Visits with the Amish: Impressions of the Plain Life


Who are the “plain people,” the men and women who till their fields with horse and plow, travel by horse and buggy, live without electricity and telephones, and practice “help thy neighbor” in daily life? Linda Egenes visited with her Old Order Amish neighbors in southeast Iowa for thirteen years before writing this informative and companionable introduction to their lifeways.

Drawn to their slower pace of life and their resistance to the lures of a consumer society, Egenes ...

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Who are the “plain people,” the men and women who till their fields with horse and plow, travel by horse and buggy, live without electricity and telephones, and practice “help thy neighbor” in daily life? Linda Egenes visited with her Old Order Amish neighbors in southeast Iowa for thirteen years before writing this informative and companionable introduction to their lifeways.

Drawn to their slower pace of life and their resistance to the lures of a consumer society, Egenes found a warm welcome among the Amish, and in return she has given us an equally warm perspective on Amish family life as she experienced it. The Amish value harmony in family life above all, and Egenes found an abundance of harmony as she savored homemade ice cream in a kitchen where the refrigerator ran on kerosene, learned to milk a two-bucket cow, helped cook dinner for nine in a summer kitchen, spent the day in a one-room schoolhouse, and sang “The Hymn of Praise” in its original German at Sunday service.

Whether quilting at a weekly sewing circle above the Stringtown Grocery, playing Dutch Blitz and Dare Base with schoolchildren, learning the intricacies of harness making, or mulching strawberries in a huge garden, Egenes was treated with the kindness, respect, and dignity that exemplify the strong community ties of the Amish. Her engaging account of her visits with the Amish, beautifully illustrated with woodcuts by Caldecott Medal winner Mary Azarian, reveals the serene and peaceful ways of a plain people whose lives are anything but plain.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Visits with the Amish is as gentle and open as the lives of the people it chronicles. The detailed mini-portraits are compassionate yet as candid and observant as anything written about the plain people that I have read. By honestly sketching the little things of everyday Amish culture, Egenes manages to capture the faithful heart of this community of believers.”—Scott Savage, author, A Plain Life: Walking My Belief

“Direct, respectful, and informative, Visits with the Amish takes us into the very homes and businesses of the plain people. There we enter a culture so different from the American mainstream that we are forced to examine our own spiritual beliefs, identities, and values. This slim, quiet book should assume a big place on the bookshelves of anyone interested in anthropology, religion, folklore, or sustainable living.”—Mary Swander, author, Out of This World: A Journey of Healing

Visits with the Amish invites the reader to experience glimpses into the daily life of the Old Order Amish and gives a full sense of what it means to be Amish. Conversations about milking, cooking in the summer kitchen, quilting, and more capture in their own words their heartfelt commitment to home, school, community, and customs.”—Martha Moore Davis, author, Sarah’s Seasons: An Amish Diary and Conversation

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587297854
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2009
  • Series: Bur Oak Book
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 126
  • Sales rank: 1,503,102
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Linda Egenes has written about the Amish for Cobblestone, Plain, the Iowa Source, and the Plain Reader. She is an adjunct faculty member at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. Vermont artist Mary Azarian won the Caldecott Medal in 1999 for her illustrations in Snowflake Bentley.

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Read an Excerpt

visits with the Amish

impressions of the plain life
By Linda Egenes Mary Azarian

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2000 Iowa State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-785-4

Chapter One

At the center of Amish life is the family, and families are large and tight-knit. The typical home reflects the Amish belief in the simple life: it's usually painted plain white with no trim, has simple furnishings and plain wood or linoleum floors, and is tidy. Quilting frames and young children playing with toys often fill living rooms. A typical Amish home is large enough to accommodate a family of 10 or 12.

Although the Amish believe in old-fashioned discipline, I observed that an abundance of love filled the home. Younger children were readily scooped into the lap of an older sister or parent, and each child was treated with respect, kindness, and dignity. Fathers seemed equally affectionate with babies and toddlers as mothers were.

Children learn early to help their younger siblings. I once saw a five-year-old boy patiently help his three-year-old sister find her lost doll-and then carefully close the stairway door to prevent her from accidentally falling down the stairs. He had obviously been taught how to take care of her. New babies are welcomed as a gift from God, and infants become the center of love and affection in an Amish home.

Children also learn to respect the elderly, who seldom end their lives in lonely nursing homes. Grandparents usually turn the farm over to their youngest son after he marries and has children, and move into a smaller house on the property, called a grossdadi, or "grandfather," house. The grandparents continue to work on the farm as they grow older, surrounded by their many grandchildren and enjoying the love and respect of the whole family.

A child growing up in an Amish family could seldom feel lonely, being surrounded by brothers and sisters-and lots of relatives. I once visited an Amish home and saw a cloth birthday calendar on the wall with 10 or 12 names written under each month. "Those are our cousins' birthdays," said the Amish girl who lived there. "But only on my mother's side. There's another calendar upstairs for the cousins on my father's side." This girl had more than 250 cousins! As one Amish man told me, "Just being someone's cousin doesn't mean you get invited to their wedding-there just isn't enough room."

It could be any farm in Drakesville, Iowa: a large white house, four neatly painted green farm buildings, and a half-acre garden asleep for the winter. Two black buggies sitting idle in the open shed reveal that an Amish family lives here.

Monroe Herschberger smiles and offers a strong handshake. He wears the traditional Amish clothing-a work shirt, suspenders, and plain denim pants. Eddie, a shy boy of 13, and Andy Ray, nine, look like miniature versions of their father, minus the beard. Monroe and his sons have the same haircut-as if someone put a bowl on their heads and trimmed around it.

Like many Amish households, the entry to the house is through the kitchen. Monroe's wife, Mary, smiles warmly and introduces their daughters, Mandy, age 11, Erma, age 16, and Wilma, age 18. Like their mother, the girls wear plain, high-neck dresses fastened with straight pins, and they tuck their hair neatly under white prayer caps.

They invite me for a tour of the house. A quilting frame, stretched with green polyester fabric, fills one side of the living room. Mary and her older daughters have made the tiny, painstaking stitches that crisscross the quilt.

A finely crafted oak cabinet stands beside a large window. "That was my mother's," says Mary shyly.

It's warm inside the house, despite the cold weather. Monroe has built his own wood stove in the corner, using an empty oil drum propped on four legs above a bed of white stone.

"Most winter days, it's almost too hot," says Mary.

To see at night, the family uses gas or kerosene lanterns. To show me, Mary lights a lantern with a long kitchen match. The filament radiates a bright, powerful light. She points to the hook in the ceiling where they hang the lamp to provide light for the whole room.

An example of Monroe's ingenuity sits under the window. It is a modern sewing machine, complete with buttonholer and zigzag stitching. Monroe tilts it to show that it has no motor-he converted it to a treadle machine. Mary and her older daughters, Erma and Wilma, sew most of the family's clothing on the machine.

Monroe adapted the refrigerator in the kitchen to run on kerosene fuel. When I ask why kerosene is allowed but electricity is not, Monroe answers, "Have you ever known any group of people to live without rules? We base our rules and regulations on the Bible. I know what I could expect to get from the world, and I know there is a lot more contentment here at home. I equal it out in my mind, and even though we give up some things, I'm more satisfied with what we've got."

Adjoining the living room is the master bedroom. A beautiful cedar chest sits at the foot of the bed, another heirloom from Mary's mother. Monroe lifts the white crocheted bedspread to show me the waterbed and wooden frame he constructed. He gave them to Mary on her birthday a few years ago.

"Monroe was wanting a waterbed for quite a while," Mary teases.

On Sundays when they have church in their home, the Herschbergers move their furniture aside and seat the congregation in the bedroom and living room on wooden benches. Monroe purposely built the doorway between the rooms extra-wide, so the bishop can stand in the middle and speak to crowds in both places. Eventually Monroe plans to replace the wall with a sliding door to make it even easier to host church or large gatherings such as weddings.

Upstairs there are two more bedrooms, one for the two boys and a larger one for the three girls. The rooms are tidy and simple, with bare floors, dressers, and closets.

The family frequently visits with their relatives on holidays. For one family reunion, two busloads of Mary's family traveled from Illinois to Iowa to visit. "I like having a big house, because at Christmas we can sleep 30 relatives," says Mary.

Mary invites me into the living room to chat. I select a straight-backed chair, and the five children crowd together on a couch with their parents. Mary passes around a huge metal bowl of popcorn, homegrown in their garden last year.

Monroe amuses us with his jokes and stories. "I once went to a chiropractor who asked me how many brothers and sisters I have. I told him that I have five brothers and each of them have eight sisters! You should have seen the look on his face." Monroe actually has 13 brothers and sisters.

While Monroe and Mary talk with me in their easy and comfortable way, the children speak only when I directly address them. Mandy reads a book.

"They love to read," says Mary. "That's why we have so many books." She nods toward the bookshelf.

When Mary speaks to Mandy in German, Mandy sighs and sets down her book reluctantly. Yet she obediently fetches Mary's glasses, just as she was asked.

When I mention how well behaved the children are, Monroe teases, "Weeelll, they're good around company!"

The Herschberger's two oldest sons have already left home. Of the remaining children, only Mandy, Andy Ray, and Eddie are still in school. Having finished all eight grades of an Amish education, Erma and Wilma work at home helping their mother.

"Amish children start working with their parents at a young age," says Monroe. "They're used to hard work. It's part of their life."

Because Monroe must work off the farm at a carpentry job to meet their mortgage payments, the girls help with the farming. With their mother, they plow the family's half-acre garden and the cornfields with a team of workhorses, and they manually collect thousands of eggs from their henhouse two times each day.

Monroe tells me he'd much rather work at home on the farm, "which is in my childhood blood." He leaves the house at 6:30 a.m. and returns at 6:30 p.m. On Saturdays, he does farm chores and catches up with farmwork, and on Sundays, the whole family rests.

"I often think it's a good thing I was born Amish," says Monroe, "because I'd be too lazy to work on Sunday."

Monroe offers to take me on a buggy ride and sends Andy Ray out to hitch up one of the family's 15 horses to their black buggy.

Outside, I am properly introduced to June, the shaggy, black horse who pulls the buggy. Monroe sits in front and drives, while I sit in back with Andy Ray.

Monroe heads the buggy toward the schoolhouse a mile down the road. As June trots onto the highway, Monroe lets one wooden wheel roll onto the shoulder.

"This is how we keep from going too fast down hills," he explains. At first the cool winter air is pleasant as it rushes through the open windows, but as we pick up speed and the wind whips us in the face, Monroe closes the canopy windows in front. I feel protected and safe inside, and I like the way I can see out but others can't see in.

If it were much colder or raining, Monroe could snap down the black oilcloth flaps that keep rain and cold from seeping in, making the buggy snug and dark. Lap blankets help keep passengers warm in winter, and some Amish families cover the floor of their buggies with horse blankets to keep their feet toasty when the weather is cold.

"They don't make horse equipment anymore, so we just patch up, fix up, and make do with what we've got," comments Monroe as he slaps the reins. "If you can figure out how to fix these, you can figure out how to fix anything."

Monroe parks the buggy outside the small shed that shelters the children's ponies and horses on school days. We enter the one-room schoolhouse the children attend through eighth grade.

"A lot of non-Amish farmers would like to send their own children here," says Monroe. "They see that our children are disciplined and orderly. When children have the same teacher as they grow up, the teacher knows them better."

The 14 old-fashioned wooden desks, complete with inkwells and attached seats, look well used. They are arranged in neat rows. A reciting bench is placed next to the teacher's desk, so one class can recite their lessons while the others work on assignments. Written on the blackboard is a psalm from the Bible. A helper's chart with words like "obedience" and "service," along with the children's names, hangs on one wall. The scholars' careful handwriting covers another. A sign advises, "If you have something to say about someone else, you should say it as if he were listening."

We head home. After a tour of the barn, Mary invites me back into the house, where the children have taken turns churning the handle on the ice cream maker. I chat with Monroe and Mary in the kitchen, savoring the rich flavor of homemade vanilla ice cream long after the others have finished.

The five children, who have drifted into the dining hall, start singing "Silent Night" in German.

When I watch them sing another song they learned at school, it's clear they are not shy about singing and have had lots of practice. They smile and sing the words clearly and boldly.

Three miles west of Drakesville, Iowa, A little down the gravel road Dwell a gang of willing workers In a pretty white abode. Oh we little children dwelling In our one-room country school, Ought to please our teacher gaily; Listen and obey each rule.

Paul, Jacob, Perry, Freeman, Harley, Kenneth, John Henry, Eddie, Ivan, Erwin, Leroy, Vernon, Jonas, Andy Ray. The girls are Mandy, Erma, Linda, Naomi, Mary, Edna Mae, LeAnne, Lucy, Leona, Loretta and Lena Mae.

Teacher says it's sure a pleasure Hearing little children sing; So come on let's sing together Make our voices really ring. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday in the schoolhouse dwell Seeking for our education Hoping all things work out well.

After the singing is over, I say good-bye. The Herschbergers have shared their easy laughter and warm hearts. They stand at the door as I leave the farm laden with gifts: bags of homegrown popcorn, jars of dill pickles made from cucumbers grown on the farm, and a taste of the simple charm of Amish life.

The Budget, a weekly paper established in 1890, circulates to all the Amish and Mennonite communities in North America (and a few in South America, too). A reporter from each community submits a weekly report, including births, deaths, visits, and anecdotes, keeping everyone informed of happenings in other communities. Everyone reads The Budget, because without telephones, it's the easiest way to keep up with friends and family who live far away. Here are a few excerpts.


Nov. 24-Temp. in lower 30s and is sleeting. There's no way to describe how it looks. The trees, fences-guess you'd say everything out there-has a coat of ice. The flowers that weren't frozen are hanging their heads.

Menfolks are helping put up dairy barns, adding onto houses, and the most important of all (that is for some) is the deer season is open. I'm sure that more have gotten one, but the only one I heard of is Floyd Schrock, got a doe.

They are planning to have a surprise 10th wedding anniversary shower at Glen Yoders' tomorrow for Levi and Edna Faye Yoder.

Being the weather was like it was, Bill and Cassie Detweiler and Mose and Sue Yoder just stayed home [from church] today.


Nov. 25-27° this morning with a light blanket of snow on the ground again, and sunshine. Received the snow yesterday.

The non-Amish neighbor bought a heifer recently at a sale, which seemed to have been someone's pet. But it did not want to yield to authority and butted him down, in over the electric fence. Thankfully he wasn't seriously hurt.


Nov. 25-Nice sunny day. Still have a snow cover. There are still quite a few items left at Melvin Beachys' when the funeral was there. Among the items are a stainless steel mixing bowl and big spoon, stainless steel cake pan lid, a black montley with a cape, black voile cap, flashlight and white plastic pan with lid.

Ervin Yutzys' found a 2-buckle overshoe on the road. The owner can pick it up at Ervin's.

Miss Alma Gingerich has the Nature's Sunshine products in her home now, taking over from Mrs. Chris Miller.

Eli and Diane Yoder have another girl, named Anna. She joins 2 brothers and 2 sisters.

Henry J. Yoder, who was in the hospital over a week, is now out of intensive care.

Chapter Two

The Amish love to farm. "I think I wouldn't want to be living if I weren't on a farm," an Amish teenager once told me. "It's exciting-there's always something happening."

Farming is also a way to keep the family together. When the father works at home, he can take an active role in raising the children, training them in the Amish way of life.

The Amish believe that farmers live closest to God. "On a farm, you can see that God is in all things that are alive and growing," explains Leah Peachy, an Amish woman I met in North Carolina.

They are also known to be excellent farmers. Centuries ago, while still in Europe, the Amish were often banned from land ownership and were forced to farm land so poor that no one else wanted it. In order to survive, they experimented with new methods, such as crop rotation. The Old Order Amish today still practice a four-year crop rotation system in Iowa and other states, planting corn for two years, oats for one year, and a hay crop the fourth year.

The Amish feel that they are not the owners of their land. Rather, they are caretakers entrusted with the use of the soil. They carefully nourish their fields-preferring organic fertilizers such as manure-so that when they retire the land is as healthy as when they began. If an Amish man damages the soil, he is considered to be as sinful as a thief. As a result, Amish farms are extremely fertile and productive.

This chapter introduces the Yoder family, who appear in other chapters in the book. The first time I met Nancy Yoder she came to the door of her large white farmhouse to greet me. She had been quilting with her daughter Annie, then 17. There was a calmness and orderliness about her and her home. It was hard to believe that she was the mother of nine children, with one more on the way, living on a farm without electricity, telephone, automobile, or automatic washing machine. With three children married or working and three children in school, she spent her days working at home with Annie and her sister Regina. They helped her care for Leah, a preschooler. And a few months later, when baby Wayne was born, they helped her care for him.


Excerpted from visits with the Amish by Linda Egenes Mary Azarian Copyright © 2000 by Iowa State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix
Introduction: who are the Amish? xiii
Part 1 Home
Chapter 1 At home with the Herschbergers 3
Chapter 2 Milking a two-bucket cow 13
Chapter 3 Cooking in the Yoder's summer kitchen 23
Part 2 School and work
Chapter 4 Learning the three Rs 33
Chapter 5 How Grace Yoder spent her summer vacation 43
Chapter 6 Snaps, buckles, and straps 51
Part 3 Community
Chapter 7 The heart of Amish life 63
Chapter 8 Quilting above Stringtown Grocery 71
Chapter 9 A trip to Dorothy Mast's country store 81
Part 4 Customs
Chapter 10 Playing Dutch Blitz and Dare Base 89
Chapter 11 Courtship and marriage 95
Further reading 105
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