Friday, December 21, 2018

The Changing Faces Of A Neighborhood

The above link was shared by blog friend Mundi.

When we left our native Vermont in 1998, there was no Amish presence in the state. 
Driving through rural Pennsylvania and Ohio decades ago we noted immaculate Amish farms, signs posted to alert drivers that the roads were shared by horse and buggy traffic. It was something of a novelty to pass a field where a span of work horses pulled a plow or to point out distinctively Amish clothing billowing on a washing line.

When we traveled to Kentucky in late winter of 2010 in search of a new home, we were shown a number of Amish properties.
We learned that two Amish communities existed within the county, but that a general exodus of families had begun a few years earlier.
We became acquainted with some of our Amish neighbors who lived near our first Kentucky home.
Most of the Amish men heading these families worked as day laborers in local sawmills or similar semi-skilled occupations.
The women stayed at home, caring for their large flocks of children, tending chickens, milking a cow--if they had one--sewing the family clothing on treadle sewing machines, and somehow, in their 'spare time' creating traditional quilts.
They were decent and interesting neighbors, but we soon learned that they were not shy in requesting our services as 'drivers.'  While a number of retirees offered 'for hire' taxi service, shuttling children to the local Amish school, or conveying the women, toddlers in tow, to do their grocery shopping, it wasn't a convenience we intended to furnish on demand.

The exchange of our first property for the Amish farm brought us into contact with the remnant of a far more prosperous Amish community.
We learned that many of the Old Order families who had been in residence there for decades had already departed and that more would soon disperse.
Little more than a year ago the community had dwindled to a point that the remaining households were being urged to relocate.

Amish farm and workshop at dusk.

Amish families tend to relocate in groups. Within a generation intermarriage creates a large extended tribe, children are often  'double cousins,' the result of a family of sons finding brides in a nearby household where daughters predominated.
Thus, one reason for periodic relocation is the need to marry outside the immediate local bloodlines.

Other reasons have a darker cause.
Each community that lives and worships as a group is ruled by a local 'bishop.'
The traditions for living as Old Order Amish are many and stringent, many of them seeming contradictory to our 'English' reasoning.
'Plain' living in the most local community has dictated the use of outhouses or privies;  bathing is conducted by means of a primitive 'shower' usually rigged in a corner of the 'washroom' space where laundry is done.
In the community at the other end of the county it was permissible to have an indoor flush toilet and a bathtub--if the means for running hot water could be contoggled without the use of electricity.

If an Amish family purchased an 'English' house they were allowed to make use of the existing amenities for a year before being required to shut off the electric and revert to a simpler lifestyle.

A point of contention several winters ago became disruptive when some of the younger men replaced their traditional straw hats with woolen 'toboggan caps' during a particularly cold spell.
The bishop decreed that they 'didn't look Amish enough' and ordered them to wear the straw hats on top of the warmer head gear! 
Other infractions might include slyly acquiring a cell phone, a transistor radio. 

Each group of 'plain people'--the Old Order, the Beachy Amish, the Mennonites--have their [to us] rigid interpretation of what constitutes a proper tradition, and the breaking of rules is a serious matter requiring rebuke and discipline.
Apparently if a family feels that they have been singled out for a scolding while other families are perhaps doing the same, this can lead to several households packing up and moving to another community.

The proprietor of the local cafe and store lives with his family in a house purchased from a departing Amish family.  As we did with our Amish farm, he installed electricity and modern plumbing--the reverse process followed by the Amish who must strip an English house of such 'worldly' fixtures.

In our nearly 5 years in this neighborhood we've witnessed the conversion of several young Amish families who have 'gone English.'  This is a difficult transition as they are then 'shunned' by the Amish community, even by their own parents. Having a 'modern' lifestyle, a vehicle, being able to choose ordinary clothing, is a heady liberation, but there is also loneliness, the need to forge new friendships, to seek fresh worship alternatives, to find ways of interacting with non-Amish neighbors.
One young couple whom we know made the transition to English, reverted to Amish, then again left the familiar fold.

Local Amish schoolhouse with the wood fire stoked for the night.

During the past year, we heard cautious speculation that new families would be joining the local Amish community. The married daughter of one of the established patriarchs returned with her husband and several young children. Their home is an 'English' one that had been on the market since before we sought a property in 2010. 
A woman whose prosperous parents and younger married sister left the community several years ago has returned with her husband and teen-aged children, buying and renovating one of the few Amish built houses still available.  Lena's younger brother recently purchased a handsome English house and has already constructed a large white barn and workshop.  Her husband's brother has transferred his household here from the now defunct community at the other end of the county. 

In the waning days of autumn we noticed a gathering of Amish men working to cut grass, mow weeds and refurbish a long empty small house situated just along from the store.  A wash line appeared, blooming with blue shirts and trousers in descending sizes, wood smoke belched from a chimney; small boys have become a frequent sight, pulling a grocery laden wagon [rather dangerously] down the road between store and home
Several times recently, driving home from town in the evening, we have come upon groups of Amish young people out walking--have wished that they would carry a lantern or flashlight. 
There are fresh faces at the store--several pretty teenage girls who smile shyly, younger men who shoulder a bag of horse or chicken feed to tote home.
There are more buggies on the road, frequently a horse tethered to the hitching post outside the store while the owner does her shopping.

Alfred, the store owner, is in a place to hear the latest news from the Amish community.  He tells us that several of the 'new' families are the younger generation who were raised here. Others are older couples who, sensing a more gracious atmosphere, have chosen to return.
The man who has served, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, as local bishop, has relinquished that post to the elder who served as bishop previously.
Certain rules may be modified, the community may prosper again.

As Alfred puts it, 'these are some of the finer people who are returning.'
Amish men have a degree of contact with the world; their work allows them some travel.  They hire 'drivers' to take them on a day's outing--fishing, stopping at a cafe to buy a snack, going out and about to transact banking or other business.
The women are mostly dependent on each other for social outings. They may organize a quilting bee or gather to share the work of canning. They show up with brooms and mops to help a new family settle in, bringing food to share.

For the women, there is the anticipation of  Sunday gatherings of worship and fellowship, now enlivened by the 'new' but likely related households.
As Alfred puts it--we may not understand all their ways or agree with their traditions, but the Amish families tend to be good neighbors, ready to help when needed, otherwise minding their own business.
Given names in the inter-related Amish families follow a pattern that is bewildering to me; many of the names have biblical overtones:  Mary, Anna, Elizabeth, Hannah, Rebecca. Less frequently one meets a Delilah, Naomi, Lovina. 
 Men are called Jacob, Levi, Joseph, Menno, Mose, Eli, Daniel, Noah, Andrew.
Eli's wife, Mary, is a sister to Anna--who is married to Eli's brother Mose. 
When speaking of a particular Amish person it is becoming increasingly necessary to recite details of lineage, as surnames are also common. Several of the young women have married without the need to change their surname, "Miller."
I wonder if we will learn to assign correct names to the new faces. More likely we will be using simpler designations: 'Dan' who had the dog that whirled dementedly at the edge of the road when a car approached--here now from the community at the other end of the county; '
Rebecca' who is the daughter of Jacob and Mrs. Mary, who has a younger sister, Mary, a cousin Mary.
Slowly, perhaps some of the bearded visages beneath the straw hats will resolve into the various patriarchs, the faces framed by 'head coverings' will be sorted into family households.

For a time I think we'll be identifying our new neighbors as 'the ones who are building a sawmill' or the 'short gentleman who drives the pony cart, 'the pretty girl with red hair.'
In the meantime, we watch the revival of the neighborhood with interest.


  1. What a wonderful post Sharon, as ever - and about a culture which has long fascinated me. They sound like good neighbours (if a tad inclined to take advantage - do I rightly remember them asking to use your phone rather regularly? I imagine it is difficult for some of the youngsters to stay inside the fold with such strict rulings, especially when they know of the temptations of the outside world.

    The identification of various families is interesting - here in Wales we have lots of Jones, Williams, Evans etc, and folk are often known by the name of their house or farm (and this even goes as far as the property name being put on their gravestone - house names don't appear on English gravestones). My step-grandmother was Delilah . . .

    I loved the idea of the quilting bee still being very much alive - it would be good here right now, where I am slowly hand-stitching an outer border on Gabby's quilt - nearly finished though, just one side to do.

    Off to blow the dust off my one book on the Amish, whilst also looking for my book of Dylan Thomas' Poetry . . .

    1. Jennie; The phone issue with our former Amish neighbors came about when they published our phone number in a 'paper' which circulates through Amish communities in several adjacent states. We began getting calls designated as 'death notices'--Amish who were so strict they wouldn't have a 'phone shack' of their own, so urged an English neighbor to make the call and recite the intricate details of lineage and connection. We were then expected to make the rounds of the local Amish and convey the sorrowful news. When I inquired of 'Delilah' why this was happening, knowing full well that she and the other local Amish had phones [unlisted numbers] installed in outbuildings, her response was that 1} families living in stricter communities didn't need to know their relatives had phones; 2} since we [!] were at home we could receive the message faster and then relay it! The second such call woke us at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I was incensed--and let it be known that we weren't going to accommodate in this way!
      In this country, naming a road or even a neighborhood after one of the first property owners is common. Voting districts within our Kentucky county are named this way.
      For my last year of high school I had to transfer to the newly created 'union' district [Vermont] which comprised small nearby towns with 2nd and 3rd generation Welsh who had come over to work in the slate mines. Jones, Evans, Williams, were common names there as well.
      A local Welsh church [Presbyterian?] hosted touring Welsh choirs and could still dredge up an elderly Welsh speaker to offer a prayer.

  2. Fascinating post sharon!
    Leanne x

    1. Leanne; I'm glad you found this interesting. The realities of Amish culture are rather different than portrayed in the insipid series of books by non-Amish authors which seem to be a popular feature of the local library.

  3. So interesting to live among them and observe their society and culture. I've watched a few documentaries and read some books, but have never lived near a community. It is sad that family members are shunned for leaving the community and I can understand why it would be difficult to live such a strict lifestyle. It is admirable that they work together and are always there for one another, though.

    1. Karen; I think the very best of the Amish life-style is the cooperative way that they deal with the needs of their community.
      My heart goes out to the Amish women for whom life is an endless succession of pregnancies; most have a dozen children before they're done. Health care and especially dental care is very sketchy.