The first time I met an Amish person I was a teenager. It was 1985, and my family had recently moved back to Ohio from a stint in the United Arab Emirates. Life overseas had given me a hunger to know about other cultures, and also the Harrison Ford movie Witness had just come out.
So when my family encountered a bearded, Abraham-Lincoln figure selling baked goods from a buggy, I was a little seduced by the tableau of simplicity that he presented. Then the man reached into a Coleman cooler for a block of Swiss cheese. That image has never left me. The fiberglass food safe with its bright‑green lid seemed so out of place.
The Amish, apparently, were more complicated than I thought.
Since then, I’ve probably visited more Amish settlements than anyone. Who would venture out to the most remote corners of Montana, Maine and South Texas if they didn’t happen to be a student of Amish culture? Perhaps a peddler of pots and pans; many Amish cooks, I have noticed, gradually gave up their cast iron for stainless steel in the past 50 years.
In my 25 years exploring Amish communities, I’ve witnessed changes that would be unnoticeable to the average outsider. I’ve seen the legendarily technology-avoidant Amish texting (and texted with a few), ordering books from Amazon, having their own Facebook accounts (horses seem to be a popular avatar), sending emails, even lecturing in universities – which is ironic as the Amish eschew formal education beyond eighth grade.
There was something subversively delicious about a man without even a high-school diploma holding court for doctoral students.
To the average person, the Amish are flash-frozen daguerreotypes, little changed from their 17th-century roots. Indeed, this image is an enormous tourist attraction: the desire to hear a clip-clopping buggy, to see horse-drawn plows working the fields and bursts of colourful laundry flapping in a summer wind pumps $1.9 billion annually into the economy of Lancaster County in Pennsylvania alone, according to a study by the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau. Public fascination has made an ostensibly private people amazingly visible. Amish-themed romance fiction generates $720 million in annual sales.
TV schedules have seen such ‘reality’ confections as Amish in the City (2004), Amish at the Altar (2010), Breaking Amish (2012), and, for good measure, American Colony: Meet the Hutterites (2012). There was even a rather far-fetched show called Amish Mafia (2012), purporting to show the organised ‘underworld’ of the ‘Plain people’.
While these shows were airing, however, the Amish were doing a fine job of creating their own non-fiction headlines. It was, for instance, tough to argue that Amish Mafia was invented once a group of ex-Amish goons were charged in 2012 for forcibly cutting the hair of Amish members, and the beards of the men, under orders from an authoritarian bishop.
Meanwhile, the businessman Monroe Beachy apparently decided that the Plain people needed their own Bernie Madoff, constructing a Ponzi scheme that collapsed in 2010 in the pastoral hills of Holmes County, Ohio, taking millions of hard-earned Amish dollars with it.
Or this incident, curiously underreported: in 2009, in Wayne County, Ohio, an Amish man was accused of persuading his Mennonite mistress to kill his wife as she and their children slept. At trial it came out that Eli Weaver was having multiple affairs with paramours he met through his smartphone.
To my mind, this story marked the real turning point. Here at last we saw in plain sight the reach of technology into Plain America.
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