Suzanne Woods Fisher took a trip to the Amish community in Buchanan County, Iowa earlier this year. She shares that visit with us today–along with a few surprises she encountered.
The next time you have an occasion to travel to an off-the-beaten path Amish settlement, carve out a little extra time. Slow down and take a moment to look, really look, at the sprawling farmhouses that dot the two-lane roads. Stop at the small general stores that you’ll see handwritten signs for and meet some Amish store clerks. Notice what’s different about the little one-room schoolhouses that are tucked into a corner of a farmer’s field.
Suddenly, you’re in another world. One that is markedly different from the major Amish tourist communities.
Take, for example, the Amish of Buchanan County, Iowa. I was sitting in the kitchen of a large friendly Amish family in Independence, Iowa, enjoying a cup of coffee and lively conversation about the history of their community. After our visit ended, I took my empty coffee mug to the sink. But there was no sink! Just a long countertop. The reason? They had no indoor plumbing. They don’t want it.
The first Amish church in Buchanan County began in 1914, a migration from southern Iowa churches with liberal leanings. It was founded as an effort to protect conservative standards. That frame of mind has certainly infused and shaped the entire settlement. They hold tight to traditions here.
This area, stretching from Independence, Fairbank, Hazelton, Jesup, Oelwein, is made up of seven churches in an area of about seven square miles and is considered to be one of the most conservative Amish communities in the country.
They use very limited technology: no pneumatic tools, no tractors (permitted with steel wheels in Kalona), no chainsaws. And as I discovered, there was no running water in the homes. They use a hand pump to get water from a well and bring what’s needed into the house. No flush toilets, no bath tubs.
Bicycles aren’t permitted here as they are in most of Ohio and Indiana, nor were there any Lancaster-style scooters. Even a woman’s prayer covering seemed more modest than most. It’s made of a thin organza, like the Lancaster Amish, but this covering goes nearly to a woman’s hairline—two fingers distance—and covers her ears.
Most intriguing are the public one-room schoolhouses that sit on the main road. They’re a compromise from the state of Iowa for the Amish, as long as each town permits it (Oelwein refuses). The state runs and funds the private schoolhouses for the Amish, on the condition that a certified teacher is employed.
In a local library, I met with some retired teachers and heard charming stories about their role as teachers to the Amish. Each one expressed a great satisfaction in their work (no discipline problems, they said. Not one!). I noticed that these women had a great respect for the Amish, but they didn’t romanticize or glamorize them. “There were many times when the boys fell asleep on their desks,” one teacher said. “They’d been up early and had been working so hard.” A grin creased her face. “And I just let them sleep.”
She also told me that quite a few teachers apply eagerly for the one-room schoolhouse job…until they hear about the outhouse. With bitter Iowa winters in mind, they promptly withdraw from the interview process. (I’m not sure I blame them!)
Do you remember the famous 1960s photo of young Amish schoolboys, running into a cornfield to escape the truant officer? That took place in Buchanan County. These Amish Iowans found themselves on the forefront of education disputes that led all the way up to the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed Amish the right to educate their children up to grade eight, in their own parochial schools.
Here’s what I find endlessly fascinating about studying the Amish: Just when you think you’re starting to understand them, they surprise you. One Iowa Amish couple told me about their most recent trip. Now, most all Amish love to travel. In fact, the husband had traveled to all fifty states. And the Amish love nature. So if they go to California, it’s to see Yosemite and the Giant Redwoods–not Disneyland or the Golden Gate Bridge.
So this Amish couple, who were in their 70s, parents of ten, grandparents of umpteen children, who live in the most conservative Old Order Amish community, had just returned from…(are you sitting down?)…a Princess Cruise to Alaska.
Suzanne Woods Fisher is the bestselling, award winning author of fiction and non-fiction books about the Old Order Amish for Revell Books and host of the radio-show-turned-blog Amish Wisdom. Her interest in the Amish began with her grandfather, who was raised Plain. You can find Suzanne on-line at suzannewoodsfisher.com and facebook.com/SuzanneWoodsFisherAuthor. She loves to hear from readers!