmanship found in the gazebos, arbors, swings and other lawn furniture (as well as indoor furniture), the lawn ornaments, home accents, and even the remarkably well-made and imaginative toys they create with painstaking care.
More than 500 businesses that operate mostly from the homes and farms of these Ohioan Amish sell everything from homemade and home-baked goods to exquisitely crafted indoor and outdoor furniture, remarkably crafted quilts, and antique furnishings. In Holmes County, beautifully designed and painstakingly constructed gazebos, comfortable outdoor gliders that range from the simple to the simply elegant, and other outdoor furniture including chairs, loveseats, and swings are just some of the products Amish craftsmen excel in making. In addition to those larger products, the Holmes County Amish also create highly detailed, lighthouses and lawn decor, while the cedar and kiln-dried pine planters handcrafted by the Sugarcreek, Ohio Amish elicit admiration for workmanship rarely seen.
In an Amish furniture, cabinetry, or wood crafting shop, each piece is handmade individually with careful attention and an eye for perfection from Appalachian hardwoods like white oak, walnut, maple, hickory, poplar, and cherry - and usually without the benefit of electricity for power tools such as saws, routers, drills, and others. If power tools are used at all, they are almost always driven with gasoline. When a customer buys a piece of handcrafted Amish-made furniture, the many hours of intensive labor may not be seen in the beautifully rendered piece unless and until one realizes it has been made with such perfection entirely by hand. Amish-made furniture often becomes heirlooms, handed down from one generation to the next due to its beauty, quality, and craftsmanship.
Within its scenic boundaries, the Indiana communities of Shipshewana, Nappanee, and Topeka embrace nearly 20 percent of the Amish people residing in America. Some of the items Amish craftsmen from these areas create include charming country-styled planters, soothingly enchanting water-themed lawn decor, and rustic hickory-wood furniture fine enough to be handed down from one generation to the next. Visitors to these and surrounding areas can enjoy such Amish festivities as the Topeka Spring Draft Horse auction in March, the Amish Acres Arts & Crafts festival in August, and the Honeyville quilt auction and Goldenrod Benefit in September. Being the third largest Amish settlement in the country doesn't stop Jakob Amman's religious namesakes from supplementing their simple, ascetic lives with a certain amount of wholesome and traditional fun.
Most of all, however, the people in these communities strive to maintain the lifestyle they've known since before the birth of the nation without governmental or individual repercussions. If you do not see them riding their horse-drawn carriages, riding a bicycle, or walking, you mostly see them working - and the fruits of their labors benefit not only the Amish themselves, but everyone partaking of them because of their high quality and superior workmanship. And just like their counterparts in the two other Amish colonies mentioned above, the Northern Indiana believers have learned that their "workmen are worthy of their hire," to paraphrase a biblical scripture - and sell their quilts, foodstuffs, outdoor planters, cabinetry, woodcrafts, furniture, and other wares to one another and to any "outsider" lucky enough to be able to purchase them.
Today as one travels through and visits the Amish enclaves of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, the ideals of their forebear and namesake, Jakob Amman and his followers, are apparent. The visitor to the three major Amish settlements, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Holmes County, Ohio; and the Shipshewana/Nappanee/Topeka communities in Indiana can't help but feel the unity within these three geographically separated yet spiritually and philosophically integrated areas. It's plainly obvious in the quality of their workmanship, the quietly benevolent beauty of their lifestyle, and in the pervasively serene atmosphere that is gently, yet obviously palpable in each of these Amish communities.