All about Plain transportation
Though most Amish allow riding in motor vehicles such as cars and buses, no Amish permit ownership of the automobile. Amish feel the horse-drawn carriage promotes a slower pace of life and greater reliance on community.
Amish buggies are not all alike. Different designs designate specific communities and groups. Amish carriages come in a range of colors, styles, and feature varying degrees of technology.
The horse-and-buggy is a key part of Amish identity and culture. I once asked an Amish minister what are the crucial elements when it comes to whether he considers a given religious group “Amish”. Use of the horse-and-carriage was the first thing he named.
Old Order Mennonites, Anabaptist cousins of the Amish, depend on the buggy as well. Old Order Mennonite buggies typically differ from Amish vehicles in design.
In places where Amish and Mennonites live side-by-side, you’ll see different carriage styles on the road. For instance, in Lancaster County, PA, Amish drive grey-topped buggies, while Old Order Mennonite carriages are black.
Below, we take a look at Amish buggies and other forms of horse-drawn transportation, including numerous photos from Amish communities in Pennsylvania and the Midwest.
- Amish buggy styles–Amish vehicles come in many forms
- Mennonite buggies–Old Order Mennonites share much in common with Amish, including transport
- Swiss buggies–The Swiss Amish, most prevalent in Indiana, use only open carriages
- Buggy safety–Accidents happen too often. How Amish try to prevent them
- “Rare” Amish buggies–Uncommon designs and styles
- The buggy shop–Where Amish buggies come from
- The pony cart–”Buggy training” for youngsters?
- Buggy rides–The tourist side of Amish transport
Amish buggies come in many different designs and styles. Some examples from Amish settlements around the country:
When we think of Pennsylvania Amish, we typically think of the Lancaster County gray buggy. The Amish at New Wilmington, Pennsylvania use a distinctive brown-topped vehicle. New Wilmington Amish and their spin-off groups are the only ones to use this color.
Other Amish in Pennsylvania drive a black style more like those associated with the Midwest. In Plain Buggies, Stephen Scott notes that the type common today in Ohio may have in fact originated in Pennsylvania (the Amish at Somerset County, PA, one of the oldest communities, use a similar style).
Amish in Holmes County, Ohio also drive a black buggy with angled-in sides. Holmes County buggies vary due to the many Amish groups inhabiting the area. If you see one without a Slow Moving Vehicle triangle, it most likely belongs to a member of a Swartzentruber Amish church.
Businesses in Amish areas–from mom-and-pop stores to McDonald’s and Wal-Mart–provide buggy parking areas and hitching posts, such as the one above in Berlin, Ohio.
In the large northern Indiana community of Elkhart and Lagrange Counties, Amish buggies have a distinct squared-off boxy back.
Buggies come in a variety of styles and designs, with different names depending on the community. The vehicle above, which we might think of as an “Amish pick-up truck”, is designed for hauling bulky items. Larger two-seater buggies are used for family trips and traveling to church on Sundays.
In addition to the buggy, Amish use a variety of transportation, including bicycles, scooters, and their own two feet. Buggies, of course, require basic maintenance, not to mention care of the horse. While they are not as convenient, buggies are useful for longer trips, journeys with small children, and visits to the store.
Near the large Amish community at Nappanee, Indiana, you’ll find a small enclave of Old Order Mennonites. Mennonite buggies here can be distinguished by their boxier shape.
“Topless” Swiss Amish buggies
Amish in certain so-called “Swiss” communities use a distinct style of buggy. Swiss carriages are always open-top.
Amish travel in these carriages no matter the conditions. Bring your blanket, and an umbrella–no telling what the weather will be.
The above carriage was shot in the Swiss Amish settlement in Steuben County, Indiana. The container in back is known as the “kid box”–a protected compartment where small children can ride during bad weather.
Buggy lighting and road safety
Buggy safety is a big concern for Amish drivers. At night, Amish buggies rely on lighting and reflectors. Some are very brightly lit, showing up better than cars.
Other Amish groups do not use artificial lighting whatsoever, relying on lanterns and minimal reflector tape.
Amish buggies are frequently victims of road accidents. Crashes happen more often at night, and in many cases involve drivers under the influence. Amish are often killed or seriously hurt, as are their horses, which may have to be put down after accidents.
Buggy visibility is also an issue. Buggy signs warn of the presence of Amish on the road.
“Rare” Amish buggies
Tucked away in off-the-beaten path communities, you find less common Amish buggy styles. These buggies may feature a different body design, uncommon color, or unique use of reflectors.
The buggy above is from the Amish community at Ashland County, Ohio. The Ashland Amish use grey reflector tape to outline a safety triangle. An orange reflector is located in the center of the tape triangle.
These buggies are found in the Hardin County, Ohio community. This group previously did not use the SMV insignia, before adopting the distinct two rows of reflectorized bars seen in the photo here.
Most Amish would find this display unusual, but to one Hardin County Amish woman I spoke with–just a toddler at the time of the change–the local reflectors seem perfectly normal. This design fulfills the requirement that the buggy show 72 square inches of reflectorization.
In addition to these, other less common buggy styles include the bright yellow Byler Amish buggy, found in Big Valley, Pennsylvania, the bulky Dover, Delaware Amish buggy, and the white-top Nebraska Amish buggy.
The buggy shop
In most Amish communities of size, you will find at least one buggy shop. Amish buggy makers handcraft their vehicles. While wood construction was once common, today’s buggies are more often made of fiberglass.
They also employ a good deal of technology, including drum brakes and even alternators, used to charge the on-board battery found on most Amish buggies.
Amish buggy shops provide a crucial service for their communities. In Amish settlements without a buggy shop, Amish typically order their vehicles from larger communities. Amish also buy and sell used buggies at auction. A used Amish carriage may often be had for half the price of a new one, or less.
Amish buggy wheels and other parts are often built off-site and assembled at the buggy shop. When ordering a carriage, a customer typically has a wide range of options to choose from, including interior upholstery, lighting, style of “dashboard”, and so on.
Buggy windows may vary in style, with some featuring a back window and others not. Some buggies enable passengers to enter through a sliding door, while others use roll-up curtains.
Buggy wheels may be metal or rubber-rimmed. An Amishman I spoke with wondered why his church would not permit the rubber rims, as they eliminate noise when traveling on asphalt or gravel roads. Rubber makes a quieter and easier ride.
Some Amish youth further customize their buggies with interior and exterior decorations, and even music systems. Amish youth typically get their first buggies at age 16.
Buggies are essential for Amish boys of courting age, as the traditional Amish first date consists of a boy asking to drive a girl home from the weekly Sunday evening singing. Some adult-supervised Amish youth groups require their youth to drive open-top buggies.
Other types of horse-and-buggy transportation
Popular among Amish children and youth is the pony cart, a sort of “training” buggy. Pony carts are powered either by ponies or miniature horses. Amish children (especially in more progressive settlements) can often be seen zipping around front yards or traveling down country roads in these carts, pulled by feisty little beasts.
Amish adults sometimes ride in pony carts as well. Since no driver’s license is required, sometimes very young Amish children pilot pony carts.
The church wagon
If you visit an Amish community you may notice an oversized wagon that looks something like an Amish SUV.
This large wagon is used to transport church benches between Amish homes. Amish do not hold church services in separate buildings, but rather in the basement, shop, or barn of a member’s home. Church is a movable event, and the passing church wagon points the way to where the next bimonthly service will be held.
The church wagon also contains the Ausbund hymnals which Amish sing from during worship.
In addition to buggies, carts, and wagons, Amish employ a variety of other horse-drawn implements. Many are used for farm work.
Manufacturers produce a wide range of horse-drawn equipment for both Amish and non-Amish customers. Amish-owned Pioneer Equipment in Wayne County, Ohio is one of the largest such producers in America.
An article on Amish buggies wouldn’t be complete without a word on buggy rides. Tourists are often drawn to the idea of a jaunt in an Amish buggy. Amish buggy ride companies typically operate from tourist towns such as Berlin, Ohio, Intercourse, Pennsylvania, or Shipshewana, Indiana, each located in the heart of a large Amish community.
Tour buggies are often operated by Amish drivers (though not always) and may make stops at Amish homes, farms, and businesses. Drivers are knowledgeable about Amish customs and culture, and offer riders background information on the Plain people.
The buggies used by tour companies usually differ in their markings (more reflectors for enhanced safety, or to give the impression thereof), and size (some companies employ “stretch” buggies, featuring an extra bench to haul more customers). Some tour companies, such as those around the Amish community at Ethridge, Tennessee, even use huge tourist wagons pulled by massive draft horses.
Buggies crucial to lifestyle
Buggies are vital to the Amish in the same way that Plain clothing and the Pennsylvania German language are important. The Amish buggy is symbolic, a marker of the people. Refusing the car in favor of yesterday’s technology, Amish are making a conscious statement. They are rejecting one aspect of modernity in exchange for what a more technologically restricted lifestyle will bring–in this case a closer, and thus stronger, family and community.
The buggy literally slows the pace of life. When you’re dependent on buggy transport, you plan your trips with more care and foresight. Journeys away from home are less frequent. Neighbors must depend on neighbors.
Truth be told, it’s hard for us to imagine relying on a buggy to get around everyday. And to be frank, not even all Amish do so. Many Amish hire “Amish taxis”, vehicles driven by English people, to travel to the store or more distant places. Amish business owners often keep at least one English employee on payroll to serve as a driver.
In some communities the tractor has taken on a prominent role. Some Amish use the farm implement liberally, even permitting it to be driven for non-farm tasks. These include going to town or to tow a wagon full of family and friends on an evening pleasure ride.
However, even those Amish groups who have become more liberal about using the tractor and other forms of transport, have held on to the horse-drawn carriage to some degree, realizing the symbolic and cultural importance. As the minister noted above, Amish and the buggy are in some sense inseparable.
Other Amish buggy articles:
If you’re looking for a book, the best one on the Amish buggy is Plain Buggies: Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren Horse-Drawn Transportation, by Stephen Scott.