To our English eyes — that is to say, anyone who isn’t Amish — all buggies basically look alike. But as we traveled the back roads with LaVonne DeBois on her Backroads Tour, she pointed to the buggy in front of us on the road and said, “I can tell you all kinds of things about that man just by his straw hat, his suspenders, and the reflectors, windshield and lights on his buggy.
I’ve been living with Amish and talking to them; learning about them and what their lifestyle is all about. That man’s buggy tells me which district he lives in, and I know a little about what makes their district different than another. All of the Amish believe in the guiding principles of God, Family, and Community. In that order.”
Often, while visitors to Amish country are busy seeing how different the Amish lifestyle is, they’re missing all the subtleties and practicalities of the Amish community. There’s a certain freedom in living life according to the same principles that your mother and father and neighbors and cousins are. There’s no generation gap. They adhere to consistency and obedience. Their lives seem simple. Unworldly. That’s how they want it.
LaVonne offered this scripture that embodies the ideals of the Amish: Romans 12:2: “Do not confirm to the patterns of the world.” And John 1:215: “Love not the world. Be separate of the world and the things of the world.”
If you keep that in mind as you travel the back roads, you begin to appreciate the beauty, practicality, and strength of the Amish. You begin to admire them.
Most of the insights I’ve shared so far come from LaVonne’s learnings through the years. As we drove along the back roads of Holmes County, LaVonne explained much of what we were seeing as well as giving us some background that put it all in context.
It’s important to know that Holmes County, Ohio is home to the largest Amish population in the world. Within its 423 square miles, there are only 2 non-Amish high schools, but over 210 one-room schoolhouses spread roughly 3 miles apart from each other, so that the children would not have more than 1.5 miles to walk there each day. They attend school 160 days a year and only go to the 8th grade. They are taught by unmarried Amish girls who also received an 8th grade education and are no more worldly than her students.
They speak Pennsylvania Dutch, equivalent to low German at home and are taught high German in grades 3-8. It’s interesting to note that Holmes County has the highest 8th grade graduation rate in Ohio. And the lowest unemployment rate. And lowest divorce rate. And, (something I’ll elaborate on in the next post) the highest rate of entrepreneurship.
As you travel the back roads, you begin to see what Amish life is really like. It’s not just the buggies that tell their stories. The houses, the colors of their clothing, and the articles in their yards tell some secrets, too.
As we drove past one house, LaVonne stopped the van. “It looks like they’re getting ready for a wedding,” she said.
Amish weddings and church services take place in people’s houses. Remember me telling you about the ‘case’ houses? I learned about that on the tour. Church services take place every other Sunday in a different person’s home. This tradition harkens back to the persecution the Amish endured in Europe. In order to escape detection, the Amish moved their church services each week so that outsiders wouldn’t know where they’d be.
Wedding services also take place in the home, or case house. Unlike other weddings, many Amish weddings occur on Tuesdays or Thursdays so that the family has time to set up and then tear down and clean up afterward without interfering with Sunday services. The weddings begin at 8:30am with a sermon. After three hours, the couple is married. The bride wears a plain, dark blue dress and afterward dons a white cap and white apron to signify that she is a married woman.
There are so many subtleties among the Amish that it takes a guide like LaVonne to explain them. She got to know the Amish more intimately when she worked as a driver for some Amish years ago. As I mentioned, many have jobs outside the home and it isn’t practical to ride a buggy to work if it’s more than 10 miles. So some Amish hire English drivers. LaVonne was one such driver and over the years she asked more and more questions and got to know the people. Discovering that she, like many of us, had so many misconceptions about the Amish inspired her to begin taking people on A Taste of the Backroads tour of the Amish so that people could learn more about this fascinating, and seemingly secret, culture.
“If you remember one thing about the Amish, remember this: They keep peace in the brotherhood,” LaVonne told us. “I think there will always be Amish as long as there are people.”