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Living with the Amish

Note: Amish Country News recently had access to a field diary kept by a student who lived among the Amish for three months during his college studies. While such writings often reveal much more about the writer than about the Amish, these selections offer a glimpse into what it is like for an "outsider" to live and work in an Amish community. We have edited the lengthy personal journal for our readers. The author, a "city kid," wishes to remain anonymous. The names of the Amish have been changed.

September 8

It is 9:00 p.m. and all are about to go to sleep. John Miller and his wife, Sarah, have three children --- Elam (age 4), Rachel (age 2), and Sammy (age 1).

September 9

I got up at 5:30 a.m. when cows were being milked. I learned my first daily dutyÖ Climbing up the silo, pushing one of the little doors open, going inside, pitching the feed down, and distributing it to the cows. This is done morning and evening. In the afternoon, I helped fill the silo. Five men are helping each other fill their individual silos. I just put the corn on the conveyor belt and into the machine that chops it finely and sends it to the top of the silo. The low point of the day came when it was time to clean out the manure from the cow shed. I should have a strong back and a nose ready for anything by the time I leave.

September 10

Today was my first Amish church service and my first long buggy ride. One hill was too steep for the horse and we had to get out and push. I felt pretty uneasy at church, what with being stared at and so forth. My biggest problem now is trying to learn enough German and Pennsylvania Dutch that I can at least begin to find out what is going on. The Amish arenít the warmest people in the world when it comes to someone else; youíre just more or less left alone to figure things out. In other words, people donít stumble all over themselves trying to make you feel at home. Still, I never really felt unwanted, only uneasy.

September 12

A bottle of homemade root beer broke upstairs and came down on the kitchen table, which was moved for supper. Sarah is pregnant, but helps milk the cows every day.

September 14

Fortunately, I have the easiest part of filling the silo --- feeding the corn stalks into the cutter. The others drive the team of two mules or horses and the wagon, pick up about 120 bundles of corn, and bring it back to the cutter, throwing them off to me. I just turn on the tractor and cutter and catch the corn bundles. An occasional stalk goes into my eye, stomach, or other area, but itís not too bad since I can rest in between. The others donít. One of the men asked me, "Did you sleep well after handling all that corn?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Youíd sleep even better if you loaded the wagon all day."

Today I drove a team of two mules hauling a wagon. They asked me if I ever drove mules before. I said, "No, but Iíll try." They said to go ahead, and with no more instruction than "Donít worry, those mules wonít run away from you," I was on my way.

September 20

Today was worth it all due to one thing --- Sarahís homemade cinnamon rolls with icing. They were the best Iíve ever eaten, and I ate half a dozen.

September 22

John went away with a neighbor tonight to visit someone, and I was doing chores late. Sarah got worried about where I was and came looking. She thought maybe I had fallen down the silo. I said that I didnít plan to, but if I did, Iíd yell on the way down.

September 24

Although Sunday is a day of rest for the Amish, a five hour long church service sitting on a backless bench got quite tiring for me. But it was the once-a-year baptism service, and I found it quite fascinating. On the way home from church as I was walking, I got a ride from an Amish boy I knew in his "courting buggy." Riding in them makes riding in a car pretty dull. Besides, you can enjoy the scenery much more when youíre going slow. I think Iíd get too impatient at the time it takes to travel, though, so Iíll have to rule a courting buggy out for now.

September 27

We picked three rows of corn by hand this morning. Then in the afternoon, John had to go and help bind corn. When he left he said, "I guess you should clean out the cow stables. I hate to stick you with that again, butÖ" So for about two and a half glorious hours I shoveled out ten days worth of cow manure. I wonder how many times a farmer must do that job in a lifetime?

September 28

We were filling silo at a neighborís when a lady came out on her porch and yelled that some horses were going down the road. Johnís crazy team of horses (Mable and Elmer, especially Elmer) just took off with the wagon and went home. The neighbor hitched the horse he had to his buggy, picked us up, and took us to our farm, a distance of about half a mile. John was worried that the horses would ram into the stable door with the wagon as they tried to get in, but this did not happen.

I have been here for 17 days. It is almost impossible to be bored or have nothing to do, and I doubt if Iíd watch TV or play music if they were here, because of the long day. I have been incorporated into the family fairly well, and I believe I am already getting a feeling of what it is like to be a member of an Amish family. Although you work very long and hard, you must feel that you are a necessary part of the family. Children follow parents and help in minor ways, and assume responsibilities early. I have had no need to spend any money while I have been here. It is perhaps as John said, "I didnít need any pocket money and my parents provided food and clothing."

November 3

Eight years ago today, John was married at the age of 23. There was no celebration, however. We picked corn all day. Picking corn may be monotonous, but it sure beats pitching manure.

November 20

Perhaps the planned visit to a sale is out this week because of something very special that happened todayÖ a baby was born. Today Sarah, as usual, helped with milking, baked some cookies in the afternoon, and washed the clothes. In the afternoon, Sarah evidently told John to call the doctor. John went to a neighborís house and said he tried to get the doctor about a dozen times, but got a busy signal. So Sarah had the baby at about 4:00 p.m. in the house. A neighbor lady, who was once a nurse, helped her have it. John evidently called her when he was trying to get the doctor, who arrived after the baby was born. When we went in for supper after the milking, Johnís mother was there, so I suppose he also contacted her by phone. She had prepared supper. Sarah remained in bed, but would occasionally tell Johnís mother what to get for the table or where something was. The baby was a boy, eight and a half pounds.

November 23

Today was Thanksgiving Day, but it started off in an unusual way. Johnís mother went home last night, so when we came in from milking for breakfast at about 7:00 a.m., there was nothing there. John started cooking, while I set the table. The children woke up and had to be dressed in between. Finally, by about 8:30, we were ready to eat and John took some food in for Sarah. We washed the dishes afterwards, and Sarah got out of bed at about 9:30. She checked the turkey meat, which was on the wood heat stove, and moved it to the gas cook stove. John started peeling potatoes, and Sarah started tearing bread apart for filling as she sat in the upholstered rocking chair by the wood stove. At about 10:00 Sarahís parents arrived, and her mother helped get dinner ready by about 11:15. The baby was named yesterday, although I didnít find out until today. They named him David.

November 30

Iíll be leaving tomorrow after getting up at 5:30 a.m. for the last time, feeding the heifers for the last time, and eating my last meal here. I hope that our friendship can continue, and I wonder how different it might be when John and family are not so much something to be studied as people to respect and have as friends.

Even though I will be glad to get back to "my world," somewhere inside I feel a sense of losing something. Losing a close contact with nature, animals, plants, and the country. Losing the experience of being on a farm. I also feel I will be losing some values which I might be better off having... the closeness of family and friends, the appreciation of what you have, and realizing one does not need TV, radio, movies, and the you-name-it "necessary" items of American culture. There is something here, in being content with what you have, with hard work, with simple things, which I believe is being lost.

What have I gained? I have gained an appreciation for farmers, particularly Amish farmers, and the work involved for what I casually eat or buy every day and take for granted. Iíve learned what work is ---- work of the body, not just the mind --- and certainly to never look down on manual, physical labor.

I suppose in time Iíll get over some of the tendencies I now have to look at people like me, and be amused at their dress, or their wasting time on unnecessary things when there are important things to do. I am the same way, but for three months I was kept from these things, and now other people look different to me.

I hope that now more than ever I can try to understand people different than myself, respect them, put faith in something and stick to it, and try to keep a bit of the humility the Amish have. I also hope to maintain some of the idea of not judging people. I have never really heard John say that someone was good or bad. He has called people and their activities "ignorant," but he has never really condemned anyone.

Finally, I canít help but think that if John had been born into my family, and I into his, I would probably be Amish now, and he a "typical" American. Each of us is a product of our culture, environment, and upbringing, with individual personalities, to be sure. I feel John is thankful that he was raised Amish by what he feels were parents who tried. I am now even more thankful for what I have been given by my parents. One may call Johnís upbringing "brainwashing," and I may think mine was freer, yet I may have been brainwashed in more subtle ways. Each of us is, perhaps, glad he is not the other. John is secure in the Bible, his way of life, his religion, his faith. He has doubts and faults like anyone. I am one who is still, and may always be, seeking and searching, but the Amish have added to the light.

Amish Country News Article, (Sept. 2002)

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