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!

Amish church wagons

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.

Stacked firewood at an Amish home, Kahokia, MO

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?

An outdoor wood-burning water heater. Seymour, MO

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.

A black tank on the roof of an Amish home, used to warm water by sunlight for showers, etc. Canton, MO

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.

Buggies with robes, Big Valley, PA

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?

Open “courting” buggies with snap-over cover, Clark MO.

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.

Amish buggy with clear winter wind guard, Kalona, IA

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.

Even some of the tractor-driving Amish will add accessories such as this “heat-houser,” used during the cooler months to channel the warmth of the engine back to the driver. (Kalona, IA)

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.

Draft horses in the blowing snow.

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?

A team of horses pulling in a wagon of items for a February plant auction.

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.

Propane heater in an Amish school

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.

Woodburning stove; McKenzie, TN

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.

School teacher arriving at school; Kalona, IA

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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