Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is known for rolling hills, sprawling farms, and most of all, a very large and thriving Amish population.
Over Memorial Day weekend, my daughters and I booked a private buggy ride through Amish Country. Our ride was two hours long and included stops at an Amish farm, a roadside market and an Amish home.
Our driver was a 66-year-old Amish man named Ben who has been married to his wife Emma since they were 21. Together they have six children and sixteen grandchildren.
Ben taught us a lot about the Plain Folks on our buggy ride through Amish country.
Horse drawn buggies can be seen moving up and down the Lancaster highways as well as parked next to automobiles at local stores. Automobiles are not permitted amongst the Amish as they symbolize pride and inequality. Additionally, the geographic freedom and mobility they provide are not something the Amish desire as it erodes their sense of community. Amish are, however, permitted to ride in automobiles, trains or buses, but not on airplanes.
The buggies cost about $8,000 and are made from fiberglass and wood. A father typically will give one to his son when he turns 16. Ben, our tour guide, said he was surprised that accidents didn’t occur more frequently, but listed off several that he knew of first hand.They typically occur when impatient drivers try to pass them on the winding, curvy roads. When struck by a car, buggies are completely destroyed and they riders are thrown from the carriage.
Bicycles with pedals are also forbidden as they allow youths to travel too far away from home. As a compromise, the Amish allow kids to use non-motorized scooters that look a lot like bicycles. Ben found a scooter for us to try out. It was a lot of fun and much nicer to ride than they typical Razor scooter.
Most Lancaster Amish farmers are dairy farmers. They sell their raw milk to Land O’ Lakes after taking what they need for themselves first. The crops they grow, hay and corn, are used to feed the cows. Additionally, most Amish have thriving vegetable gardens as well as animals that they butcher when needed. Food served in their homes comes straight from their own gardens and farms.
The Amish continue to use horses to plow, cultivate and harvest crops. Tractors are used around the barn for jobs such as to blowing silage to the top of large silos, powering feed grinders, and spinning ventilating fans. The reason tractors aren’t used to speed things up out in the fields is because the Amish wish to promote equality and to preserve the slower paced, small family farm.
There was a time when most Amish were farmers. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to buy and maintain a farm due to decreasing farmland and higher prices. Most Amish have seven to eight children. The family farm is traditionally handed down to one of the sons. The remaining sons must then buy a piece of land and start their own farm or find another way to make a living. Many Amish now work in manufacturing or cottage industries including landscaping, furniture building, construction, retail, and tourism. Those who wish to farm often move to Indiana where there is a much larger population of Amish and it easier to make a go of it as a farmer. Ben has one son who chose to move there and farm.
Amish children attend school in one-room schoolhouses that are located within one mile of their homes. There are no more than 30 students per school. An Amish child’s formal education is completed once they have finished the 8th grade. There is no option for high school or college. Students learn spelling, basic math, geography, writing, reading, English and German. Instead of indoor bathrooms, each school has two outhouses located behind the school.
Amish teachers are single teenage girls who did well in their studies, demonstrate commitment to the Amish lifestyle and who like children. They teach on probation for three years and then they are official teachers. However, Ben says most of them are off to get married by the time the probation period is over. Ben has never heard of anyone going on to get a college degree.
Rumspringa, Courtship, and Marriage
Rumspringa also means “Running Around” and is the time period when Amish adolescents experiment with driving, drinking, illegal drugs, skipping a prayer service, etc. in order to decide whether or not Amish life is for them. A certain amount of misbehavior is expected amongst teens and is generally overlooked. Ben told us that some teens even buy cars and get driver’s licenses. Often their parents don’t like this and won’t allow them to park the car at the farm. These teens then have to find a local who will help them out. The majority of Amish return to the fold. They are then baptized for a second time and pledge themselves to the Amish lifestyle.
Once an Amish teen turns 16 they are allowed to attend “Sunday night sings” which are weekly social gatherings which provide opportunities for teens to look for potential spouses. Initial meetings are followed up by buggy rides on the weekends. Ben said he met his wife at a square dance and courted her for three years before they married. That’s a lot of buggy rides!! Divorce is a foreign concept to the Amish. Ben didn’t know of anyone who had ever gotten one.
Weddings are held in November or December after the harvest is in, typically on a Tuesday or a Thursday. Services are held in the bride’s house, not a church. This makes sense since Ben told me that church services take place at a different house every week. Weddings are quite large. Ben said there were 300 people who attended his daughter’s wedding and they served two meals to their guests over the course of the day. The actual wedding service lasts three hours. The bride and the groom spend the wedding night at the bride’s house since they must wake up early to help clean up the mess from the wedding festivities. An Amish couple’s honeymoon is spent visiting relatives on the weekends over the next few months. They visit up to six families per weekend and this is when they collect their wedding gifts. In the spring, the newlyweds are ready to move out of the bride’s house and into their own home.
Other tidbits from our tour:
- Ben and his family do see the doctor if necessary. However, he told me that they rarely get sick. Emma, his wife, has been sick four times since they have been married. Ben and Emma went in for check ups this year and were told to watch their cholesterol, but otherwise they are both very healthy!
Ben has a large slice of shoo fly pie in his cereal every morning for breakfast after he’s had eggs, scrapple, potatoes, etc. Ben says his wife is a wonderful cook. He’s very proud of the fact that she still weighs 110 pounds, just like she did when they were first married.
- Emma had five of their six children at home. Ben delivered one of them because the midwife couldn’t make it in time. He took her to the hospital for the first delivery, but after seeing how easily it “popped out” decided they could handle things on their own in the future!
- Ben and his wife LOVE to travel. They have been to every state with the exception of Hawaii and Alaska. Amtrak is their favorite mode of transportation because they love wandering around and striking up conversations with people. They have also been to Mexico and all over Canada. Ben and Emma have one son who isn’t married. This son lives at home and takes care of the farm while they are gone.
- Ben invited us back to his house that evening for a home cooked, farm fresh meal. My youngest loves animals and he told her she could ride his horse. We had to take a rain check, but Ben gave us his number and told us to call anytime. Another one of my daughters likes to cook and he told her she could stay for a week sometime and his wife would teach her how to can veggies/fruit and cook Amish style. We loved Ben and his sweet, gentle spirit.It was a great day!
- Ben and Emma have a lot of empty bedrooms in their house now that their children have moved out. Because they both love meeting new people, they decided to open a bed and breakfast in their home. This is a great fit for them and a fabulous opportunity for anyone who wishes to know more about the Amish and stay in a real Amish home. I have their phone number if you ever want to give them a call and stay there.
If you are ever in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, be sure to check out Aaron and Jessica’s Buggy Rides. We booked a private ride so we could ask tons of questions and have our driver all to ourselves. Make sure you ask for Ben as your driver!