How do Amish keep their homes warm? How do they dry laundry in winter? What kinds of cold weather activities are popular? And what’s the hardest thing about Amish life when the mercury drops?
In today’s Q-and-A, Marie Graber, raised Amish in the Jamesport, Missouri community, answers these and other questions.
Don Burke interviews Marie, and contributes some great photos taken in several settlements including Jamesport.
I hope you enjoy this look at Amish life below zero.
Don: It’s a cold morning and I’m reflecting back on my first trip to Jamesport, MO, five winters ago.
Jamesport is located on the eastern edge of the Great Plains, and I went there hoping for an “Amish in the Snow” themed photo-op – and did I ever get one!
With me now is Marie Graber, a good friend who grew up Amish in Jamesport, and she is joining me as I look back at pictures from that trip and at others related to Amish in this coldest part of the year.
Marie, on this first trip, Jamesport got about a foot of snow in less than twenty-four hours. It was coming down pretty hard at times. Is that typical for Jamesport?
Marie: No we normally get a few inches at a time. Occasionally we will get a small blizzard but for the most part a few inches is all we get.
Don: In what ways are the coldest days of winter different for Amish than for English?
Marie: The hardest thing about winter for the Amish is probably driving the horse and buggy. There is no heat in the buggy so it makes for a really cold ride!
Another thing is making sure that the animals have hay. In the Amish world you can’t just hop on a tractor and take a bale of hay out.
You will need to get the team of draft horses in and harness them up and hitch them to the hay cart. Again this is a cold job as the hay cart is open with no protection against the wind.
Don: So how do the Amish, who don’t have electricity, keep their homes warm?
Marie: Amish people have wood burning stoves in their houses which is the best heat for a large house. They will spend a few days in the fall cutting wood for the winter. Some Amish houses in Jamesport also have propane wall heaters to help out with the heating.
Don: A lot of Amish will tend their fields in the spring and summer, and be harvesting or canning in the late summer or fall. Are there special things that are done during the cold winter months?
Marie: Things will slow down a lot for these people in the winter although they will usually find something to do. Some might find a part time job to get through the winter months.
Don: Does the extreme cold affect the regular chores (like washing clothes) or other activities?
Marie: Yes, washing clothes is an extremely cold job in the winter. Imagine hanging clothes on the line in below-zero temperatures. You can’t wear gloves and your hands get very cold. I always dreaded doing laundry in the winter.
Sometimes we hung the clothes in the basement when it got really cold. Some people don’t have a clothesline in their basement and have no choice but to hang them outside.
Doing morning chores like feeding the chickens or horses are cold tasks as well but we learned to bundle up. I think we also got used to the cold. Our bodies would toughen up fast when winter hit.
Don: What do the Amish, both here and in the more strict communities, do for hot water when it is so cold?
Marie: The Amish in Jamesport have propane water heaters in their homes. As far as the communities with no running water in their houses they would probably have to boil some if they want hot water.
Don: I’ve seen sleds come out after a good snow in Jamesport. Have you ever been sledding? Do you still sled? Are there any other recreational activities that the Amish do in the winter weather?
Marie: Yes as children we went sledding at school and at home. We don’t do it much as adults. Another fun winter activity is ice skating. You have to wait ‘til the farm pond is good and frozen then you have the neighbor kids over for an ice skating.
We would also get together on winter evenings to play games. Rook, chess, Scrabble, Monopoly, Phase 10, Uno….. the list goes on. Someone would pop some popcorn on the stove and we would have a fun evening playing games.
Don: You mentioned about the Amish buggies not being heated. Buggies here in Jamesport are typically enclosed with doors and a windshield, and that would be cold enough.
But a lot of other communities don’t have windshields or only have open buggies, even in the dead of winter. How do the Amish deal with all the cold?
Marie: Yes, most of the buggies in Jamesport aren’t heated. Some people will put a small propane heater on their buggy. All buggies will have what we called a buggy robe which is an extremely thick blanket to cover yourself in the winter.
As far as the communities with open buggies, they will have a blanket to cover them as well but that will be all the protection from the cold they have.
Don: And what about your horses? Several people have looked at this picture of the big draft horses out in the blowing snow or this picture of steam coming off a team of horses in zero-degree temperature and complained that the owners weren’t taking good care of them.
But this really isn’t cruel to the horses, is it? Is there special care that must be given to horses when it is so cold?
Marie: Yes it is cold in the winter for the horses but they grow an extra coat of hair for winter and are used to going out in the cold. When it is really cold someone has to chop a hole in the ice on the pond so the animals can get water to drink.
The Amish will take horse blankets along and cover the horse when they reach their destination. They take good care of their horses as it is their way of transportation.
Don: What about going to school? I’ve seen Amish children walking or taking their pony carts to school in 2°F weather. What do they do to help protect themselves from the cold?
Marie: There is no protection from the cold going to school. We always walked no matter how cold it was! But you always got to school with a clear mind to start the day!! We always bundled up and faced the elements.
Occasionally a neighbor stopped and gave us a ride. It was actually very refreshing to walk.
Don: How are Amish schools heated? Is there anything different about a school day when it is so cold or snowy?
Marie: This picture you have is of an Amish school here with a propane heater. However, many Amish schools have a wood stove to heat it.
On Sunday night or Monday morning one of the men from the school board will go over and start the stove again as it will go out if there is no one there over the weekend.
All the parents pitch together in the fall and bring wood to school for the winter. We would sometimes play games inside if it was extremely cold.
Don: Is it ever so cold that school is canceled? I know that you and at least two of your sisters have been teachers in an Amish school. And I’ve heard ya’ll say that some of the schools here prefer to get teachers from other church districts in Jamesport since it can be harder for a younger teacher to get respect when they have to teach children that they have grown up with and played with through the years.
And having to travel further to go to another district seems like it would make it even harder on extremely cold days. How does all this impact things?
Marie: School did get cancelled a few times when it was too icy for the teacher to get there. They hire an English driver to take all the teachers to school in a car or van, and when it got too slick sometimes the teacher didn’t make it to school.
The cold doesn’t stop the Amish from having school as long as the roads are good so the teacher can get there.
Don: Here are pictures from a couple of times I was in Jamesport on a snow-covered Sunday. The Amish don’t typically let the hard winter weather keep them home from church, do they?
Marie: No the cold doesn’t stop church. Buggies can get around lots better than vehicles on icy roads.
Don: Thanks so much Marie for sharing what it is like for the Amish as they face the difficulties and the fun that comes with this very cold part of the year.
Special thanks to Marie for her answers, and to Don for his efforts putting together this post. You can find more of his photos on Flickr or Facebook.
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Deep snow on roads
Do the Amish have a way to plow snow on their country roads?
Plowing snow in Amish areas would be something the county or local municipality would be responsible for, since they’re public roads.
The county plows the roads. A horse and buggy can go through snow easier than a vehicle. It takes lots of snow to stop a horse from going out!
I am looking to establish a relationship with an Amish producer
of polywood out door furniture for resale in New Jersey. Please
let me know.
I did a visit session this past week and found many were working on quilts this winter. The quilting frames were up in several homes I was told. Quilting bee’s are popular. The children said the had shelled a lot of corn this year and many were making greeting cards for sale and doing jigsaw puzzles. Some men reported making items for mud sales and keeping their tools in shape with good handles and sharpening. The harness maker I visit was still doing his usual making harnesses both leather and synthetic neoprene. I also noticed he had a few leather belts for sale. He said he mails them out to California. The greenhouse owners were cleaning this week. Next week they start some seeds. This week I noticed some were tapping the sugar maple trees. One Amish guy said he used the stove in the greenhouse to boil down the sap. Two birds -one stone…
Of all the buggy’s, in my area it seems the Nebraska orders have the open front buggy’s while most other’s sport closed cabs.
I like visiting my farmer friends in the winter for activities like these and also because they simply have more time compared to the busier months in the farming schedule. Had a chance to join in the sugar maple tapping which is its own adventure (especially since the maple trees were mostly all located on the steep riverbank).
Quilt in frame photo if someone would like to see what Jerry is talking about: https://amishamerica.com/amish-home-quilt/
Games played in winter
Very interesting article, thank you. I just wanted to say that the thought of Amish folk playing Monopoly made me smile – it seems so opposite to everything they stand for!
Monopoly alternatives played by Amish
Glad you liked it Colin, well the church community and mutual aid are important concepts for the Amish which influence their behavior, but they are still capitalist 🙂
You’ll also find people playing Farmopoly and Life on the Farm, 2 Monopoly alternatives.
Ha ha we always got pretty rowdy with our Monopoly games. Amish kids fuss and fight just like your average American child!
Is it a rule not to where gloves while doing laundry? That seems harsh. I’m sure people toughen up but imagine how much easier it would be with a simple pair of gloves.
Gloves for laundry
I’ve never heard of anything like that, I may be wrong regarding some churches but I don’t see how basic gloves would be objectionable since they are just a simple and useful tool, and going without something for the sake of making things more difficult or painful is not really the point of Amish church regulations. Maybe it makes handling the clothes and pinning them too difficult.
But good observation, seems like it would make things nicer, unless the gloves themselves became wet and that itself became even more uncomfortable.
Perhaps Don could ask Marie next time they are in touch.
There is no rule against not wearing gloves. Gloves get WET hanging up wet wash. My wife experimented with water-proof gloves but felt she could not get along with them. Marie might not have said it, but in many areas when it gets seriously cold, wet wash is hung up to dry in a wash-house or shop. Most Amish homes have an interesting collection of drying racks and indoor washlines.
Mark looks like we did the simultaneous comment thing again 🙂 Thanks for your answer, and also thanks Marie for the double-confirmation!
Gloves will only get wet and make you colder! There is no rule against using gloves. We would sometimes hang the laundry in the basement when it was extremely cold.
She did say they were not allowed
She did in fact say they were not allowed according to what I read. So deciding whether or not wet gloves work is a personal issue, as well as not using waterproof gloves, neither of which do I fully comprehend but that doesn’t really answer the question as to whether or not it is a rule. Erik seemed to say it wasn’t a rule. I still don’t know for sure.
Gloves and laundry
No she said “you can’t wear gloves” in reference to hanging out laundry, not that they aren’t allowed to wear gloves. Wearing gloves while handling wet laundry would not only be very cumbersome (awkward) but in freezing weather would make the hands so cold so quickly as to make the chore almost unbearable. Better to make a quick job of it while you can use your fingers whereas wet gloves can get excruciatingly cold very quickly which is very painful. I’m a Kansas country girl with a clothes dryer but I have chores to do year round. You learn to do things more quickly in winter. I enjoyed the interview with Maria. Thanks Erik!
Thank you Carol! I’ve never tried hanging laundry outdoors in winter, but what you describe makes sense.
Fascinated with my ancestors
Hello…I live in Sedona, Norther Arizona. My ancestors (Anabaptist/Mennonites) settled in Lascaster County. In the mid-1700s. It’s difficult to imagine the hardship they experienced. I’m fascinated with the sects that settled our country. Hardy God fearing people. Thank you for great photos.
Proud decendent of Reverend Hans Jakob Hess (RIP)
Thanks Gene for commenting, nice to be able to trace your lineage so far back. Did you ever have a chance to visit that part of the country?
She said you “can’t” wear gloves, as in “cannot,” not “may not.” I am Amish. Trust me, there is no rule a person may not wear gloves to hang out laundry! Read Marie’s comment — “There is no rule against using gloves.”
Why are the Amish exempt from Photo to Identical themselves?
It’s Ridiculous, having a Photo ID is not getting carry away, its for everyones protection.
You think that Trump would rub in my point further.
Would this be rude if I inquired why Marie left the Amish? Also is she married and does she have children? I have been fasinated by the simplicity of Amish and just don’t understand some of the beliefs of lack of education after grade eight and having such large families. Woman/girls an can reproduce from approx age 11-50. This makes for an exhusted and overworked body. It would seem sensible to most that an egg and a sperm can reproduce and despite any religious belief if you engage in intercourse you can become pregnant every 9 1/2 months. And why on earth dont they care for the childrens teeth properly. I brought 100 toothbrushes and toothpaste to a Amish man I do business with and pleaded with him to hand out and explained about tooth decay and oral hygiene. The Amish consume large amounts of sugary foods pies cakes rootbeer cookies etc. The decaying teeth on these young people must be painful. Yes I am in the medical profession and it seems like such a simple task, pray before you eat, check daily chores check and bible study check and oral hygiene as well as bathing these children.
My deepest apologies to Erik, the readers, and esp. to my writing partner Marie. I feel like Rumplestiltzkin — just woke up and noticed that I must have slept through it all. For some reason I don’t get notices when new comments are posted to the articles, but even so I try to check back regularly to interact with the readers — and I just blew it on this one.
Thank Erik for including this article in AA. I want to especially thank Marie for working with me on this project — it was fun. Sorry I left it to the two of you to field the responses without me.
I promise to try to do better in the future. 😉