Do Amish People Resent Tourists?

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.

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10 thoughts on “Do Amish People Resent Tourists?”

  1. That tourist in Lancaster sounded obnoxious. Glad the city hall had the right answer for her, but I bet she was still indignant.

    Sadly, this kind of attitude of entitlement, albeit on a lesser scale, is often seen amongst Westerners touring “less fortunate” countries.

  2. Before my first visit to the USA, all I knew of the Amish was what I’d seen in Witness. One of the key lines I remember is, “You be careful out among the Englisch.” That movie had me love the idea of community (the barn raising), but also had me believe that the Amish kept very much to themselves.

    In 1996, I made my first visit to the USA to visit my then boyfriend and his family. (He’s now my husband.) They live in a small town in northwest Pennsylvania and an Amish community live in the same town. Imagine my surprise when I was in the small grocery store one day when a young Amish lad came in, went straight to the cooler, and grabbed a Pepsi. The Amish drink Pepsi? How could this be?

    Since then, I’ve had many interactions in passing with the Amish residents of this town. I spent my early years in south London, England, in a multi-cultural community. I’ve now concluded that the Amish culture is very similar to those I used to see. They have their own traditions, religious beliefs and language, but they also speak English, love certain English products and can be polite or rude as anyone else!

    I do wonder what Amish folks think of the perceptions us Englisch folk have of them. Case in point: this small town has an annual yard sale event. The Amish have their stalls of baked goods and take a turn around the sales looking for bargains like the rest of us. One year, I had some Amish-themed Christian romance novels for resale. They were bought by a young, bearded (baptised?) Amish male! Goodness knows what he (or the girl he maybe bought them for) thought of them!

  3. Saloma,
    It has taken me almost 20 years to establish the relationships that I treasure with the Amish of Conewango, NY. I feel welcomed, but still I am an outsider. None of the Amish businesses I know could survive without English customers, which they will readily acknowledge. This is a classic “love, hate relationship.”

    Have a nice week.
    Tom the Back roads Traveller

  4. Saloma,
    Thanks for the information. Very insightful and useful for our trip. I’ll have a talk with my boys before we go since they are both quite friendly and would be confused if their greetings’ were not reciprocated.
    A few months back I took my sons to the Brookfield Zoo which is in the Chicagoland area. My oldest son was intrigued with the Amish family we saw in the Ape House. He asked me all sorts of questions about them. At one point, I walked ahead of him to get a different view. When I stopped to look back I saw him saying hello to a young Amish boy, about 8-years-old. The poor little fellow was so startled I had to call my son away. And wouldn’t you know, on that particular day, three teenagers sporting pink hair, Frankenstein boots, and gothic clothing made their way through the Ape House passing the Amish folks on their way out. I can guarantee, nobody was looking at the apes. It was, instead, of day of people watching.
    So that settles it, Shipshewana here we come! Truth be told, I’m up for a good flea market, farm land, Amish cooking, and skies like the one in your photo. So beautiful!
    I’m glad you filled me in on the price differences. Not that I’ll make issue of it with the Amish businessman, but it’s good to know.
    Thanks Saloma!

  5. Saloma! You were in the Mohawk Valley? Did you beep? :-( In Wagner’s Hollow (near St. Johnsville/Ephratah NY) I have often wondered how the horses pull their wagons and buggies up that hill. I always think about kids having to drag themselves up that hill to the school house every morning! There are hills like that in Glen, too. I’ll be visiting my favorite greenhouse between Palatine and Ephratah in another week or two for THE BEST flowering plants and vegetable starters. Mostly the women run it, but there are a number of men there, too. They are very polite but do not make small talk with their customers. Well, they laugh at me, but then again … the bees were making me do the “I don’t like bees!” dance… :-)

  6. This is the most complete answer I’ve seen answering this question. It’s a good point too that the Amish are more or less dependent on non-Amish buying their goods and that there are two levels of pricing.

    Funny story from when we visited Holmes County. The place we were staying asked if we wanted an Amish meal in a home, and we accepted. We weren’t part of a tour group, so we arrived on our own and made ourselves at home on the front porch since we arrived a little early. The windows were open and I heard a lively Dutch conversation inside, and had a good time translating it for my husband. It wasn’t meant for tourist ears! When the owners came out to invite us in, they were surprised to discover we were Mennonite, and immediately asked if we spoke their language. LOL

    They were back in good order by the time the tour bus showed up. Interesting side note, I hear that they are having trouble finding families to give Amish meals in Holmes these days because the women are either all pregnant, or their homes no longer look Amish. The younger generation is embracing more modern and expensive decorating styles. The people who arrange the Amish home meals like things to look traditional.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I have a friend who frequents Bowling Green, MO quite a bit, and she says you can’t even find a produce stand. Not a very open community.

  7. I’ve always wanted to spend a week or a month with an Amish family living there way. I don’t suppose it could ever happen but I can only imagine how enlightening it would be.

  8. While flipping through my Shipshewana 2013 Visitors Guide I noticed a Bed & Breakfast which rents out their daudy house. Their ad. is honest and to the point-no electric, full breakfast, 5 minutes from Shipshewana, children welcome. In the fall I would love this, but summer without air-no thanks.
    Carlita, the comment above this one, may be interested.

  9. While flipping through my 2013 Shipshewana Visitor Guide I noticed a bed and breakfast advertising the rental of their daudy house. Their ad. was direct and honest-no electric, full breakfast, children welcome. I may consider this in the fall, but summer without air is not at all appealing to me. I’m such a sissy.
    Carlita, the post above this one, may be interested if she’s in the neighborhood of Indiana.

  10. Pure & simple – it is a matter of RESPECT. Whether it is the Amish, or any other group of people, when in their “territory” it’s important to be aware of what is expected of the visitor. Here in the west (WA state) American Indians often don’t want their picture taken. That is especially true of some of the tribes in the SW. I have seen plenty of extremely rude tourists, and it often comes down to being focused mainly on what they want, as opposed to having any understanding of those they are offending. Ignorance is one thing – and can be forgiven – but the blatant thoughlessness in regard to others is flat-out appalling.

    Kudus to you, Fran, for thinking ahead as to what proper behavior might be! Methinks you are a most considerate person.

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