Recently Fran Shultis asked a very good question about vacationing in Amish country. I will answer this to the best of my ability. Here’s her question:
Saloma, my family and I are going on an overnight vacation to Amish territory this Spring. In many ways I feel like an intruder because I know the Amish are a very private people and would rather be left alone. Do you think Amish people resent vacationers? I have no intentions of taking pictures of them because I know they don’t like that. Any thoughts on this?
Fran, this is not a yes or no answer. There are only a few things you can say about “The Amish” and this is not one of them. Presuming you could get an honest answer about this from 100 Amish people, you’d probably get 150 answers, because many of the Amish have mixed feelings about people touring their communities. In the communities that really don’t want it, you won’t gain access at all. In the most commercial of Amish communities, you have many of the Amish welcoming tourists, because they are benefiting from them. In fact, I understand that there are now some Amish who are doing so well from the tourist trade in Lancaster, that they rent out their farm land to their English neighbors, while these Amish families derive their livelihood from the tourist trade. Consequently, you have some very well-heeled Amish in Lancaster.
Though my home community in Geauga County, Ohio, is more commercialized than it was when I lived there, they have not been as embracing of tourism, and for sure not to tour their homes. In fact, when I was still living there, they used Lancaster as an example of what they did not want, and that was even before the movie Witness was made (which made tourism in Lancaster mushroom). The sentiment in my community was that this is “selling out” their religion and way of life for money.
There are communities that pretty much insulate themselves from the outside world, with only the men interacting with English people. That is one end of the spectrum, with Lancaster at the other end. Northern Indiana and Holmes County come in behind Lancaster, and then other Amish communities fall somewhere between these far ends of the spectrum.
None of the Amish communities are completely self-sufficient, which means that they are dependent on Englishers to buy and sell their goods. So someone in each family has to interact with those “of the world,” unless they subsist completely on dairy farming (which is a small percentage of the Amish.) Roadside stands, greenhouses, bulk stores, furniture shops, quilt sales, and bakeries are all dependent on buyers, and most of them are not Amish.
I think perhaps the most important thing to remember when you are vacationing around the Amish is that no matter how much access you gain in their lives, you will never actually gain insight into their Amish life. This is true even if you spend lots of time and join an Amish family for meals. They are keenly aware the whole time you are with them that they are being observed, and consequently they will act differently than they would if you weren’t there. There are certain things that are for Amish ears and eyes only, and that is part of what keeps them Amish and the rest of us not. One thing I find pretty universal about the Amish is that they do not like for the rest of the world to see their underbelly.
So I think it’s probably fine for people to tour Amish country. As I mentioned, you will only get as much access as what they want to give you, anyway. They like the money we spend in their communities. In fact, they normally have one price for Amish people and one for everyone else on items such as rocking chairs, quilts, or furniture.
Having said all this, I don’t know any Amish who like gawkers. Staring, taking photos, or asking an excessive amount of questions are all considered disrespectful. To give an example, I will use the most obnoxious one I’ve ever heard of. A woman tourist in Lancaster was watching an Amish farmer working in his field with a camera in hand. She kept motioning for him to come over because she wanted to get him to pose for a photo. When he ignored her and continued on with his work, she became so indignant that she went to city hall in Lancaster and complained. They explained to her that this was not a living museum, and that this person was on his own private property, and that he had every right to ignore her — in fact she was the intruder.
The Amish make a distinction between taking photos of them versus taking photos of their farms. I always take photos of their farms when I have a chance.
Ironically, I have become a tourist when I go to Amish country. Just this past week I was in the Mohawk Valley, where there are a number of fairly new communities. It was very interesting to be “in the Amish but not of them,” the reverse of “being in the world but not of it” while I was Amish.
Below are several photos I took this past week.
This last photo was taken atop a steep and winding hill. I do not know how this family gets their horses up and down that hill, especially in winter.
I love windmills for pumping water. They evoke nostalgia for me. Though we never had one, there were families in our community who did, so I associate them with Amish community gatherings, which is when I would have been around them.