Amish Country – Lancaster, PA

Well the day started off with the usual excitement of “another day, another city, another ‘Otel” which is fine if you know where you are and this morning I got things a bit mucked up. At breakfast Vern left to go back to the room to send an email and I stayed on to finish my cuppa which was a disaster because the first guy I think went to the tap and poured the waterrrrr into the teapot and it was terrible. Second guy did just a little better. Anyway, up I went in the lift and got off, went to the room number and tried the card to get in – no luck – banged on the door and happened to notice a card hanging on the door saying “Private” and wondered why on earth the boss had hung this on the handle. I banged again, tried the card and the handle again and then realised I was on the wrong floor – wrong room! Well I scarpered down that passageway so quick I would have beaten the record for passage running!  
Lancaster, Pennsylvania and the townships of Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse (I am not joking – thiz iz ze name of it!)

I have always had a fascination with the Amish people – the way they live, the clothes they wear etc so we loved the opportunity to learn more about these families and the simple way they conduct their lives. The family is at the very foundation of Amish life and anything that could interfere with simple family life is not permitted. The Amish are a Christian community who believe you should be remembered for who you are, not what you have. They originated in Zurich, Switzerland in the 1600’s and were called Anabaptists believing that children should not be baptised until they are capable of making that decision for themselves – around 16 years of age. They came to Pennsylvania in the 1600’s and here in Lancaster is the largest community in the world – approximately 33,000 Amish people and that number is increasing. Another group, called Mennonites also settled here but they have accepted progress by means of machinery and clothing. They all speak a dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a German dialect, and English. 

On the whole, they have large well-maintained homes but no electricity. They have large propane gas tanks and air power and some solar power to provide some comforts but, on the whole, their furnishings and home comforts are simple but functional. They have gas lamps but have started introducing LED lamps. They add onto their homes to accommodate generations. For example they add what they call a “Grandaddy” house to accommodate the grandparents so it is common to see what looks like three houses joined together that have been added on to accommodate other families. 

Married men have a beard but no moustache; single women wear a white apron and bonnet to signify purity; married women wear black or grey but not white. All women part their hair in the centre and pull it back into a bun and wear a bonnet.

Obviously there are no TV’s, radios, PC’s etc. Reading material is limited to Amish books written by Amish authors. This was interesting though because when I asked how aware they were of world events, the guy said he actually read the newspaper because he like to know what was going on in the world. Children start school at the age of 6 and leave at either 6th Grade or 8th Grade so, no what we know as, secondary education. They have one-room school houses (275 of them in Lancaster). All the students attend together and learn reading, writing and simple maths. Teachers are young girls who have finished their schooling.

There are no churches for the Amish. Church services are held either every Sunday or alternate Sunday’s in people’s homes. There is a wagon in the district which is used to deliver benches for seating to the home for the Church service. The family hosting the service feed the congregation – about 150 people after the service. Weddings are held at the home of the bride; funerals are held at the home of the deceased.

Families have an average of 7 children; 25% of families have 10 children or more. The Amish accept absolutely no Government handouts of any kind – no unemployment, no superannuation, no subsidies for their schools. They do not take out any insurances because if something happens like a fire, the community pull together to rebuild. This is known as “barn raising” and they rebuild immediately and quickly. By the way, in Lancaster English families live side-by-side Amish families so you see houses with electricity and next door Amish homes without it. They believe in modern medicine and access to surgery and hospitals. A lot of births take place at home with doctors who will tend the community because the Amish will never sue for medical misadventure – American doctors apparently do not tend home births for that reason. They can also call for a car or ambulance to get to hospital in an emergency.

A lot of Amish are farmers and their farms are 50 acres. Dairy farms milk 60 cows. They grow alfalfa, corn and tobacco. These farms are operated without tractors or any kind of modern machinery. They subsidise their farming income with other things as much as they can. For example the ladies make the most magnificent quilts and the farms we visited both had shops selling all sorts of quilted items. Queen sized quilts retail at $700 USD cash – no EFTPOS machines here. They do pay taxes and use banks. Now the telephones are interesting. They have realised they need a telephone for emergencies and for doing business BUT they are not in the house because this would be a distraction. There are little huts out in the field or beside the driveway for the telephone. Some people share their phone box with the neighbour and each time they make a call they write it in a book. When the bill comes they work out who owes what. Try this at home folks and test the reaction!  You will see  a photo below of the little phone box hut.They get around with their horse and carts – carts have suspension, braking system and LED lighting and cost them about $6,000 – $8000. On top of that they need the horse BUT they do not need fuel. Actually, I must tell you that petrol here is $2.30 a US gallon – do the maths and make the comparison. We saw scooter bikes used by the kids and teenagers. They are not allowed to have a push bike because that could potentially take them too far from home so the bikes have the handlebars, large wheel front and back and the basket but they stand on what looks like a scooter platform and push it along with one foot. Perhaps I might be safer on a bike like zis and then I might not bang into another bike in the Pauanui tunnel and land up in ze garden with a very sore shin and a bent bike basket!!

Young people are given freedom from the age of 16 to join youth groups – there are approximately 100 in Lancaster and each have approx 140 members. This allows them to meet future partners. They are all Amish groups of course. So there we have it – the fascinating world of the Amish – a community of people who are trying to preserve their simple life in the shadow of a changing world.

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