September 2009 Issue
Shopping Made Simple
Head to Amish Country for homemade gifts this holiday season.
I hate to shop, except for one notable exception — my once-a-year, pre-Christmas shopping extravaganza in Amish Country — a trip that puts hundreds of miles on my car, and takes two or three days to accomplish.
I always schedule this shopping spree in autumn because Amish Country is at its best in late September or early October, when the corn is high, the humidity’s low and every tree is ablaze with fall color.
While it’s primarily a shopping trip to stock up on Amish-made gifts that I’ll dole out at Christmas, I also manage to find time for a few edible Amish treats for myself — like the broasted chicken, as only the Amish can do it, peanut-butter pie, gigantic cinnamon buns and the garlicky trail bologna, to name a few. And my favorite “road food” is the savory new cheese the Amish are producing, made with the milk from grass-fed cows with yogurt cultures added.
By the end of the first day, my little Coleman cooler practically vibrates with the unique scent of Amish Country cooking.
When I’m not eating, I’m looking for gifts for friends and family. Real stuff, made by real people, right here in Ohio.
It has never been easier. Years ago, it took a lot of legwork to find Amish artisans, because they tended to work from home in remote rural areas, and they were bound by the Amish rules against self-promotion. If you wanted to find an Amish quilt maker, you had drive up and down the country roads and look for the little hand-lettered signs that were nailed to the fence posts.
But that has changed, thanks to the Internet and the vigorous efforts of local visitors bureaus, especially in the Amish areas where tourism has become a dominant force.
Nowadays, many Amish rely on craft work instead of farming to make a living. That’s why the church elders have been relaxing their rules. Now, in most areas, it’s OK for a quilter to advertise — even online. And some even have phones outside their homes.
Shopping “Amish” does suggest an element of altruism. You are helping Amish families make ends meet. You are also helping to preserve a unique culture that has remained true to its roots for 500 years.
For easy shopping, I hit the more touristy areas, where quilt shops abound, and every hamlet seems to have a furniture factory or two.
For a more challenging venue, I venture into the isolated enclaves where ultra-conservative Amish practice their craft in such severe anonymity it’s a challenge to find them.
One year, I happened upon a Wayne County chair maker working from a tiny makeshift shop on a narrow dirt road near Shreve. A hand-lettered sign said, “Wholesale only.” I stopped in anyway, and we discussed the meaning of the word “wholesale.” Eventually, he allowed that a purchase of six or more chairs would qualify.
So, that year, six of my favorite people received lovely Amish oak rockers for Christmas. They are still thanking me.Beginner’s Luck
If you’re a novice, head for Berlin. The entire Holmes County area — Charm, Mount Hope, Winesburg, Sugarcreek — is devoted to Amish commerce, and the little towns are chockablock with shops selling everything from candles to quilts. The abundance of stores makes shopping easy. Finding a parking space is the tricky part.
The Amish do not own many of the shops, but they are staffed with Amish workers. Among the few Amish-owned businesses, Lone Star Quilt Shop and Swartzentruber Quilts stand out. They’re easy to find, near Mount Hope, and they’re both on the official Holmes County Map and Visitors’ Guide. They do beautiful work, and are open every day except Sundays and holidays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hershberger Country Store in New Bedford caters to an Amish clientele, with hundreds of nonelectric houseware and hardware items, but is are open to the public, too.
Holmes County has the country’s largest concentration of hardwood furniture makers, including some very large outfits, like Homestead Furniture in Mount Hope, with its exquisite armoires and its elegantly simple four-poster beds. The large stores boast a huge selection of hardwoods, styles and finishes. Many of the small furniture shops, operated just by an Amish man and his sons, sell only a few items, like rockers and blanket chests.
Besides shopping for Amish wares, I always include a visit to the beautifully decorated holiday shops at Pine Tree Barn in Shreve to get into the Christmas mood, and a stop at Lehman’s in Kidron for the nostalgia effect induced by acres of old-fashioned housewares and appliances. I buy Christmas cookie cutters (they have every imaginable shape) to give as gifts and to hang on my own Christmas tree. Located next door to Lehman’s is Hearthside Quilt Shoppe and Needle Nook, which offers a large selection of Amish-made quilts. For maps and brochures, contact the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce at 330/674-3975 or visitamishcountry.com, and Wayne County Convention & Visitors Bureau at 330/264-1800 or waynecountycvb.org.
Slow and Easy Shopping
The Middlefield-Mesopotamia area in Geauga and Trumbull counties is a more relaxed atmosphere for gift shopping. There’s never a traffic jam — except on Monday nights when the Middlefield Flea Market is packed with auction-bound bargain hunters, and tour buses pack the parking lot at Mary Yoder’s Amish Kitchen nearby.
Although the Amish settlement extends for miles in every direction, the center of commercial action is at the intersection of St. Rte. 608 and Nauvoo Road, with its mixed bag of salvage stores, furniture stores, antiques shops and the classy Vancura Gallery of Fine Art that sells work by local artists, including the remarkable turkey-feather paintings of Amish artist Ben Miller.
A great Amish-owned store is Emma Miller’s Amish Home Craft Shop, just a mile and a half east of Middlefield. Everything is Amish-made, from the quilts that line the walls to the sweet little-girl dresses.16860 Kinsman Rd. (St. Rte. 87), 440/632-1888 (let it ring — the phone is outside).
Non-Amish gifts beckon, too: the handmade candies at White House Chocolates, on Kinsman Road between Burton and Middlefield; and the farm-fresh produce at Ridgeview Farm and Rock Bottom Farm, in Middlefield. For more information, contact the Geauga County Tourism Council at 800/775-8687 or tourgeauga.com, and Trumbull County Tourism Bureau at 866/360-1552 or exploretrumbullcounty.com.
In Adams County in southwestern Ohio, Amish families are scattered throughout the hills, but the commerce is concentrated in two areas: Wheat Ridge Road and the Appalachian Highway near Seaman.
You can find everything — from quilts to porch swings — at two sprawling stores that have morphed from tiny mom-and-pop shops into Amish mega-marts: Miller’s Furniture, Bakery & Bulk Foods, 960 Wheat Ridge Rd., and Keim Family Market, 2621 Burnt Cabin Rd. at St. Rte. 32. For birders, there’s a lovely little Amish shop that sells everything you need in order to attract birds to your yard: The Hillside Bird’s Nest, 35 Port Rd., off Wheat Ridge Rd .For Adams County travel information, contact 937/544-5454 or adamscountytravel.org.Hidden Treasures
Among the ultra-conservative Schwartzentruber Amish in Hardin County, there’s limited contact with others outside the faith. Bishops ban some forms of commerce entirely. Advertising is frowned upon, as it might be seen as “prideful.” Even small yard signs are forbidden.
In some church districts, the policy was so strict it meant that the Amish had very little opportunity to sell their wares.
So Hardin County tourism director Jannette Jacobs began meeting with the more conservative bishops to see if a compromise could be reached — one that would attract visitors, and would also make it possible for the Amish to sell the things they make.
The result is a new tourism brochure that literally puts the Amish on the map — for the first time — in this western Ohio county.
The map — available through the Hardin County Chamber & Business Alliance (888/TO-HARDIN) — denotes 11 remote rural roads, where there are Amish farms that have something for sale (rugs, baskets, quilts, etc.). The Amish are not listed by name, out of deference to the bishops, or even by street address, but only by a list of their wares and a shaded-in section of the map that shows roughly where they live.
It’s not the easiest way to shop, but it’s kind of fun. Area businesses hand out maps to anyone who asks. “We’re excited about helping visitors connect with the Amish,” says Carol Steele, who just opened The Grand Trillium Inn, Hardin County’s first B&B, in downtown Kenton’s historic district. “It’s good for the Amish and it’s a plus for tourism, too.”Shopping for a Cause
Church rules prohibit the Old Order Amish from having insurance, so it’s an article of faith that when a family suffers a disaster, such as a fire or an illness, local congregations rush to their aid, with quick infusions of cash. To the Amish, this is an ingrained response, as natural as breathing.
Auctions are the number-one method of raising funds for every emergency. Often these are small, almost impromptu affairs. A few are huge — and famous — like the Ohio Mennonite Relief Sale, usually held at the end of July/beginning of August in Kidron, and The DDC Clinic Auction, to be held Oct. 9 in Middlefield, which funds the research and care of children with rare metabolic and genetic diseases.
For details on Amish auctions in Middlefield, contact 800/775-TOUR or tourgeauga.com. For Wayne and Holmes counties, contact 330/674-3975 or visitamishcountry.com.