I live close to Amish country, with its people who reject electricity and the automobile and live lifestyles largely unchanged from well over a century ago. Drive for a little over half an hour or so, and you enter a world of horses and buggies, men with beards and hats, women with blue dresses and bonnets, and neat, well-maintained houses and barns set in a picture-postcard countryside.
The Amish have a well-deserved reputation for making high-quality, handmade, solid wood furniture that clearly reveal that they are the products of skilled craftspeople who take pride in the quality of their work. Soon after we moved to this area in 1989 we found a place out in the country that had a good range of such items. Every few years or so we visit the store and a lot of our house has been furnished with items from there.
When we first visited the store, it was clearly strictly Amish. There was no electricity. The lighting came from oil lamps and heat from the wood-burning stove. There was no telephone. Since it was about an hour’s drive from our home, we had to be sure of what we wanted to buy since returning an item was a nuisance and calling was out of the question. They did not accept credit cards and all transactions were on a cash or check basis and seemed to be largely built on trust. I remember that I was surprised that the first time we went to the store, they accepted my check for a fairly significant amount without asking for an ID from me or having any means of checking whether it would bounce.
But over the years, I have noticed some significant changes slowly taking place, especially recently after the original owners left and the store was taken over by a younger couple. The store has added features that have taken it away from its strictly older Amish roots. First came a battery-operated doorbell. Then electric lighting replaced the kerosene lamps, followed by the introduction of the telephone. Then I noticed that they began accepting credit cards. Then just last weekend, we were talking to the proprietor about the possibility of having a custom-made mantelpiece for the fireplace and although we had the dimensions, he said that it would help if he had a photo of what the fireplace looked like now. I was surprised when he suggested that we take a photo and email it to him! He gave us his new business card and I realized that the store now has a website and an email address. So they clearly use computers and presumably smart phones.
The rules of behavior amongst the Amish is governed by an unwritten set of rules and regulations called the Ordnung. It turns out that the Amish are not as rigidly tied to the old ways as I had thought and the Ordnung allows for some flexibility, especially when it comes to business. The people who run the store I visit are likely conforming to the rules of their local community and adapting to the modern world to benefit just their store and I doubt that they have flat screen TVs and Jacuzzis in their home.
I suspect that there are some who will be disappointed that at least some of the Amish are abandoning the old ways and moving with the times. They may feel that a significant part of the cultural heritage is dying out. I am not one of them. I think that people should not be expected to live lives that conform to other people’s romantic ideas. If some of the Amish want to enter the 21st century, so be it. If others want to retain a 19th century lifestyle, that’s ok too.
But some things haven’t changed. The wood-burning stove is one remnant of the old ways that is still there. But I think the reason for it is that it is probably more economical to keep that than to retrofit an entirely new modern heating system.
But the main thing that has not changed is the sense of trust. Since I knew from my previous trip that they accepted credit cards I did not take my checkbook this time. But it turned out that their credit card reader was not working and I was resigning myself to making the long trip back the following weekend with my checkbook when the owner said that I needn’t bother and that I could simply take the stuff we wanted with us and mail the check in later. It is true that I am a repeat customer (though I shop there only once every two or three years or so and had been there only once after the new owners took over) but I cannot imagine any store in the city that even recognized me as a repeat customer allowing me to take away about $400 worth of items merely on the promise that I would send them the money later.
It would be sad if creeping modernity removed that old-time sense of trust.