Last week, while at the Grand Design Owners’ Rally in Goshen, Indiana, I took an Amish Brown Bag Tour. We would visit a number of different Amish businesses in Elkhart County, mostly in the Middlebury/Shipshewana area. It included a “Thresher’s Dinner”
so I was a bit confused as to why I’d need a brown bag lunch, too. Hmmm. . .
The large group traveled on two large, luxury buses with VERY efficient air-conditioning. Our tour guide, Carlene, is the founder and owner of the tour company and she REALLY knows her stuff! She narrated along the way as we motored through stunning farmland and past home after home with meticulously maintained grass and gardens (they’d never let us live here!).
We passed several “quilt gardens” (too quickly to get a picture but you can see some samples here) and learned that they are a special tradition here. Each garden replicates a different quilt block that is made with annuals — it takes lots of planning and long-lived dedication. To be included on the Quilt Garden Tour, you need to submit your plan for approval in October and then the annuals are ordered. Your garden must be maintained throughout the entire season to remain on the tour.
Our first stop was the Rise ‘n Roll Bakery. Carlene had prepared us well, telling us that their donuts are considered “Amish crack.” She was SO right! As we entered the store, we were greeted by a young woman who handed each of us a piece of freshly baked donut. OH. MY. GOODNESS. It was amazing. We had about 25 minutes or so to shop — all kinds of pastries, cookies, breads, jellies and jams, and crunchy candy (think brittle) made with a variety of nuts, some with a chocolate dip. I chose a package of 6 chocolate chip cookies (my favorite), a double-chocolate muffin (do you sense a theme here?), a package of 3 monster cookies, and a box of donut holes — the same flavor as the sample we got at the door. Yeah, we like sugar.
Well, I soon learned that the “brown bag” was a huge brown shopping bag that Carlene handed us as we approached the bus. AND SHE GAVE EACH OF US A HUGE PIECE OF CAKE from a large rack that had been rolled out to the bus. Uh oh. I wish I’d known what we were getting — I wouldn’t have bought so much inside. Yeah, riiiiight.
My large brown paper bag was already quite full and that was only stop #1. Uh oh.
Along the way to stop #2, we passed several Amish schools. Carlene shared some interesting facts with us, some of them surprising:
- Amish children don’t start school until they’re 7 years old.
- Pennsylvania Dutch is a language derived from German and is spoken by the Amish in their homes. Children begin to learn to read Pennsylvania Dutch in the third grade; the focus is on reading, NOT writing.
- Children finish school at the end of their 8th grade year (age 15).
- Sometimes a youngster might want to go on to HS at which point they’d attend an “English” school but it’s not common. If an Amish student is particularly athletic, they might be recruited to attend a local English high school.
- Each school has two baseball diamonds; softball is played at every recess including during their hour-long lunch break. One field is used by the younger children, the other for the older kids. ALL the kids play and they love it!
- The teacher is also Amish; the only requirement to teach is that they finished the 8th grade in good standing. There is no teacher training.
- Some children use their pony carts to get to school. Others come by bicycle. We didn’t see any pony carts; I would assume they have a shed for the ponies and carts just like we saw at Walmart.
Stop #2 was Teaberry Wood Products and it was probably my favorite stop on the whole tour. We were greeted by Lavern; he hopped onto the bus, a beautiful family portrait in hand, and gave us some background about the family business. The long and short of it is that he works for his wife! Rachel is the primary designer of their baskets and puzzles.
They are best known for their beautifully-crafted, wooden, woven baskets—each one is made from a single piece of wood! The pattern is such that a scroll saw cuts the base of the basket and all the ‘weavers.’ The stakes are the upright sticks that are woven in and out of the weavers to hold it all together.
They also make many others items including beautiful cutting boards, handsome pens, amazing puzzles (that can be stood up and will stay altogether), stunning nativities, and wooden seam rippers.
Lavern told us the story of how the seam rippers came to be a part of their business —– they found that men were interested in the pens but when they wanted to come up with something for the “women” in an area where quilting is common, the idea for the seam ripper emerged. They can’t keep them in stock. Lavern told us that since men don’t make mistakes, they don’t NEED seam rippers! No stains are used on any of their products, but each item is dipped into a large vat of oil which brings out all the grain of the wood. They use exotic woods to create the color dimension.
Back on the bus and after a quick stop at a small quilt shop that was going out of business — we were on our way to lunch. My “brown bag” (not my lunch!) now had a bag of “Horse and Buggy” pretzels and a jar of Amish jam — I’m going to need more storage in my kitchen!
We were treated to a hearty Thresher’s Dinner at a large dining hall built and run by a lovely young Amish family. (A Thresher’s Dinner is a family style Amish dinner; it’s similar to a harvest meal.) Seth (in his early 30’s) welcomed us and shepherded us to the pie table before we entered the dining room. FINALLY! Someone ELSE who agrees that you have to know what’s for dessert before you have dinner. I chose a piece of fresh peach pie and took it to my table.
We got to our tables and were served a scrumptious feast of baked chicken, meat loaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, amazing “slaw,” and bread — lots and lots of bread. The bread is served with two spreads — a “peanut butter spread” and apple butter. We tried to figure out what made the peanut butter spread so airy — it was almost like it’d been whipped with a little marshmallow fluff. The slaw was actually a cauliflower/broccoli salad, very finely chopped, crunchy, and delicious.
A second wave of serving plates and bowls came around the table — most all of us were too full for seconds! And we still had dessert. Just as we were finishing our pie, Seth announced that homemade vanilla ice cream was coming out in a moment with caramel sauce. Wow!
After lunch, Seth answered lots and lots of questions from our group (both buses – about 120 people in all) — interestingly enough, most of the questions were from the men and nearly all of them were about marriage and church traditions. Seth told us all about how once they’ve completed 8th grade, young people travel quite frequently to other Amish communities (even in other states) and that’s sometimes how they meet their future spouse. He also told us about his young family (a wife and two young children) and how he hadn’t had any schooling beyond 8th grade. Several people on the tour asked questions about whether an Amish person is shunned by their family and/or community if they marry outside of the Amish faith. Seth explained that they could still visit (and would be welcomed by) their family and community but that they just couldn’t attend worship. He doesn’t like the word shunned and thinks that it makes it sound too harsh.
Seth told us that his mother had been a teacher (she was standing right behind him at that moment and chuckled!) and that he was always careful to speak as correctly as possible. Sure enough, she had finished 8th grade in good standing and decided she wanted to teach when it was time for her own kids to attend school.
We were quite struck when Seth explained that in the Amish community, no one has insurance — neither health nor homeowners. They consider buying insurance a form of gambling (and I guess it is). The community IS the insurance — if a family loses their home or barn in a fire, by that evening, community members have plans in place and the new structure is completed within a week! Seth also told us that families in the church communities (usually about 1 mile wide by 2 miles long) each contribute to help each other out. For instance, if a family has a huge medical expense, the community will provide money to cover the expenses. What incredible generosity and commitment!
As we boarded the bus to leave, we saw a large trailer packed tightly with benches (and songbooks were in there, too). Seth’s family was due to host this week’s worship service. The trailer of benches is moved from home to home. They only have church every other Sunday and always meet in homes.
Note: At our next stop, one of our group realized that she’d dropped $20 at the dining hall when she pulled her cellphone from her back pocket. She let our tour guide know. At about the same time, the tour guide received a phone call from Seth that someone had dropped $20 on the floor at lunchtime. Seth told us that he’d ride his bicycle out to the road and meet us as we came by on the bus— and surely he did.
We visited a buggy shop in the afternoon — it was impressive! The owner, Maynard, runs a one-man shop; he builds and repairs Amish buggies. His craftsmanship is in such demand that he has an 18-month waiting list for new buggies. It takes him about two weeks to complete one.
All kinds of special options can be ordered– everything from LED headlights to blinkers, from hand-operated windshield wipers to extra spacious carrying room for groceries, etc. The interiors are stitched on his heavy-duty sewing machine (one of his favorite parts of the process). They were amazing!
Maynard explained that well-built and well-maintained buggies can last forty years or more and are often passed on from one generation to the next. They can sell for about $12,000 new.
And, of course, we were each given a bag of Horse and Buggy Pretzels as we reboarded the bus. My brown bag was heavy!
This incredible journey into the world of the Amish community was my favorite part of our trip to Indiana. It’s a treat to learn so much about an area we’re traveling through. I’m so glad that I am able to share some part of the experience with you.