How Richard Stevick met the Amish

A lot of you know Richard Stevick from his book Growing Up Amish: The Rumspringa Years, or through comments he has posted on various articles on this site.

I’m happy to share that starting today, Rich is going to be writing for us here from time to time. In his first post (below), Rich discusses how he came to know the Amish, a journey that began nearly 50 years ago and continues today.

I’ve always appreciated Rich’s sense of humor and easy manner. If you’ve ever met him, you quickly understand why he gets along with the Amish so well. I think you’ll get a glimpse of that in today’s piece.

First, a bio:

About Rich

Rich Stevick Growing Up Amish Author PhotoRich Stevick is a mostly retired Professor of Psychology at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, and has studied and taught about the Amish for over 20 years. Prior to that, he was a high school English teacher in New York State and later a guidance counselor in Pennsylvania. He continues to teach a course on Amish culture in which he and his students live with Amish host families in both Lancaster County, PA and in Holmes County.

Over the years, he and his wife, Pauline, have been guests at numerous Amish weddings, youth singing socials, and dozens of church services, including funerals, a baptism, and a communion service. Besides these experiences, Rich has worked with both Amish youth and adults in arranging mental health evaluations and treatments. He has also served as a consultant to a research team at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD, who are studying bi-polar spectrum disorders among Amish children and youth.

Richard Stevick Growing Up AmishHis book, Growing Up Amish: The Rumspringa Years, presents an in-depth look of Amish youth and their parents as they experience the stage of life when youth have a new freedom to socialize with their peers and begin seeking a mate. How they experience this transitional period depends on the customs of their settlement, the maturity of the individual, and the example of their parents, siblings, and peers.

Rich has interacted with the Amish for more than two decades and has earned the respect and confidence of both Amish parents and youth. Donald B. Kraybill, the foremost authority on anything Amish, describes Stevick as “the person who knows more about Amish youth than anybody else in the world, including the Amish.”  Rich says that Kraybill had to say that to make up for all the badgering and pressure he exerted on Rich to research and write the book.

He and his wife moved to Holmes Count this past spring. They have been married 53 years, are the parents of three adult sons, and have nine grandchildren—and a cat named Spunky. Rich says that if he should ever come back in a future life, he would want to come back as Polly’s cat.  She has also written a book of Amish vignettes and sketches from her years of travel to Amish communities with Rich. It is Beyond the Plain and Simple: A Patchwork of Amish Lives, published by Kent State University Press.

How I Came to Know the Amish

By Rich Stevick

When people ask me how I got into Amish studies, I often find myself amazed at the answer. In August of 1965, National Geographic featured an article on Lancaster County’s Amish, and on a whim, my wife and I decided to spend a few days exploring the county to see for ourselves. I clearly remember the stunningly lush fields, immaculate vegetable and flower gardens, and how clean and well-maintained the houses, barns, and yards were. But I also felt keen disappointment in failing to engage a single Amish person in a meaningful conversation, despite our stopping at roadside stands or watching at the edges of fields.

We returned to upstate New York, still interested in learning about the Amish but frustrated by our lack of success. A few months later, we experienced the Winter of 1966, an unbelievably cold and protracted ice age culminating in an early May snowfall of two inches. At that moment, we realized that we needed a less rigorous climate, so despite our earlier disappointment, we moved to Lancaster County. We were still attracted by the presence of the plain people.

Alas, despite living in an Amish-built house and having near-by Amish neighbors, we could not develop a single friendship. In those early days, I bought dozens of eggs at Amish farms, hoping someone would invite me to step inside while they got change. Did they have furniture like we did? Were their houses warm in the winter? Were there clocks on the mantel and pictures on the wall? These questions went unanswered.

During this time, I “learned” some things on my own and heard disturbing rumors. For example, in the middle of the night (actually in the wee hours of Sunday and Monday mornings) I heard buggies clip-clopping down Farmland Road, only to learn that these were courting teenagers returning from their parties or singings.

Furthermore, friends reported Amish teens throwing up on the streets of Intercourse after their “drunken parties” (not only was I shocked but I assumed that all Amish youth were behaving this way). Of course, many of the boys had vehicles, barber haircuts, and English clothes and were actually frequenting movies at Dutch Wonderland with their girlfriends and then organizing barn dances with live music, courtesy of young Amish musicians.

In the face of such observations of a closed society, one that seeks no converts, I announced to my wife that “the Amish will be extinct by the end of this century” and basically gave up my quest to establish relationships with anybody Amish. After all, they would soon devolve from relic status to extinction. I turned my focus and efforts to viable alternatives, one of which was moving from counseling in public schools to teaching at Messiah College.

Finding a (Temporary) Home

Fast forward 25 years. I had been teaching psychology, including adolescent development, for eleven years. One of my special interests was the study of cultures, how various people live their lives, express their humanity, face challenges, and survive or disappear. A colleague of mine knew of my interests and asked me to be a guest lecturer in his three-week May term class. It turned out that it was a class on Anabaptist History and Amish Life.

I accepted his invitation, and 10 days later he called and asked if I would like to go with the class to Shipshewana, Indiana, to visit MennoHof and stay with a Beachy Amish family. I had never heard of Shipshe but I did pick up on the word “Amish” and accepted his invitation. When I crawled in the van, lo and behold, as we say, there were several real Amish people as part of the load. This van trip was my first extended contact with anyone Amish. And among other things, I learned that Amish were actually human and that we could converse as equals.

Nine months later in March of 1992, I received a call from my professor friend who informed me that he was leaving Messiah and hated to see the Amish course dropped. I was surprised when he asked me if I would pick up the course and become the permanent teacher. “But, Milton, I don’t know much of anything about the Amish,” I told him. He was not to be deterred. “The class is only three weeks long. Why don’t you learn along with the students?” It was hard for me to argue with that point. I have been doing that all of my life. He clinched his appeal by telling me that all of the Amish family stays for the students were in place. It was an offer too appealing to refuse.

Needless to say, I did a self-directed study on Anabaptism and Amish culture between mid-March and mid-May when the course was to begin. Of course, I did not have to motivate myself to prepare. My goal was to know more than the students before the class began and to keep learning throughout our three weeks together.

I had asked my professor colleague if he stayed with families while the students did, and he informed me that he did not because he needed to be available in case of emergencies. Even at that early stage, that reason did not make much sense to me. So when I dropped off the last student with Sam and Rachel King, I asked Sam if he thought there was any Amish family that might host my wife, Pauline, and me. He thought a minute, then replied, “You could ask my brother-in-law, David. They might keep you.”

Lancaster Farm Rich Stevick
Lancaster Amish farm. Photo by Ed C.

Such a statement did not inspire much confidence, but I drove over to the King farm and down their long lane, in my little red station wagon. Picture this: As I got out of the car, I was approached by a 40-something farmer who asked, “Can I help you?” He was neither cold nor friendly, just impersonal like the other Amish who had dissed me.

I told him who I was, described my class, and then said, “Your brother-in-law, Sam, said I should ask you if you know anybody that might be willing to keep me and my wife while my students are in home-stays with Amish families.” In retrospect, I realized that I said the magic words: “Your brother-in-law, Sam . . . .“ He scanned my face for about 10 seconds, then replied, “I can’t think of any good reason why we couldn’t keep you for a few days.”

Those words changed the direction of my academic life and, ultimately, have enriched our lives for more than two decades. I called my wife, told her to dig out her dresses, skirts, and blouses: “We are staying with the Amish” (my wife wrote about that first day together in her book, Beyond the Plain and Simple: A Patchwork of Amish Lives).

The Farmer Tests the Prof

Just a brief addendum on an important test that I took and passed the next day, without realizing that I was being tested. In preparation for their home stays, I told the students that they were to work right along with the families, doing anything their hosts were doing and would let them do.

So when we were ready to go to bed at David’s place, I asked him if I could help with the milking. I thought I noted a bit of surprise, but he said that would be fine, if I wished. “What time do you start,” I asked. “Four-thirty,” David responded without any other comment. I’m sure I blanched a tad but determined to be there for the morning milking, my first.

I woke in the night with the sound of a very loud engine jolting me out of sleep. They had turned on their diesel, and it also turned out to be 4:30 instead of the middle of the night. Crawling out of bed, I donned my work clothes, gum boots, gloves, and bill cap and appeared in the barn 10 minutes later. Again, David seemed a bit surprised but set me to work under the supervision of eleven-year-old Elias who was carrying and dumping milk into the bulk tank.

By 7:00, I felt starved. I wasn’t accustomed to two hours and twenty minutes of physical labor before breakfast. After we finished and observed our final silent prayer, David proceeded to tell the children, in Deitsch, what their work assignments would be for the day. When he finished, I asked him what he would like me to do. He told me that the peaches were too thick this spring and that I could thin them. I said that would be fine and asked him what he and the boys would be doing. “We are forking manure in the bull pen. It hasn’t been done all winter.”

“I’d be glad to help with that,” I said, not knowing what that really meant. Once again, I thought I detected a look of surprise on David’s face as he assigned me to work along with the boys. After twenty minutes of “forking,” I realized that this was not a task that would end soon. But I determined to stick with it until it was done or until my arms stopped functioning.

Around 11:00 a.m., a woman appeared in the barn, and David told me that she was their veterinarian. Another stereotype shot down: Yes, indeed; why couldn’t a woman be a vet. As she worked, I saw her do unbelievable things, such as putting on a shoulder-length plastic glove and reaching into areas of a cow that I never dreamed would be touched by a human hand (I also noted that when she withdrew her arm, a blob of manure hit her on the forehead and stuck. She never flinched as she flicked it off without even a break in their conversation).

I was on a steep learning curve. About 11:00 a.m., I overheard David say to her, “See that man over there?” She nodded. “He’s a college professor,” David announced. She looked unimpressed. “I’ll bet,” David continued, “that he’s the only college professor in Pennsylvania forking manure this morning.”

He sounded proud—of me, of course. I am convinced that I passed the test that I did not even know I was taking. Had I slept in, eaten a late courtesy breakfast, and watched and chatted with David and the boys as they worked, I doubt that our relationship would have turned into a life-time joy and friendship.

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    1. Barbara

      How exciting!

      Hi was thrilled to hear how Richard was lucky enough to engage with the Amish, and make it “stick.” I am creating a cultural course on the Amish of Lancaster as my Masters Capstone project, and have had no opportunity to engage on a personal level. I wonder if Richard would be my mentor on creating this course for an Undergraduate Level?
      Any guidance provided on creating this course would be wonderful. I plan to introduce Amish culture; have the students study their values; and compare and contrast them to their own. My hope is that the students will select and apply some of these values in their own families and communities for the betterment of society. To have an Amish expert who is also an instructor would be my ideal mentor!

      1. Rich Stevick

        Get in touch

        Hi, Barbara, Contact me through Facebook. If you’re not on there, you can get my contact info from Erik. Sounds like a fine project. Rich

    2. Margaret

      Love this! I will a look forward to reading more from Richard, too.

    3. Good Morning Rich,
      My experiences with the Amish over the last twenty years has been quite similar to yours. The Amish of Conewango, NY, a much more conservative group than those folks in Lancaster, introduced me to an interesting vision of what it was like to be “Amish.” As I met Amish in other communities, I would say “this wouldn’t happen in Conewango!” Being known by a relative or neighbor indeed opens doors to meeting new Amish friends. It took me years to built up trust among the folks I now call my friends and they call me a “trusted English friend.” If I visit near dinner time a plate is set for me and I feel honored. The Amish have taught me that all Amish are not the same! Tom the Backroads Traveller

      1. Rich

        Good experiences/good point

        Tom, I have good memories from your showing me around the Angelica, NY, settlement and introducing me to one of your Amish friend families. You are spot on in pointing out how different settlements do Amish differently. I may be teaching a class on the Amish at Chautauqua Institute this summer. If you have any Amish contacts in that area who might consider coming to our class or even cooking a meal for us, Message me with the info. Machs goot. Rich

    4. Kevin L.

      I enjoyed the article, Rich, on how you met the Amish. I’m looking forward to reading more from you here!
      Kevin L.

    5. Great story!

      What a great story of your introduction to the Amish! I have your book, but I’ll pop over and buy your wife’s to add to my collection.
      BTW, my great-nephew is a student at Messiah this year and loves it there.

    6. sharril

      learning the ways

      loved the article……I live in Lancaster county… I am surrounded by amish farms. I have a neighbor close, 2 houses over they have a small farm. their garden is so beautiful. I asked the woman a few questions. I want to learn to garden as they do, they have such prolific gardens.I hesitate to ask them much , they are always so busy and when they have little children are very busy, I don’t want to take up their time. does anyone know of any writings on amish gardens that tells how they actually go about it not just showing the beautiful gardens????

      1. Barb

        Amish Gardens

        Hi Sharril,

        What about this one?

    7. Katie Troyer

      I am surprised and pleased to open up Amish America and find Rick Stevick. I never knew the history of your beginning with the Amish. Hopefully I will see you and Polly in Florida this winter.

    8. Debbie Rhoades

      Rich, what a lovely article! I wish we had courses offered like that Down here in Oklahoma. You sound like the kind of professor that makes his students rush to get to class do they won’t miss a word!

      1. Barb

        I agree. I am now creating a course on Amish culture (focusing on the Lancaster Amish) and hope and pray I have the skill to offer lecture notes and antidotes even half as good as Rich could!

    9. Naomi Wilson

      Thank you, Rich, for this post. You had me grinning most of the way through, and laughing out loud a couple times as I can relate to the relationship-building process. Our family has also taken the morning milking test a couple times. We are now members in a BeachyAM-like church, and the cape dress and head covering go a long way to building up trust as well. While our focus is on Christian discipleship, Anabaptist culture is still fascinating to us. Also, having Amish friends that are relatively untainted by the ways and mannerisms of popular culture gives us a certain focus in raising children in a Godly way that we might otherwise lack.

      I very much look forward to future posts, and still plan to read your book.

    10. Al in Ky

      Thanks for your interesting posting. I look forward to reading more of your writings on Amish America. I was especially interested how you were open and willing to help your host family do whatever needed to be done. I think many people have a “too glamorized” or unrealistic view of what Amish life for many is really like. Things like shoveling horse manure, which I would think almost all Amish families have to do, or butchering chickens, or even washing clothes in a wringer washer are all hard work, which many non-Amish likely think are unpleasant tasks.

    11. Char N.

      Thank you for writing for us. I think your articles will be most intesting.

      I am excited to learn of the class you teach where people stay with Amish hosts. Do you still teach that class?

      Is there an express version where someone could come in from out of town for the experience. I don’t need the college credts, and I can’t take off work for three weeks, but I’d be intested in any sort of experience like that for a shorter term.

      Anyway, thanks again. I can’t wait to read your new book.
      I have the older version of it, as well as your wife’s book.

      Thank you!

      1. Rich

        Still teaching

        Char, I co-teach the class on Amish life each year in May and June at Messiah College. At this point, our class always maxes out, as they say. I don’t know where you live, but if/when you come to Holmes County, OH, let me know, and I’ll see if I can find a family for you to at least visit with. The staying part would be up to you and them. Rich

    12. I’m going to chime in and say how much I enjoyed Rich’s Amish origin story too.

      And I want to add that we originally had the story fast forwarding 15 years when it should have been 25. If anyone did the math and caught that before I fixed it this afternoon, you get a high-five 🙂

    13. Alice Mary

      Can I clone you?

      I’ve enjoyed Rich’s book on Rumspringa and just bought the Kindle version of his wife’s book. I’ll certainly be looking forward to his writing for Amish America!

      When I moved to my current home, there was an area high school teacher who had his students do a little hands-on archaeology in a nearby reclaimed gravel pit turned “forest preserve.” It turns out the area had originally been a dairy farm back in the mid 19th century. They helped excavate the remains of a stone dairy barn foundation, and what was apparently a “trash pit”, finding various artifacts from that time. I thought it was fascinating, and have visited the site many times…wishing I could have been in that teacher’s class. Mr. Stevick, you appear to be the same kind of “hands-on” teacher…the kind I’d like to clone for my grandkids’ sake! Whatever you do, don’t stop now! I sure enjoyed reading about how you “got started” with the Amish. Can’t wait for the next “installment”! Thank you!

      Alice Mary

    14. Loretta Shumpert

      Love this article 🙂

      Richard, just ordered your first book, also your wife’s book.
      Perhaps after that I can get Growing Up Amish. I am looking
      forward to reading the two that I ordered, and that is a lovely
      cover on your wife’s book.

      Welcome aboard on Amish America and will look forward to reading
      your contributions.

    15. OldKat

      This is gonna be good ...

      real good. I can tell, because Dr. Stevick is like an artist with words. His stories paint a picture as if you have a two way mirror to watch what is going on without anyone knowing that you are even there!