Amish on the move

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.


  1. James says

    Although I am an atheist now I was raised in a Mennonite home with many Mennonite and Amish neighbors. Even today I live next to a large Amish run dairy farm East of Cleveland. While the Amish community has its share of problems I can say that as a whole they have a great set of values. The Amish man who runs the farm stops by on occasion simply to ask the question “Am I being a good neighbor, do you need anything?” I am only 40, physically fit and I have a great job – all clearly evident, but he asks anyway. It is incredible. Not to mention the weekend mornings that we have awaken to find that his wife or daughter has backed fresh bread and hung it on our front door or a pie set on our deck table. My wife and I have tried to return these little favors over the years by offering car rides into town on occasion or finding odd jobs to pay their kids to do in the summer. The later has sparked “arguments” in the past with claims that we “paid too much”.

    I benchmark my own neighborliness to my other neighbors against how the Miller’s have treated us over the past 15 years. Any time that I think I am not being a good enough neighbor I try to step it up a notch.

  2. Tim says

    Terrific story, James. Thanks for sharing. I had always wondered what it would be like to live next to families like the Millers.

    Mano, my wife and I also enjoy traveling to Amish country and buying furniture and stuff. The craftsmanship is incredible. Interesting about the Ordnung. I didn’t know that was how it worked.

  3. Richard Simons says

    I remember taking my parents to the Mennonite market in Kitchener, Ontario. My mother was baffled, wondering how they knew that cars were bad but hearing aids and ball-point pens were OK. My father just thought that all religious practices are nonsense so who cares what ‘logic’ they used.

  4. Alex D. says

    Nice story – thanks for sharing. I can relate to the part about trust but I also think that trust as a concept is still out there. I’ve been in Business to Business sales for 13 years now working with both large household names and small 3 or 4 person shops. For the most part, my deals rely heavily on trust and often a handshake. I often accept someone at the word that they will pay anywhere from $15-100K+ on net 30 or 60 terms with little more than a phone conversation or an in person meeting. To date, I’ve never been stiffed for the full amount (though on occasion payment terms have had to be worked out). I think it’s just too cumbersome for both parties not to have an inherent sense of trust and operate on that for as long as possible. I once heard it verbalized this way: “I agree to trust you and you agree to trust me until such time as one of us screws the other, at which point the relationship is over”.

  5. Irreverend Bastard says

    I like the Amish. Living in Scandinavia, I’ve never met any, but there’s plenty of info online. They seem to have a nice society based on good principles.

    But there’s one thing that disappoints me. The puppy mills. I have always detested puppy mills. The animal shelters are filled with friendly dogs that nobody cares about, but people keep buying from the horrible puppy mills. Shame.

  6. Mackenzie says

    They come up with the rules by experimentation. See this article on “Amish Hackers”:

    They try things out when they’re new and see how it affects them. Some Amish churches tried cars 100 years ago. They found the result was the young people spending time away from the community, down in cities, and since they didn’t want the church and families to break up as people spend more and more time away from their neighbors, most of them (but not the Beachy Amish Mennonites) banned owning or driving cars to prevent becoming addicted to or reliant on a world far outside your own neighborhood or community. The Beachy sect is one of the smallest Amish sects now, while the ones that emphasize staying together with family and neighbors are growing.

    They tried telephones. They found that if you can just call someone and chat for 5 minutes, there’s less reason to visit, sit down, have a cup of tea, and spend some real time together. So they decide to allow a community phone booth. To talk to other locals, you visit, but if you have grandchildren 3 states away, you can call that community’s phone booth and someone at the other end will find your grandchildren and put them on the phone with you.

  7. Mackenzie says

    The trust thing was an interesting one for me too. My partner likes hats with large brims. They’re good for keeping the sun off, as he burns easily, and for the rain as well, even when it’s windy. And well, he’s one of those people who wears black all the time. So, Amish hats fit the bill pretty well. I was visiting Lancaster, PA and stopped at the local Amish hatter (Flying Cloud Hats) to get him a new one. Well, I got the size a bit wrong. Oops. So we went back the following weekend to exchange it, and it just seemed so odd and novel to have the exchange involve the hatmaker assist in finding a proper fit then just hand it off… no dealing with receipts, inventory tracking, etc.

  8. Art says

    Just be sure to mail that check to them in a timely manner.

    Remember that they apply the same sense of diligence, hard work, thoroughness, and dedication to the beat-downs they administer to people who rip them off. And if things get really out of hand consider that drive-by shootings using a horse-drawn buggy and muzzle-loading weapons tend to be both exceptionally time consuming and brutally effective.

    I’ve heard the Amish can afford to be somewhat more trusting because they tend to be rather self-sufficient in food and other necessities of life. They make money off outsiders but try not to become too dependent on that income. This has changed over time as the available land in the area has been occupied and young couples need to find an occupation but they still try to avoid becoming dependent on the outside world.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Actually because they trusted me, I made it a point of writing and mailing the check to them as soon as I got home.

  10. Art says

    I’m sure they find the combination of favorable press, and timely payment, most satisfactory.

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