The Modern Amish By: Matthew Theisen
The second youngest of Alan and Martha Fisher’s children, a small boy of four, lay underneath the hand made kitchen table pretending to take it apart with a screwdriver. Even in play he was working; a belief in a hard day’s work is central to the Amish way of life. In the living room their eldest daughter was rocking an infant to sleep quietly in a wooden chair. The young couple has ten children in total and the other seven sat shoulder to shoulder, all on one side of the table. The boys, who had all been prepped and prepared, told they were allowed to talk to adults, breaking custom, were eager to use their English they had learned in school. They are taught English as a second language and they refer to all non-Amish as English. As the girls washed the dishes and cared for the baby, the boys, with anxious energy gave a tour of their barn and gladly began to show their horse, buggy, and pony. The boys used the pony to pull them on a sled, in preparation to someday drive the large black horse and buggy, their primary mode of transportation, sitting in front of the barn. They displayed and opened the buggy and explained how they all fit inside for church.
“All of us fit in there,” one said.
“Not anymore!” the next boy said and joked that they were all getting too big. They were happy to share their lives. They were off work, for the moment.
The three daughters only spoke softly to each other in their mother tongue, Pennsylvania Dutch, a West German language almost exclusively used by the Old order Amish and Mennonites. Martha lit a gas lamp and hung it from the ceiling.
“Gas is quite expensive today, People don’t realize it,” she said.
She and the children all wore plainly in home-sewn, light-blue shirts or dresses and dark blue jackets and hats. The girls wore white bonnets covering the tops of their hair.
The Fishers are what most people picture when they think of the Amish, they don’t have electricity, they have a large family, and do not use a car. But most people don’t realize the varieties of lifestyle within the Amish community, how much they really interact with the
modern world, and the challenges they face while trying to maintain a simple lifestyle. The Amish are not unaffected, oblivious, or removed from the modern world. They exert a tremendous effort to separate through what they call non-conformity, in order to hold onto this traditional way of living, but they can only get so far away.
“We are like anyone else, we have our problems. Rebellious kids and the like,” said Lester Beachy, author of the book Our Amish Values, with a smile.
Mainstream media presents either an exaggerated or simplified story of the Amish. The reality television shows like Amish Mafia and Breaking Amish are dramatized, fictional, and often reenactments of the Amish way of life. In the news, the Amish are portrayed by the rare cases of controversy like The Samuel Mullet Beard Cuttings or the case of the 11-year-old Amish girl refusing state-ordered chemotherapy. From Hollywood we see films like For Richer or Poorer, or Kingpin, which portray the Amish as uneducated and living in the past. In reality they are not a completely different people, they do not live in an unconnected world.
Most in the United States are familiar with, at least by name, the Amish, but to the majority of the population their daily lives are a mystery. The Amish, and other Anabaptist groups, began immigrating to the U.S. in the mid-1700s. They consider themselves a Plain People, which include Old and New Order Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and several sub-sects. Most people know the Amish for their old, traditional dress, farming techniques, and rejection of modern technology. Most generalize these groups as horse riding, no electricity, and they’re farmers. They are a calm and quiet people who keep a closed community, and they prefer to deal with those in a close proximity, partly due to limitations of the horse and buggy. The Amish now live in many rural states across the U.S. and some have settled in Canada and Mexico, the largest populations are in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
According to a the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies around 60,000 Amish live in Ohio, the total U.S. population being estimated at 250,ooo, and expected to double to half a million within twenty years.
“There’s this misperception that the Amish numbers are decreasing, and really they double every twenty years,” said Keith Rathbun, publisher of Sugarcreek, Ohio’s The Budget Amish Newspaper. “They have huge families. So if you have an Amish family that has ten children, if
even five of them leave the Amish, you have five more that could have anywhere from five to twelve children, each. All of a sudden you have another fifty right there.”
The two main locations to find Amish in Ohio are the Holmes County settlement and the Geauga County area. Holmes is first in the world for Amish density and holds eighty percent of the world’s Amish population. Geauga has the 2nd
largest population in Ohio. Holmes is a home to between 30,000 and 40,000 Amish residents, the capital of Holmes Amish tourism being Berlin, Ohio. Berlin is often assailed by those close to the Amish in other parts of the state for being too tourist focused, each local in an Amish area is confident that they live with and know the “real” Amish.
“What’s happened in Berlin is that there’s a lot of people who just saw an opportunity that there were a lot of people coming…they sell everything from Japan to China, unfortunately,” said Rathbun.
So who and where are the true Amish? Are there authentic Amish left? As the Amish continue to grow in numbers and they face greater interaction with the outside world, can they maintain their isolation? In recent years they have become challenged through new sources of income, technologies, and new business opportunities.
Alan Fisher, the father of the ten children, a Geauga County Old Order Amish, spoke about how most of his carpentry products are sold to the English. “At least eighty to ninety percent,” he said looking up from beneath his straw hat, “There’s more English than Amish.”
Fisher and his eight brothers are well known among their English neighbors as hard working and reliable. They all have worked for and with the English, building their houses and bailing hay. Traditionally farmers, today some Amish hold positions in modern industries including the construction trade, commercial farming, and retail positions. Some have even have gotten involved with the controversial business of Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) for Oil and Natural Gas. Many Amish have either sold their land or future oil and natural gas royalties for sometimes rather large payouts.
According to Rathbun, the fracking has not yet brought any of the negative consequences some expected. “Time will tell, but right now, financially, it’s been a very good thing for some families who were close to foreclosure on their farms. It was a blessing for them,” he said.
“A lot of them are land rich. They’re sitting on hundreds of acres of property. What they’re doing is they are selling that off for pretty good money, to people who are looking to expand. Then they can buy five times that land for the money. But the vast majority still farm, or make their living somehow off of dairy or crop farming.”
Most don’t expect it, but today the Amish do embrace some forms of modern technology, only if it is decided by all to be a benefit to the community.
Freeman Miller, a Geauga County Old Order Amish man spoke about how his church allowed gas powered lawn mowers, but they aren’t convinced they should allow cell phones. “We struggle with cellphones. They take away from what we believe in,” he said. Rathbun said more Amish today use cellphones today than ever before. “More and more Amish have cell phones now. It used to be in our circulation department, we had less that ten percent of our subscribers with a telephone number to go in their file to contact them. Now it’s probably less than ten percent that don’t have a cell phone,” he said.
Rathbun, who received much disagreement from the Amish community when he suggested putting the paper online, said that the Amish were not yet comfortable with the Internet. They found it to be too accessible to too many people. “I think they were afraid of being made fun of. And I respect that,” he said.
The Amish don’t want to be seen as a commodity or a sideshow, a theme for people to be entertained by. Yet today in these small communities the Amish are presented as an attraction to draw in tourism. In the known Amish centers like Holmes and Geauga, Amish life is advertised in vacation pamphlets. They present the Amish land as being an untouched, natural place. Which leads to another misconception about the Amish; no, they’re not all natural farmers.
Many Amish do practice undamaging, conservative farming techniques, and there is a recent trend in Amish becoming certified organic farmers. It is true that they use dated, un-motorized equipment, but many Amish also use pesticides and other chemicals. The Amish shop at modern retailers like WalMart and eat modern food at McDonalds. One WalMart in Holmes County has installed a hitching post for the buggy-pulling horses.
WalMart sells products labeled Amish and presents them with old looking, brown-tone labels, and attempt to draw on a longing for a simpler time. But they are not always natural and
sometimes unhealthy. According to the U.S Food and Drug Administration’s Enforcement Report for the week of January 1, 2014, there was a product recall on all Amish Potato Salad due to a contamination of bacteria causing the Listeriosis infection.
It’s not only large corporations like WalMart that use the Amish image to turn a profit. In Mesopotamia, Ohio, The End of The Commons General Store is presented as a “must see” in Northeast Ohio’s Amish country. They do not claim to be Amish, but they advertise selling Amish collectibles and gifts, they’re “Located in the Heart of Amish Country,” and boast that “the store’s primary customers are the Amish.” Although they appear Amish, the store has never been Amish owned, and also sells x-ray glasses and whoopee cushions.
The modern world presents Amish young people with more challenges than ever before. In their time of Rumspringa, when their parents turn a blind eye to their experimentations with the English world they are faced with temptations there was not access to a generation ago. After this time they must decide to be baptized or leave the church for life and leave behind anything the community does not allow. Today the young Amish have jobs, access to cars, and cellphones to forget about.
“The older Amish don’t like the phones because they’re seeing, what they are afraid of. That the younger people are just spending more time on their device than they are communicating.” said Rathbun. “For the Amish, that’s a huge culture difference.”
Back in Alan Fisher’s hand-built barn he worked continuously, staining shelves for a cabinet he was building. When he was working he had peace and quiet and the Amish isolation was successful in the way that he was not distracted by anything outside of the barn.
“There,” Martha said pointing. “There, by your sleeve. You missed it again.”
He applied more stain and treated the wood with all of the children watching. One of the younger boys carried a shelf to dry. Alan was in the middle of a story about backing a tractor into one friend’s finger. He laughed uninhibitedly, “And he still blames me for it! He’ll never let it go.” He loosely jokes and appears a happy man, completely satisfied with his situation, even excited about where he was and who he was. His home is simple, clean and comfortable. He has all that he needs, tools to build things to provide food for the family, not much. When asked about the changing times and what he would do with any money he made, Alan smiled, looking at the
wood, working, “So far we don’t have any to save. On one income it’s not easy to feed all these kids,” he said as he looked at the boys sitting around the room. “It’s not easy being Amish,” Martha added.
Being Amish in today’s world is not as simple of a life as most would think. They are faced with the same challenges as the rest of society. They step back from the rest of society, only slightly, in order to live a quiet life.
And maybe it works. The commitment to and dependence on their neighbors, that violence is almost unheard of in Amish communities, and the retention of children being baptized into the Amish faith shows that it’s not all for nothing. The Amish came to the U.S. because they simply desired to live freely, as they pleased, and more or less be left alone.
In Berlin, Ohio, after explaining all of the persecution and struggles that led to the Amish immigration, Lester Beachy said the Amish were very lucky people.
“We are privileged, in this country, to have the freedom to live our lives in this way.”