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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: USA

Pennsylvania Dutch
Virginia Hobart

 Like many another film fan seeing 'Witness' a few years ago, I was quite charmed by its portrayal of the Amish way of life; quite curious to confirm what was shown of it on the screen and to learn more about what was left out.  Then I have my chance while on holiday in Philadelphia, joining a group of other visitors on a bus tour for the two hour drive out to Lancaster County, home of the Pennsylvania Dutch.,

Our thoroughly knowledgeable driver-guide prepared us for what we were about to see with a history lesson that began by disposing of the 'Dutch' misnomer given by an 18th century immigration officer mistaking the word Deutch when registering these newcomers from Germany.
The Amish, also known as Amish-Mennonites, dissenting entirely from the state church and partly from their Mennonite forebears in following the teaching of Elder Jacob Amanne, came in 1720 to find religious freedom in America, founding communities first in Pennsylvania and later in other parts of the United States and Canada, all more or less 'Christian Conservatives'.
The 'Old Order Amish', preferring self-sufficiency to the spiritual corruption of worldliness, have withdrawn from what we call the rat race, rejecting much of modern technology and devoting themselves to the service - in this order - of God, the land and their community.
Driving between level fields of spring wheat and silage already cut, with here and there an implement drawn by horses or mules, and by barn-yard with full corn cribs and hugely-uddered cows, we could se for ourselves their second devotion at work, and were not surprised to hear how successful and widely respected for their organic agriculture the Amish are.
The land, we learned, is individually owned, with farms averaging about 65 acres per family living in neat white houses among immaculate gardens of flowers and vegetables.  There is a good deal of cooperation between farms, but each is financially independent and amply provides for the family's very simple needs, with the surplus pooled - their third devotion - in a health and welfare fund for the entire community.  Some of the houses had additional accommodation built alongside for retiring parents handing the farm over to the youngest (!) of their sons.

The first devotion - that to God - we were shortly to discover at an old Quaker farm house, converted and authentically furnished, where we were handed over to the people responsible for this part of the tour, and ushered into a large plain parlour with rows of hard benches on either side of a wood-burning stove.  In such a room the Amish, rejecting churches, hold their Sunday services, worshippers and wooden benches going each week to a different house where the bishop and elders speak to men and women sitting apart and opposite for several hours before a large communal meal.

Here we learned of the Amish Anabaptist tradition of 'religious commitment', not in infancy but by baptism at an age of discretion sometime before marriage, after which serious deviation from the chosen path resulted in 'shunning' - what we might call being sent to Coventry - not temporarily as with the more forgiving Mennonites, but excluded from all social activity for life.

From the parlour we were taken to the kitchen, equally unadorned except by charming old chinaware and brightly beautiful vegetables and fruit bottled, we were told, next door in the cooler summer kitchen, by gas in preference to the wood stove which, apart from the Sunday parlour's, was the only source of winter heat.  Lucky in that case, we said to ourselves, whoever sleeps overhead, and found that it was not the children, although their bedrooms provided the most interesting glimpses of Amish life in the house.

Up a narrow bare wood stair to the little girls' room with an iron bedstead 'sprung' with criss-crossed rope and covered with a simple patchwork quilt.  No curtains, no carpet, no wardrobe for the clothes that were hung by hooks around the walls: plain red and blue dresses - colours allowed for children but not patterns - with aprons traditionally and still fastened at waist and shoulder by 'straight pins' substituting for buttons (the origin of the word pinafore?) one would suppose restricting freedom of movement a good deal.  Weekdays a black apron, Sundays white until the wearer's wedding day when it (the white one) is put away until death and worn at her burial. Likewise with the neat black or white stringed cap worn to cover the hair, the white one, though, discarded before marriage as a signal to eligible young men of willingness to wed.
For Amish boys, maturity is measured in the leg length of their black serge trousers, which we saw in their similarly furnished bedroom, and noticed incidentally the drop-front, as it is called, more comfortably fastened without the aid of pins!  Shorts for little boys getting longer, and a collar added to the matching black jacket worn over a white shirt and under a wide-brimmed straw or black felt hat.  Here too, a different style of hat signalled the wearer's readiness for courtship as well as the chin beard (no moustache) which once started will not afterwards be shaved or cut.
The parent's' room differed from the children's only in the size and comfort of its double box-spring bed with wooden cradle alongside, and in its situation usually above or next to the heated kitchen for the sake of the cradle's current occupant.  With families averaging 8 - 10 children, it is clear that the Amish aren't in favour of birth-control, nor - we were told - of inoculation, and there is a significant infant mortality due to small-pox even today.
This house had no running water or toilet facilities, which apparently would be typical except for the public health requirement of modern plumbing for all premises associated with the sale of food and milk which would, in fact, include most of the community, as we saw at our next stop: a large and lively roadside market with busloads of tourists like ourselves getting their instruction in several different languages.  Here, as well as carvings, candles, cook-ware and every conceivable household item covered in quilting, was a wonderful display of fresh fruit and vegetables, jams and jellies, pickles, eggs, cheese, honey, hams, pastries, pies and a hundred different kinds of sausage and sliced meats served by Amish men and women and quite a few young girls.
After this, the little town of Intercourse that was the scene in 'Witness' of the famous ice-cream fight: its once-worthy now mockable name not nearly so much in evidence as the many folksy, crafty signs everywhere welcoming tourists to restaurants and cafés and homes converted into shops exploiting the Amish connection with whatever their merchandise from food to furniture, from bedding plants to books.   Really, apart from the sociological interest of so much commercial activity fossilising and sentimentalising a flourishing and very practical culture, this was far less finteresting than the things we were told by our driver and what we could see for ourselves from the windows of our bus.
Passing the one-room school houses, for instance, where children are taught mostly by ex-pupils, and learning of the long and bitter fight with the government to limit education to grade 8 (age 13) and to opt out of the state school tax, successful on the first but not the second point in spite of a precedent with the Social Fund to which the Amish do not contribute, taking - as they do - such reliable and good care of their own.,
Without hospitals, they do have occasional recourse to (usually) Mennonite doctors, but convalesce and certainly bear their children at home.  Nor are there any churches, as we have already learned, but they need cemeteries of course: one we saw with plain, identical head and foot stones in rows, and a pathetic few out of line against and partly under the surrounding fence.  This ambiguous position, we were told, was for the shunned whose ultimate forgiveness was for God to decide.
As we travelled around and between the well-tended farms and fields, we met or passed a number of neat little closed carts, horse-drawn and spanking along the roads on metal wheels denied rubber tyres for the comfort that might encourage their owners to travel far from home.  The Amish of course don't use cars, but we did see a few tractors with metal-lugged wheels which aren't allowed on the road, and we learned of other mechanical implements in common use though not powered by mains gas or electricity.
There seem to be two guiding principles involved with possessions, namely: none that facilitate travel, and none that connect directly with the outside world, so that batteries and bottled gas are acceptable, but no mains power, newspapers, telephone or TV and this may have as much to do with limiting the 10-15% annual loss of members as with old fashioned piety.  As it is, numbers keep up and even rise with the high birth rate, although the small farms don't support all family members, and some young men have to find work outside. 

All this we learned from our guide who was so well informed we wondered if he might be one such, until he was stumped for an answer - which he certainly would have known - whether artificial insemination is used in the breeding of cows.  Lacking only that small detail - and without so much as speaking to an actual Amish - we now  felt thoroughly knowledgeable about their way of life, thought it very well represented by the film, and wondered what they themselves had thought of it.,

Not too much, was the answer, although we thought it showed their 'civilisation' relative to ours in a rather favourable light.,  Perhaps they feared the undeniable allure of Harrison Ford and his ilk for any of their number who had access to a battery-powered TV.

© Virginia Hobart Feb 2009
vhobart at

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