Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Amish Wanderings in Western New York State

Our tour takes us to some surprising places.  As we planned for where to stop for the two games at Erie, Pennsylvania and Jamestown, New York, there was a handful of campgrounds that seemed appropriate.  A little more research revealed that the Pope Haven campground in Randolph, New York, was right in the middle of Amish country. This was an unexpected benefit, and we reserved as space right away, specifying that we wanted a shady spot, as the heat continues to be an overwhelming factor in our daily satisfaction. 
Arriving at the campground, we were impressed by the open spaces and crowds of children everywhere, running across wide grassy lawns, playing basketball and splashing in the pool.  Best of all, we were assigned a site that was in a cool corner of the forest, with bunches of trees between us and nearby sites, keeping us as cool as we could be in the humid climate. The hilly terrain of the camp added to the sense of quiet privacy. 
We had arrived on a Saturday afternoon and were to leave Tuesday. None of the Amish businesses were open on Sunday, so we planned for touring on Monday.  According to the camp host, the local Amish were pretty orthodox, staying to themselves, driving wagons, and not even using bicycles to get around. He mentioned that the nearest family business, Raber’s Toys, was anchored by a family with 13 children, and the father was also one of thirteen. We were to find that many of the shops in the area were labeled Raber, and were likely his sons.
We’d been provided maps of the area that indicated that the local Amish businesses operated from their homes, which was both a benefit and a caution for us.  I felt a little uncomfortable invading their privacy, but soon relaxed at the thought of pulling into a driveway and making my way to the door with the homemade sign advertising the goods they sold. 
The roadsides are plain and lovely, and very quiet. 

We are asked not to take pictures of the Amish people, and so we didn’t, but we did take some snapshots of the land, the buggies and the wash on the line.  Judging from the number of homes with long clotheslines full of white, black, blue and purple garments flapping in the wind, Monday was wash day. 
At Raber’s Toys, our first stop, we found a friendly dog greeting us as we came in. Grateful for something to say to break the ice, we asked if this were his dog, and the bearded proprietor said she was one of his dogs. Another came in and then we noticed a third resting behind the door.  They ambled about, enjoying the attentions we provided.  
The shelves were full of handcrafted items - marble towel racks, such as my grandmother had used to hold her towels- the marble is pushed up by the towel, then slips down to hold it in place. Innumerable toys and puzzles, made simply of wood and nails, unpainted, were arrayed on shelves.  A wooden horse swing, complete with a bright colored nylon bridle, hung from the ceiling. “Go on, try it,’ encouraged the proprietor.  “It’s made for all weights, not just children.”  The broad seat and the heavy fittings gave me confidence, and as I leaned back on the ropes, swaying back and forth, I could easily see myself under a tree at home, reading in the swaying breeze.  Hmm. Only $95.  But where was I going to find a level place on my hillside under two branches that could bear the weight?  I filed that thought under “Would have been nice” and moved on. Though there were a wide variety of doodads, there were useful and handsome items as well, all reasonably priced.  Cutting boards, cedar chests, and a lovely kitchen center island with a butcher block top, and a fold- down leaf.  Really nice, and under $500. Hard to imagine that kind of quality at that price elsewhere.  But it wouldn’t fit in the RV and we have a galley kitchen anyway!
Through a low window, we saw two men sawing wood in the adjacent room, and as another group of people came in, a woman in a long dress, a close, tidy bonnet and a warm smile came in to sit near the door to process purchases.  The kids in theother group rummaged through the slingshots and rubber-band guns to find souvenirs for the day.  The dogs moved in and out through an ingenious mechanism that let them into the shop or outdoors into the attached dog house.  It even had a weather-blocking screen so the dogs could come in and out of the doghouse during the winter. Very practical.

We moved on down the road to an iron shop. Really just a section of the barn/workshop, with heavy dust and dirty windows, it had were shelves of various iron small items, such as coiled iron holders for small jam jars. I didn’t really understand why anyone would want elevated jam jars, but the mystery was solved when I saw the other display of a wide variety of candles packaged in the jam jars. These were for indoor ambience!   The teen boy in the shop would slide looks at us, but not talk.  As we walked out, having only bought two summer squashes for 25 cents each, we saw four young children in the yard, all barefoot in plain colored clothes- long dresses with bonnets for the girls, straw hats for the boys.  I would have gladly photographed them, but was constrained by the request to honor their privacy by not doing so.  Their shy waves indicated their wary interest in us, which was to become a pattern.
Buggies at the iron shop - the children peeked around bushes at us, but we couldn't take pictures.  We were strange and interesting to them,  girls in their fabric caps and boys in straw hats, all barefoot. 

The next store, a cedar shop, mostly had furniture, which was lovely.  The proprietor, a bearded man of about 30, was friendly and welcoming as he emerged from his home across the driveway.  He had few pieces of furniture, having moved most of his business to custom orders for bedroom sets.  Still, he had small blocks of cedar I could tuck among my cabinets to keep my clothes fresh. “Sand those down to renew the scent,” he advised, and I told him that he was motivating me to sand down my cedar lined entry closet at home, which I often overlook. 
The quilt shops were interesting.  We only went into two, and the second was more rewarding- the proprietress came in soon after we did, along with her small granddaughter. both barefoot.  “We have 28 grandchildren,” she smiled, responding to our question about the girl. Later she added that she had had eight children, and the girls took up needlework. Little Amanda, at six, would enter Amish school this year, and would stay, by tradition, through eighth grade, at which point she would begin in earnest to earn her trade, as did all the children.  When we spoke to Amanda, her eyes widened with some alarm, and her grandmother translated into German. “She won’t learn English until she gets to school.  I knew English before I entered school, but today’s children all learn just German at home.” 
She proudly lifted the quilts from the king-sized bed on which they were all layered, having Amanda help her lift from the other side of the bed. “She hasn’t done this before,” the woman informed us gently, “But she wants to help her grandmother.” As pattern upon pattern was revealed, I wished we had a need for a quilt but we didn’t.  These were done completely by hand, in careful stitching and a variety of patterns.  We have two full quilts at home, and two quilt tops we inherited and didn’t finish, so this was not our day to make a purchase.  A map on the wall had pins all over the world, and Elizabeth (for that was her name: Levi and Elizabeth Wengerd, L & E Crafts, 12641 Dredge Rd, South Dayton NY 14138) said the pins represented people who had bought their quilts. We bought some sweet aprons with small tools in the pockets, and a doll’s dress with a bonnet for nieces.

As this was a Monday, which is a centuries-old traditional day for doing the wash, we were treated to the view of many homes with the washing on the line- a lovely picture in itself.  Keeping the clothing colors to a few solid colors made a lovely display.  Large families meant lots of laundry, and the bigger the farm, the longer the laundry line! 

Just because colors are restricted, that doesn't mean they're not lovely. Picture these garments on small children with straw hats and cloth caps! 

This large farm has a substantial vegetable garden as well as a large barn and silo and house.  The laundry line told us this was an Amish household. 

More laundry, in lovely hues. 

One thing we noticed as we traveled through the community was that power lines went to some of the houses, indicating they weren't Amish.  We also noticed that many of the homes with power lines also had American flags posted, which would never happen for Amish families, as they do not participate in governmental or civic activities unless required by law, as in the payment of taxes.  They have their own schools, which they are only required to attend until the end of eighth grade. 

The leather shop down the road had well-made belts at $15 - we bought two for Joe.  There was a beautiful saddlebag- would that we had a horse!  Because the Amish don’t take credit cards, we had to scrounge through our pockets to get enough cash for our purchase and were 4 cents short. “That’s OK”, the young man grinned.  As we got into our car, he came running out to return a dollar bill- apparently we had slightly overpaid!

The basketry shop was not evident from the road, though there was a sign.  Feeling invasive, we pulled up in a circular driveway next to a barn with buggies in it, and saw a small building behind the main house with a sign: Baskets for sale.  We approached the building to find a sign that said to knock and wait.  An elderly man came to the door, and  told us to wait a bit more.  A younger woman came out from the main house and led us to a small one room building, similar to most of the home shops, and a young boy who had been napping, stretched across two chairs on the back porch of the house we’d first  approached, slipped in to see the interaction.  He never spoke, and the woman told us he was six-- unlikely to know English, but definitely curious to see what we were like. When we told the woman we were from California in the Los Angeles area, she was excited, pointing to the card that told where she got her basket caning from- a firm in Los Angeles!  I pointed to a US map she had on the wall and indicated to the boy where we’d come from, but he didn’t seem to understand the relationship between the illustration on the wall and the people before him. Fair enough- not many of our six year olds know much about locations on a map either! 
A final stop at a roadside produce stand yielded a gaggle of children. The oldest, a girl, maybe eleven, came from the house to assist with purchases, though the stand had a sign that asked patrons to take what they wanted and put the money in a locked cash box through a slot.  The girl dutifully added us the three items we bought, but miscalculated.  She couldn’t see the prices posted, and was undercharging by 25 cents.  We corrected her, and she ran to get change from the house, back down the driveway, while six or seven pairs of younger eyes peeped over shrubbery at us.  I walked part of the way down the driveway to see if the berry bushes in her front yard were the same as those on the highway that had such abundant berries- and if they were edible. She shyly said that those weren’t for people, they were for the birds.
This is an unedited photograph- it was mid afternoon and the cloud was bright, but it didn't seem as bright as the photo allows- cloud cover had just moved, and there was sudden brilliance over the horse and buggy in this Amish yard. 
As we drove back to our campground, we were warmed by our contact with this culture that seemed content with their choices.  Many of the ideals we value today in our busy world but seem to have trouble managing - simplicity, economy, living close to the land and its rhythms - they cling to, untroubled by the mass of information overload that clutters our daily lives.


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  4. Just stumbled across your article. We are very familiar with this area and the Amish community. Elizabeth and Levi from the Quilt shop are very dear friends and our families spent many Thanksgivings together. Glad you enjoyed your trip, I enjoyed reading your article. ~ML