We like to believe in the inherent honesty and virtue of the Amish. They are devout people who eschew material comforts in favor of simple living. In a country where the almighty dollar is king, and the gotcha capitalist ethos of say-anything-to-sell-it rules, they stand apart, as craftsmen who sell what they make with their own hands at fair prices with no nonsense. Or do they?
I’ve been patronizing the Amish shops in Cattaraugus County for many years and have always believed that the Amish sold quality, handmade items at great prices. But I had an experience at an Amish shop recently that led me to believe that at least some of the Amish might be no less immune to deceptive salesmanship than anyone else.Two years ago, my wife and I purchased a small, supposedly handmade Amish throw rug from the Wengerd family shop on Dredge Road in South Dayton, New York, and, although the rug was very cheap, we loved it. It’s not a beautiful rug, but every time we look at it, it reminds us of a place we love and a people we greatly respect. In July, we were back in Cattaraugus County and made another visit to the Wengerd family shop, which is located on a desolate road, deep in the Amish belt, where horses and buggies outnumber vehicular traffic, 2-1.
I asked the young man with a characteristic Amish bowl haircut if they bought the rugs or made them on premises.
“My sister makes them right here,” he said rather convincingly.
Given the low prices- $18 for a small rug or $39 for a larger one, I should have been skeptical, but it’s hard to know how an Amish teen would value their own time and labor, and I wasn’t prepared to believe that the God-fearing Amish would lie like a rug.
I bought a nice, big multicolored rug and just as we were about to get into our car, which was parked at the end of their two-buggy driveway, a FedEx truck came barreling down the lonely road.
“FedEx comes out here?” I said to my dad. “But how can the Amish even order anything without phones or Internet?”
Rather than pull out right away, I waited to see where the truck was going, and, sure enough, it pulled up right in front of the Wengerd family’s shop. The driver hopped out and began to unload long, spherically shaped bundles that looked very much like carpets. The young man who sold us the rug had retreated into the family home after we left the shop in front of the house and didn’t come out to greet the truck. We wondered if he didn’t want to come out and sign for the bundles with us in sight.
The driver must make deliveries to the shop regularly because he went right into the unlocked shop and plopped the big bundles down. When he came back out, we asked him if they were carpets.
“Sure feels like it,” he said.
I drove off, feeling a bit shaken and confused. Were the Amish ordering carpets from China and passing them off as handmade? How would they do that without phones, cars or access to the Internet? How could I be so dumb to think I could get a handmade rug for $39?
I returned home and drafted a letter to the Wengerd family to ask them to clarify where the rug was made, because I was curious to see if they’d respond. Three days later, I received the following letters in reply.
Mr. Dave Seminara,
In response to your recent letter, about the rugs, our daughter and her husband make the rugs that we sell in our shop, that is correct. The blue rolls of fabric that FedEx unload that day came from Arkansas. It is quilt lining. We do not buy rugs from China or any other place. When my wife read your letter she was laughing so hard that I asked, What is so funny? I hope this explains it all, if not feel free to come out and see for your self. I want to thank you for writing about your conserns.
You wrote about the rugs. I just had to laugh that you thought that we get our rugs through FedEx. The items we were getting when you were here was a wide fabric for quilt backings 118 inches wide. Our daughter Amanda makes all those rugs as our son told you. They have 2 looms and they weave these rugs through the winter and now they don’t have enough rugs for what we sell so they are busy with the looms again!
The handwritten letters immediately restored my impression of the Amish as an honest people who are unwilling to swindle people to make a buck. But why had I been so quick to assume the worst? As American consumers, we are subjected to so much false advertising and bogus sales claims that it’s easy to become cynical to the point where even the Amish are suspect.
Still, I was curious to know more about how Amish families like the Wengerd’s can do business without access to the Internet or telephones, so I sent them a reply asking to know more. Perhaps not surprisingly, they never responded. Sometimes the things that glitter really are gold but don’t expect the Amish to clue you in on all their secrets.