I was initially sceptical about the Amish Experience as a tourist attraction. Somehow it didn’t feel right to be paying good money to travel within someone else’ community just to stop and stare. Initially arriving at the venue with its garish purple neon light and signage…”Buggy Rides, Amish Hotel, Amish Theatre, Amish bus tours” … seemed to confirm my opinion, and I was still getting over the fact that the location was the somewhat unfortunately named town of “Intercourse”. Yes really!
However, early concerns were misplaced. This is a tasteful and respectable insight into the lives of the gentle folk of Pennsylvania whose lifestyle – shunning cars, electricity and all mod cons – feels like being transported into another age. The experiences starts with “Jacob’s Choice” , a well-made movie about how the teenage Amish people have the option to abandon their faith and go out into the other world (nb, anything which is not Amish is referred to as English). Jacob agonises, and we learnt about the history of the Amish, how they arrived into the States from Switzerland and the pride in their heritage and traditions. The tour then goes to an Amish house, uninhabited, but with each room set up exactly in the way an Amish house is today – including (somewheat disconcertingly) a room where family corpses are kept for viewing purposes between death and the funeral. Light is by candle or paraffin lamp, and the heart of the house is the kitchen where the large families congregate for meals and family events. Bedtime is at 8pm, and the day begins with cow milking at 4am. Modern teenagers take note! Then the tour bus departs for around 90 minutes including an obligatory stop at an Amish bakery and cake shop, as well as a farm with a quilt-making shop. They are commercial people after all, and they accept the tourist minibus as an opportunity for revenue. The Amish girls work in the shops, dressed in their simple bonnets and shapeless tunics, while the men tend to the land with long beards and straw hats. Horse drawn buggeys are everywhere, and at the shops the parking lots are split – one side for cars and the other for horses and buggeys. The young men may drive cars while they are deciding whether to stay with the Amish culture but they cannot drive them home, and so 4 wheel drive vehicles are parked on the road sides. The Amish houses are next to the “English” houses – the only difference being the absence of electric cables and a stable rather than a garage. The main occupation of the Amish women is quilting – each son receives 2 quilts and each daughter 4 quilts. When you consider that 6 to 8 children are commonplaces, that’s an awful lot of sewing.
Schooling takes place until the age of 14 in one classroom schools – a law passed in 1970 or thereabouts has allowed the Amish to educate their children separately to the US consolidated system, an event which has contributed hugely to the preservation of the culture.
Leaving Amish country and re-entering the real world certainly gave contemplation as to whether we really need all of these gadgets and clutter in our lives. There’s really a lot to be said for the simplicity of the Amish, and I can only have complete admiration for the way in which hundreds of years of tradition have been preserved in this corner of Pennsylvania, virtually untouched by the passing of time.