Community offers glimpse into Amish way of life

By Joseph H. Foegen
October 2005
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BUILDING TOGETHER: When members of the Amish community need a new house to be built, or a barn raised, men come from miles around to help out.
photograph courtesy of Southeastern Minnesota Historic Bluff Country
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A tour through Harmony, a small town in Southeastern Minnesota, offers insights into the Amish lifestyle. Although they aren't the only ones who live in the area, everywhere one looks are reminders that this isn't a typical American community, from the handmade quilts and expertly crafted furniture to the occasional reminder in the road that a horse-drawn buggy has recently passed by.

Originally from Germany and Switzerland, Harmony's ancestors came to the area by way of Pennsylvania and New York, attracted by the rolling hills and sparsely populated forests and fields. Taking a two-hour summer tour by van offered a chance to experience this country and its people and learn more of their gentle way of life through the commentary by guide Russ Nagel.

The community around Harmony numbers between 700 to 900, he told us, with groups being kept relatively small by design. When one gets too large, another is formed. The schools are built four miles apart. Getting to one means, at most, a two-mile trek on foot or by horse-drawn buggy. Just 20 to 30 children attend each school.

Our first stop

We had our first encounter with a member of the community's youth on our first stop - a small, roughly built farm structure sporting a homemade 'Open. Self-Serve' sign on an unpainted door.

Inside was a young girl in bare feet and traditional Amish clothing. She was selling hand-woven baskets, each item bearing the name of the individual who made it. As for her lack of footwear, Nagel explained that all the children go barefoot in Harmony all summer.

The next attraction offered another meeting with a barefooted stranger - this one with four legs. At the Austin Goat Farm, visitors were encouraged to stroke the silky, white coat of a small goat. In a large display room, various goat-related products were for sale: soap, cheese, meat and items woven of mohair. There were even sample cubes of goat sausage. (It tasted like beef.)

Customs of the country

Back in the van, we made our way down a winding gravel road. Nagel told us that the community uses its grazing animals to keep grass under control. The vehicle of choice in the community is the traditional, black horse-drawn buggy. The vehicle clip-clops along paved highways and gravel back roads alike at a leisurely 10 miles an hour or so. Many of the horses used to pull the buggies are retired racing horses that have taken up second careers.

Nagel's observations were not limited to the animal kingdom. Families here, he told us, are typically large; seven to 14 children are common. All in the area who are not Amish are called 'English' by those who are.

When Amish die, they are placed in locally made oak caskets, and homemade, concrete headstones mark their burial places.

Hardy workers

Another stop on the tour was a metal-sheathed building used mainly as a bakery. An oven on top of a kerosene stove produced breads and cookies for sale. (A wood range also was occasionally used.)

To keep busy while bread bakes, the women make quilts. A frame with a quilt in progress was in one corner of the room.

Our next tour stop was the farm of a family with nine children. In addition to raising crops, the family builds furniture; handsome pieces were on display in a small shop. To collect money for small items, as well as for jars of homemade jam, a rough-hewn wooden box sat on a table near the entrance. Nobody from the family was present, only a sign: 'Money box. Be honest. Thank you.'

After a few other stops, our tour van headed back to town. Those of us on the tour had gained insight into a culture close at hand that showed a life possible without all the high-tech bells and whistles with which most of us live.

 

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A visit to Harmony, Minn., provides some insight into the lifestyle of the members of its Amish community. For worship, Amish do not have churches. Instead, members gather in homes every other Sunday from 9 a.m. until noon. Sermons are preached in German. The community is headed by a bishop, but since he cannot attend each service, others also give homilies.

Men stop shaving after getting married, so it is easy to tell who is single. Civilian barbershops are not needed; someone with the group does the job.

People communally assemble to perform major jobs - such as canning. Apples, cherries and peaches come to a common location seasonally, and a joint effort processes them. When a new house is to be built, or a barn raised, men come from miles around to help out. With as many as 75 on the job, even a large barn is raised in a day or so.

- Joseph H. Foegen


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