Living Amish

Friday, September 10, 2010

Living like the Amish is like traveling in a time capsule for me.

Over the long Labor Day weekend, my wife and I drove to central Illinois where more than 4,000 Amish populate an area of flat, fertile farmland smaller than 10 miles square. Two of the storybook towns in the middle of the Amish farms are Arcola and Arthur.

I immediately started comparing the Amish lifestyle to my own childhood on Killough Valley in the Ozarks over yonder.

The Amish, as you probably already know, eschew most modern conveniences. They are known for their simple but distinctive attire and for the fact that they use horses for buggies and to pull farm machinery.

But the Amish are a much more complicated society than that. They are fervently religious and have a strong social system that revolves around the family unit.

Driving along the highways and county roads around Arcola and Arthur brings outsiders into contact with the Amish traveling in their buggies pulled by beautiful high-spirited horses. Many of the Amish, young and old, also use bicycles. The immense Belgian horses used for field work are gorgeous. Think Clydesdales, only with more muscle.

The plain, but large, Amish farmhouses along the roads are meticulously maintained. Amish businesses abound.

Out in the country between Arcola and Arthur is Rockome Gardens, which also is the home of the Illinois Amish Interpretive Center. The seven acres of gardens are what remains of the Arthur and Elizabeth Martin farm. The Martins wanted the largest flower garden in the county, and they got it. During the Depression and into World War II, the Martins put their farmhands to work building fantasy rock creations throughout the gardens. This kept the workers employed, an amazing commitment during troubled times in our nation's history.

On Saturday we went to the annual Arthur Cheese Festival. For this street fair, which includes free cheese and crackers for everyone willing to stand in line, the entire downtown is blocked off. Just as many visitors to the outdoor booths find their way into the local shops whose proprietors adhere to the local adages of "You're only a stranger once" and "There are no strangers -- just friends we haven't met yet."

Parking was at a premium during the festival. Some areas were taken over by up to 50 buggies and horses.

The Amish we talked to were friendly, helpful and patient with all our questions. We eavesdropped on more than one group of Amish gathered on the sidewalk or in a store. Yes, they have the same aches and pains as everyone else.

What struck me most was the plain fact that today's Amish live pretty much the way we lived on Killough Valley 60-years ago. It was all familiar to me, from the gas refrigerator to the horse-drawn farm implements that we converted to tractor hitches in the 1950s.

It was a great visit, and we thank everyone who made us feel so welcome.

jsullivan@semissourian.com

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