Conned By The Amish?

amish buggy trafficWe 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?

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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.amish shopTwo 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.

amish rugI 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.

Levi Wengerd

Hello,

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!

Elizabeth Wengerd

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.

The Amish: Not Exactly Foreign

During a capstone communications course I took in college, our desks were arranged in the shape of a circle. This was done in an effort to enhance communication within the class and it worked well for me. We spent some time discussing subcultures within their larger cultural context. My professor’s slideshow on the topic displayed photos of Australian Aborigines back-to-back with the Amish. Many of my classmates were bona fide New Yorkers, as perplexed by the culture of the American Amish as they were the Australian Aborigines. But the Amish weren’t exactly foreign to me, at least not as foreign as the Aborigines. There are 249,000 Old Order Amish throughout the U.S. and Canada and, as far as I know, zero Aborigines. When the professor asked me to relay my experience with a specific Amish family to the class, I did as she requested, with the faces of my classmates forming a quiet, circular audience.

I grew up in Marietta, Ohio. The Amish don’t live in Marietta, but they do live nearby. We saw traces of them everywhere in town, but the people themselves were missing. Handcrafted furniture made by the Amish showed up in our stores. My friends Alex and Abby, who were twins, weren’t Amish, but their relatives were. And I knew enough to know that the Mennonites, who I once saw modestly lifting the hems of their floor-length dresses and wading in the pool beneath a waterfall in Hocking Hills, weren’t the same as the Amish.When I was 8 years old, my parents took my siblings and me to an auction on a sunny Saturday morning. We traveled what seemed like hundreds of miles at the time, but was actually closer to forty. Being only 4-foot-something, I remember this day as being crowded and boring because I couldn’t see anything. When we left, we took a beautiful antique sewing machine with us. The conversation on the way home wasn’t about the purchase, though. Instead, my parents guiltily discussed the Amish couple they’d beat out in the auction for the sewing machine. Not only did my parents place the highest bid on the sewing machine, but, without pause, they also struck up conversation with the Amish bidders before leaving.

My mother had jotted down the address of the Amish woman, Ruth, in post-auction conversation. Not one to miss a beat when it comes to keeping in touch, my mother soon after sent her first letter to Ruth. The two women began corresponding with each other one handwritten, cursive letter at a time. Moved by guilt, God, or both, my mother had decided to give the old sewing machine to the Amish family. Accompanying the machine would be an old wood-burning stove that had been dormant in our unfinished basement for years. Both the stove and the sewing machine were housed in the garage for a week or so while my father sanded, scrubbed, and polished them. We arrived at their farm in Chester, Ohio, two months after the auction.

The animals and the land were the things I noticed first and because of that, I leaped excitedly out of our aging Toyota Tercel. Rabbits, cows, pigs and ducks scurried away from me in clusters as I ran toward them. The land had been transformed into grids. Carved into the hillside, the rows of half-grown crops made neat lines that blurred into the hazy horizon. One of Ruth’s many daughters offered me a handful of unripe berries, and I noted the unpleasant, bitter taste. She asked if I wanted to try milking a cow (I did). We walked together down to the cow barn. My arms grew tired after only a few minutes. Not much milk had accumulated in those minutes. The cow’s hoof knocked into the metal bucket, spilling my paltry collection. We climbed the hill to the house where the adults had been familiarizing themselves with one another and exchanging gifts. The shiny sewing machine and stove looked out of place in the spartan living room and my mother was clutching a handmade quilt and an apple-filled wicker basket.

We visited Ruth and her family of 7 living children (the eldest son had drowned after a bridge collapsed some time ago) regularly thereafter. Through these visits, I learned small things about the Amish in passing. We could not take pictures of the family members, for instance. I learned not to talk about hairstyles, clothing, or anything else that might make the girls feel uncomfortable. I didn’t really talk to the boys in the family and it seemed as though that was the way everyone preferred things to be. As I grew older, visiting their family became more difficult. I started listening to rock music and that wasn’t something any of Ruth’s children had ever heard, or would ever hear so long as they refrained from using electricity. They weren’t allowed to read the books I was reading; they would never see the movies I loved. The more I began to individually develop, the less I had in common with the family. Had I taken on farming, homemaking, or religion as personal interests, perhaps there would have been more for us to discuss. By the time I began middle school, the best my parents could do was drag me to Ruth’s house kicking and screaming and the tantrum itself was evidence of yet another thing we did not have in common: Gelassenheit.

At some point in time, my mother must have started feeling the disconnect herself. She and my father once visited the family several times a year. These days, they don’t visit at all. Now that my mother keeps in touch with most of her friends through email, her natural gift for keeping in touch seems to have been hampered by the handwritten letter, so they exchange long letters only at Christmas. The letters have the same dull edges and climatic points that a year’s worth of Facebook statuses would.

While visiting the Amish Country near Warsaw, Indiana, last December, my friend slowed the car he was driving through the cold and heavy rain as a horse and buggy passed us. The orange triangle affixed to the bed of the buggy was the only thing visible through the mist. The sky was dark and I imagined the man inside the buggy was eager to get home to his family, and for a moment, the horse and buggy didn’t register with me as unfamiliar. I then imagined the attentive faces of my classmates in that communications course as I told them about my experience with the Amish. My experience associated me with them in the context of that classroom in New York City much more than my actual self was ever associated with them in reality – not exactly foreign, no, but not exactly familiar.

Brutal Attacks on Ohio Amish Community

Summer pies and roadside stands

Oh, my pies. Over at Intelligent Travel, I found out that yesterday was National Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Day. That’s a national day worth celebrating. Instead, there I was at Twist O’ the Mist in Niagara Falls eating a butter pecan ice-cream cone, not knowing I that I should have been on a strawberry-rhubarb pie hunt.

The best strawberry-rhubarb pie I know of is at Wallkill View Farm Market right over the bridge out of New Paltz, New York. Oh, I can see it now in the glass case on a shelf among others. Forget the blackberry, cherry or peach. What I’m after is the strawberry-rhubarb as soon as I pull into the parking lot. A whole pie with the hint of the sugary sour of strawberry and rhubarb juices that have bubbled up through the flaky crust. I buy at least one every summer. Sometimes, I buy two–or three. It depends on how many people I am visiting on my summer trips back to New Paltz where I lived through 8th grade and high school.

Wallkill View Farms was a smaller fruit stand back in my high school days. Since then, it has grown into an upscale roadside fruit and vegetable stand that has expanded into baked goods, gourmet offerings and flowers. Every inch of the produce and products are lush and gorgeous.

Another great place to find pies of any kind is at the Green Market at Union Square in Manhattan. Farmers and bakers, many of them from upstate New York and elsewhere, come into the city on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, turning the park area into a garden of earthly delights with pies and more–much more.

Then there’s major pie country in Holmes County, Ohio, where you’ll find the largest population of Amish in the United States. Head to towns with names like Charm, Mt. Hope and Berlin and stop at any Amish stand you happen across. The pie version I snap up here are fried pies. These are in between a pie and a turnover. There is strawberry-rhubarb, but the apricot is mighty fine as well. Actually, they’re all good.

Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant & Smorgasbord, Lancaster, PA

Bird-in-HandWhen taking a trip through Pennsylvania’s Dutch and Amish country lands make sure you step into the Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant & Smorgasbord. I was on the hunt for some hard-core Amish style food to take down when I, myself stumbled into this off-road dining destination. Best for families and close friends looking to fuel up before heading deeper into the land before time, Bird-in-Hand offers all the traditional-style, comfort fare one could ever dream up. Think fried chicken, ham balls, baked fish, sauerkraut, shepherds pie and much more. Take advantage of the reasonably priced breakfast ($6.99), lunch ($9.79 weekdays / $12.99 Saturdays) and dinner smorgasbord ($13.99 M-Thurs / $15.99 Fri-Sat).

The atmosphere is comfy and casual and very much down home. You can count on everyone from the hostess to the wait staff to be overly accommodating and happy to continue the ways of the Smucker family tradition.

Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant is located at 2727 Old Philadelphia Pike, Bird-in-Hand, PA 17505. Phone: 800.665.8780. Web: www.bird-in-hand.com