Thursday, September 1, 2011

Amish Country

I'm in Eau Claire, Wisconsin to photograph a wedding tomorrow.  This morning, Karyn, the mother of the bride-to-be, took me on a beautiful drive to a little town called Augusta.  She'd actually arranged for a tour of the nearby Amish country for us.  I've always been fascinated with the Amish...and not just from reading those Amish romance novels!  It seems to me that it must be hard to lead such a simple life.  Amish people don't use electricity, nor do they drive anything but a horse and buggy.  They dress simply, and their education stops at the eighth grade.

In Augusta, there is a store called The Wood Shed that sells furniture made by the Amish.  They also offer the occasional tour. Our guide, Mike, met us inside.

The three of us departed for the nearby countryside, Karyn and Mike safely strapped into the front seats, and me scooting back and forth from window to window in the back seat, camera glued to my face. Mike is not Amish, but is very knowledgeable about them.  A local tax preparer, many are his clients.  He started the tour by explaining that there are fifty Old Order (also known as Old School) Amish families in the area.  They have six districts and one bishop.  Each district has two pastors and two elders, who are elected by the bishop.  I should add, at this point, that I was politely cautioned that photographing an Amish person is not done, and that I would have to be careful with my camera during the tour.  Heavy sigh.

We headed out of town, and almost immediately a panorama of farms spread out before us.  The Amish buildings were identified by their tin roofs and siding, and often the lack of power lines.  They also tended to have several homes extending outward from their original one, where family members (such as grandparents) lived.  Although the homes were mostly painted white and very simple, their gardens were a riot of bright colors.

Our first stop was at an outbuilding where furniture is crafted by hand.  I had to leave my camera in the car here, so just imagine the smell of's cool inside the building in spite of the humidity and heat outside.  There are children's chairs hanging from hooks on the ceilings (presumably for their finishes to dry).  We walk past tables, dressers, chairs, everything simple yet beautiful.  In the very back, one Amish man works on a piece of furniture.  He's wearing a white shirt and dark pants, a straw hat on his head. He looks up at us, nods, and returns to his work. It reminds me of being inside of a church.  We're very quiet, and leave after just a few minutes.  Continuing on down the road, we spot a horse-drawn buggy.  It's drive by a woman wearing a bonnet.
 At almost every farm, laundry flaps in the breeze on clothes lines.  No washers and dryers here!

We pass an Amish church, but Mike quickly explains that it's only a symbol, and is not actually used.  Amish church services are held in the homes.  Every eleven weeks, an Amish family will host the three-hour long service, which consists of preaching, hymns, and discussions of the Amish lifestyle.  Afterwards, a meal is served.  The men eat first, followed by the boys, and finally the women.  I loved Mike's story about when he questioned some Amish women about this custom, saying how sad it must be for them to eat last.  "Oh, no," they replied, "we save the best for us!"
I didn't realize until I uploaded my photographs that I'd caught this little Amish girl playing outside.
In addition to homes and barns, small school buildings dotted the fields.  Each was built to hold 24 chldren, from first through eighth grade.  According to Mike, the first and eighth graders sit on one side so that the older students can help the younger ones.  Grades second through seventh sit on the opposite side.
We also passed a small Amish cemetery.  The markers are all identical, with no information on them.  Everyone is considered the same, no one better or worse than anyone else.
We continued on down some more winding roads before stopping at an Amish house, which also contained a small store for Amish shoppers.  Because Mike was known there, we were able to get out and look around.  A young Amish woman, Martha, greeted us.  When I asked if I could take photographs, she graciously said, "yes."  Martha was 24 years old, unmarried, and worked several days a week at the little store.  She wore a white cap and a blue dress, and was barefoot.  Instead of buttons, straight pins held the front of her dress together. There was a little chihuahua sitting outside under a big tree.  When I mentioned how much I loved dogs, Martha told me to come with her.  There were puppies in the barn, sleeping in the hay!  She brought a few outside for me to see.  I later told Mike that I'd read a lot about the Amish in Pennsylvania, who are involved with puppy mills.  I wondered if that was happening in this area, and was relieved when he told me that was not the case.  The few puppies we saw would become farm dogs on neighboring farms.

 This bicycle tire is used to "wheel" in the laundry...simple, yet functional!
We wandered back into the small store, to check out their merchandise.  Straw hats and boots were popular.

Throughout our drive, we noticed horses tethered to fences on the outside, instead of inside.  Mike explained that this was done on purpose, so that the horses would get used to car and trucks.  That way, when they started to pull a buggy, they'd be used to the noise and not be skittish.

Before returning to town, we stopped at a little empty house that  is owned by the owner of the Wood Shed.  No one has lived it in for quite some time, but Mike had been given a key, so were able to look inside.  The home was very small and basic, yet very peaceful.

Here's our guide, Mike, trying out the buggy!
We took a small detour, so that we could see Dells Mill and the nearby schoolhouse.

With lunchtime around the corner, we dropped Mike off at The Wood Shed, and drove back to Eau Claire.  It was time to start thinking about the wedding!  Thanks, Karyn, for a wonderful morning!