Witnessing the simple life

The Amish of Pennsylvania reject modern values and are wary of visitors. David Usborne managed to meet them
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The Independent Culture
Visit Amish country in eastern Pennsylvania and you are sure to take away at least one indelible image. If you are unlucky it will be of a neon sign advertising "genuine Amish" tat or the rear-end of a tourist bus. Hopefully, it will be your first glimpse of a horse and buggy disappearing down a narrow lane or of a long-bearded farmer dressed in black ploughing the soil with a team of six mules and his dog running behind. Mine will be this: the back wall of a one-room Amish school and on either side of the door at its centre, small black coats hanging from large hooks. To the right are the girls' coats, with blue or purple scarves draped across them and neat black bonnets laid on a narrow shelf above. On the left are the boys' coats, each accompanied by a scuffed straw hat with a wide brim.

With only one day in Lancaster County, where the Amish have farmed since the early 18th century and now number about 20,000, I had used my licence as a "writer from London" to intrude on the privacy of the Amish in a way I should probably not be passing on. Keen to have some direct contact with these people who maintain a life so strange in the midst of modern America - the Amish still reject cars, telephones and electricity - I had stopped the car outside the tiny school and knocked on the glass panes of the door.

Thirty pairs of young eyes darted around to see who this rude invader could be. Were they friendly or fearful? I could not tell. The young teacher smiled uncertainly as I asked if I could sit at the back of the class for a few moments. I was only the second "outsider" ever to visit the school. In some ways, the classroom is like my own son's back in Connecticut. The walls are festooned with children's artwork. But there are no maps of the rest of the world, let alone of America, save for an ancient globe that is stuck on its axis. (The teacher later asks me to point out England.) The short aphorisms dotted about have a clearly Amish bent. Thus, there is a string of silhouette cut-outs of buggies and horses with the message: "Parents keep us trotting along." Another reads: "When we all pull together, how happy we'll be."

The Amish are an ultra-conservative religious sect that traces itself back to the Anabaptist movement in Zurich, Switzerland, in the 1500s. From the Anabaptists sprung the Mennonites led by the Dutch reformer, Menno Simmons. But in the late 1600s, one of their number, Jakob Ammann, decided that his church was straying too far from the Bible and set up a splinter church. They became the Amish, who began to settle in Pennsylvania in the 1720s.

This school gives away some of what separates the Amish from the rest of American society today. By special dispensation of the US Supreme Court, the Amish send their children to these simple schools where they study only until they are 13. The children all share and take lessons in this one room, seated at spartan wooden and steel benches and desks. A coal stove in the corner, which the teacher must stoke herself, provides the only heat. And then there is the rest of their clothing. The Amish - adults and children - wear plain coloured clothes that they make themselves. The boys have straight black trousers, all short enough to avoid being dirtied in the mud, with broad black braces. The girls' plain dresses fasten with straight pins. Only boys have buttons; zips are shunned altogether.

My presence did not pass uncelebrated. Songs were sung in my honour, including one running through the names of every American president, Bill Clinton included. Afterwards, the children of each family stepped forward to recite a poem of welcome. Because the Amish speak Pennsylvania Dutch - an unwritten German dialect - at home and high German in worship, many of the children's English was hard to understand.

Later, when the children were released for recess to play softball in the small field outside, hats and scarves back on their heads, I felt a mixture of triumph and guilt. I had penetrated one of the sanctums of Amish life. The teacher, Annie Stoltzfus (a name shared by one in four of the Amish), had told me what is obvious to any visitor to Lancaster County. The Amish are growing weary of the roughly five million tourists who pass through these country lanes every year, gaping at these strange people in black with their horses, and endlessly evoking Witness, the Harrison Ford film set in Amishland. "We don't like to feel like animals in a zoo," she said.

If browsing and craft-shop hopping is your thing, Route 30 and Intercourse will be your holiday heaven. The recent tourism explosion in Lancaster Country, has spawned both good and bad, however. Take a "Genuine Amish Buggy Ride" and likely as not your driver will be about as Amish as you or me but dressed up to look the part. Take care also if you are offered again a "genuine" Amish dinner in an Amish home. If you are lucky, you might make contact with someone who can arrange such a thing. More likely you will find yourself in the company of the passengers of one of those buses.

At the same time many of the craft items, the quilts and woodwork items especially, will be Amish-made. Selling these goods inside the shops is one way that the Amish have been able to profit from the tourism boom. And among the many museums - including a wax-work rendition of a one-room school complete with mechanically moving children - you should visit "The People's Place" in Intercourse, which has sensitive and factually informative displays.

There also intermediaries available who can help you get past the highway clutter. You would do well, for instance, to avoid the myriad motels boasting tenuous Amish credentials, and stay at on one of the many bed and breakfasts in the county. Only one, the Lincoln Haus on Route 462 just East of Lancaster is genuinely Amish-run. But while its owner, Mary Zook, is indeed an old- order Amish and will open the door wearing the pinned Amish clothes, she has made a pact with the devil of modernity with her home: it has electricity and a phone. When I visited, she admitted that occasionally guests have arrived and left immediately, disappointed to find that they would not be reading under gaslight or sleeping on wooden boards.

I spent my single night at the Maple Lane Farm Bed and Breakfast on Paradise Lane. A working dairy farm, it is run by Marion and Edwin Rohrer. The Rohrers are Mennonites, who share the religious beliefs of the Amish but not their disdain for modern conveniences. They will answer all your questions about the Amish and even share a few of their secrets: the fact, for instance, that many Amish homes have telephones in little privies at the ends of their gardens and that they will all gladly accept lifts in other peoples' cars. The Rohrers even have the deep-freeze of one of their Amish neighbours humming in their garage.

And if you get off the main highways, as I did accompanied by Lester Hoover, a retired Mennonite minister who works as a guide for the Mennonite Information Center in Lancaster, you should meet some Amish people by visiting little shops that many have opened on their own farms. Ask Lester, for instance, to take you to the farm of Sam and Susie Riehl, who will allow you not only to browse in the quilt shop they have inside their Amish home but also to wander alone through their 200-year-old barns.

One last thing about those images: keep them in your mind but be careful about committing them to film. As I stopped the car late in the afternoon to marvel at a view of five young Amish boys walking up the hill on their way home from school, a buggy vanishing behind them, I heard one shout: "We don't want none." It is what the Amish hate most, Lester explains: having their photograph taken.

! United Airlines (0181 990 9900) or British Airways (0181 897 4000/0345 222111) flights to Philadelphia from pounds 373 (21 days advance booking). Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau, 501 Greenfield Road, Lancaster, PA17601 (001 717-299-8901). Mennonite Information Center, 2209 Millstream Road, Lancaster, PA17534 (001 717-768-3882).