As soon as we stepped off the Econoline at Esh’s Amish farm, the serenity of the setting was palpable. Two boys in black pants and bright shirts were helping their father, Jacob, milk cows in the barn.
The machines and fans run off hydraulics” Jacob Esh said matter-of-factly to those of us on The Amish Experience bus tour. “We milk cows at 5:15 a.m. and p.m., 365 days a year.
Esh is one of Lancaster, Penn.’s 33,000 Amish. He supplements his income by inviting the “English,” as the Amish refer to non-Amish, to his home. Wife Anna sells “quillows” — pillows that convert to quilts — in the nearby shed.
A 10-minute drive farther down the country road reversed centuries of progress. We pulled into Leola Coach Shop to meet 20-something Paul Stoltzfuz.
“All our Amish buggies are custom and cost between $7,500 and $10,000,” he said as we navigated his dusty barn strewn with carriage parts. Open tops are for single people. Married couples convert to a closed version, usually given as a wedding gift.
My companions were viewing America’s oldest Amish settlement for the first time. But for me, Lancaster had been home for the first 29 years of my life. I’m not Amish; my family is “English.” Our roots there span nine generations.
Growing up, the Amish were on the periphery of my world. I never “paid them much mind,” to use their colloquialism. When I moved to California in 1990, I realized how curious people are about these anomalies. “Amishploitation,” as one Salon.com article dubbed the phenomena, brought on by reality TV shows “Amish Mafia” and “Breaking Amish” and the movie “Witness,” entices 11 million annual vacationers to the Pennsylvania Amish country. Hollywood’s depictions are largely fabricated for entertainment.
The Amish are descendants of Anabaptists, who were persecuted and driven out of Switzerland. They moved to Pennsylvania in the 1700s, on William Penn’s invitation. Their Christian faith dictated that baptism should be an adult choice, contradicting the practice of infant baptism for other Christian religions.
An affirmation of separation from the outside world requires the “plain” people, as they’re nicknamed, to adhere to staunch doctrine. That includes horse and buggy transportation, propane-powered electricity, simple dress with no buttons, and speaking Pennsylvania German.
Thirty percent of Lancaster Amish are farmers. The remaining can’t afford to or choose to pursue other livelihoods. My great uncle helped to resurrect the impecunious 1832 Strasburg Rail Road in the heart of Amish country. Caretakers have forged a cooperative effort, paying plain families to dine with English riders onboard for a question-and-answer session.
“I’m in my last year of school,” eighth grader Dan Stoltzfus informed passengers on our trip. (With only 32 Amish surnames in Lancaster, redundancy is common.)
“There’s 40 kids in my one-room schoolhouse. I take seven courses … including German and pen-time,” Stoltzfus told us.
There’s no homework, he said. Children help with chores instead. He said his next year would be spent in vocational training; after that, he’d begin working for a living.
Lancaster’s 523,000 residents don’t view the Amish as curiosities. Central Market, America’s oldest farmers market, in the heart of the city, hosts English and Amish vendors selling produce and homemade goodies. Elmer Stoltzfus, a toothy grinned, 21-year-old plain youth, has operated Stoner’s stand for nine years.
“It’s a nice change from working the fields,” he said, beaming. “I have a great relationship with the regulars. We tease each other.”
Stoltzfus’ good nature contributes to the 120 pounds of tomatoes and up to $4,000 in sales on market day. His stage of life is called Rumspringa — which means “running around.” It starts at age 16 when girls and boys exercise freedoms similar to the English. Within five to eight years it ends, at which point young adults have the choice to be baptized into the church and most likely married, or leave the sect.
Recent generations are opting for liberal affiliations over their parents’ Old Order Amish.
“My son, Amos Lee, is Spring Garden Amish. He has television and a computer,” Anna Ruth Esh, the plain septuagenarian, explained on a visit to her farm. Her laugh came easily as she shared family photos. An oath of humility keeps them from being publicly photographed; among kin it’s OK.
The notion of shunning has been exaggerated in film and TV programs. Esh fraternizes with her sister and brother, who chose a different path. Family and work are paramount.
Esh’s daughters rattled off answers to my myriad questions over lunch: They take loans from the bank. They vote. Their children love to play volleyball. Cellphones are common. They adopt. They even buy birthday cakes at Costco.
I guess it’s true what Anna Ruth Esh’s mom told her: “English are just like us, but wear different clothing.”