Hello Pennsylvania, where the Amish community – now part of one of the fastest-growing religious groups in America – have lived for almost 300 years after fleeing persecution in Europe. They have tried to change as little as possible since, retaining their old-fashioned ways and using horse-drawn carriages, but the world outside is always hard to keep at bay.
I can tell I am getting close to my destination when the reception bars on my phone drop off one by one. The cool air condenses off the Juniata River into a thick fog that snakes through the rounded mountainsides and billows into farmland planted with corn and soy. In the dim morning light, I see steaming scat on the road and the distant echo of clopping hooves lets me know I have arrived in Central Pennsylvania’s Kishacoquillas Valley – “Big Valley” as it’s known by those who live here.
My first stop is the Mennonite Heritage Center. “Rosanna’s mother is buried over there,” says Betty Hottzler. “There’s just a tree and a small cemetery with just a few graves, but the gravestones were lost. All that remains is one stone that says there was a settlement there, but now it’s gone. These are extinct Amish.”
Before the Amish media frenzy with controversial TV shows such as Amish Mafia and Breaking Amish, even before Beverley Lewis’s sensational Amish romance novels, there was Rosanna. She was an “English” – as the Amish call outsiders – orphan adopted by an Amish family and her story was told by her son, Joseph Yoder, in the 1940 biographical work, Rosanna of the Amish.
The heritage center is two rooms adorned with antique farm equipment and yellowing genealogy records preserved under glass. Betty and her husband quietly maintain it along with one other woman. It’s not a busy place by any means, so Betty is happy to talk. She delineates the Amish in Big Valley in an endearing way. Instead of calling them by their sect’s proper name – the Nebraska, the Byler, and the Renno – she identifies them by the color of the carriage on their buggies – the yellow-tops, the white-tops, the black-tops, respectively.
Though the first Amish settlement in Big Valley had no official affiliation, Hans Beiler, a native of America’s oldest Amish settlement in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, became their first bishop at the turn of the 19th century. Like other Old Order Amish, descendants of the Anabaptists and Mennonites, the Byler wear plain dress and limit their interaction with modern society. The Byler Amish are also jokingly referred to as Beaners within the Amish community, due to their custom of serving bean soup and moon pies to church members after gathering for worship.
Most Amish don’t have telephones
Betty shows me a rudimentary invention from the Detweiler family, one of the original Amish settlers in the area. It is a non-electric telephone fashioned of wood, copper coil and hog’s bladder. “Most Amish don’t have telephones to this day, but this was something that was homemade and was acceptable at the time. The father used it to talk to his son who lived next door.”
She tells me that each settlement is termed a church district, made up of anywhere from 20 to 30 Amish families. Each church district has its own Ordnung, or set of rules that governs everything from labor, to dress, to worship, to technology, while preserving the Amish values of humility, servitude, forgiveness and separation from the world. “Traditionally, the yellow-tops have been the most orthodox,” she says. “But I’m starting to question it because they now have cell phones and they are much more active with the English. It’s, in my mind now, the black-tops that are the most conservative.
“And the ones here, the bishops, have been very restrictive. The younger generations have been moving out. And now some of the yellow-tops, too. I’d say this has happened within the last 15 years that we’ve been here and it’s happening fast. You know, it’s going to be a new generation.”
It is said that the Amish settled in Pennsylvania because of its similarity to their homeland in the Alsace and Rhineland-Palatinate regions of Europe, from which they escaped persecution. The blunt mountain ranges cutting out hidden valleys, and a mild and temperate climate, may have been familiar but, most importantly, the land also provided them with the liberty to practice their religion in peace.
She is lost again in texting
I arrive at the Big Valley market early to watch the buggies arrive and unload goods. Produce of all kinds is laid out neatly and displayed humbly. Half-moon pies – a local treat, brought to church to keep the kids quiet – are stacked in rows by filling: blackberry, peach, and the original and most popular, apple. A small cardboard box of white, fuzzy bunnies sits out to attract passersby.
In the auction barn, I see a girl in a plain blue dress with a white bonnet and glasses. She is texting on a smartphone with a slight grin and we nearly collide. She looks up, embarrassed, and timidly excuses herself. I look back and she is lost again in texting, the screen only a few inches from her face, as customers browse the baked goods she is helping her family to sell.
The rising sun burns off the morning haze and all of the Amish vendors are set up and ready to sell. The English are slower to arrive. Their wares are different, too. To the left of an Amish stand selling handmade quilts and lye soap is a war veteran displaying hundreds of knives. The stand to the right sells old stereo and computer parts. The contrast is almost funny, given Amish attitudes to technology and violence.
I walk past rows of horses harnessed to buggies, mostly black-tops scattered with a few yellow and white, fastened to hitching posts. The English parking lot on the other side of the building is packed with pickups, tractors and sedans. The horses snort as I walk by. English farmers in overalls and trucker hats trade crop secrets over breakfast while they wait for the livestock auction to begin in the adjacent barn.
At noon, the auction is packed. Amphitheater-style seating draws everyone’s gaze to the middle of the room, where a small, gated patch of dirt is the stage for the livestock. The auctioneer begins with the horses as a woman rider in a bonnet trots around. He describes the horse by age, breed, health, shots, and any past injuries. “Yes, folks. This ten-year-old mare will be sure that you arrive at church riding in style,” he says. Bearded Amish men confer with one another, pointing and crossing their arms with discerning looks. After the horses come the goats, then the piglets and smaller animals. An Amish teenager with a straw hat and straight-cut blond bangs gently whips the air around the animals and they parade until they’re sold.
We need more renewable energy
I wander out the back entrance where more Amish teens ready the line of livestock. I cross a catwalk in a dim and dusty barn past men and boys, through the damp air heavy with the odors of hay and manure, past the goats and horses and cows, and emerge out back near bales of alfalfa. I see three Amish men standing at an English vendor’s tent. They are reading leaflets from SOAR (Save Our Allegheny Ridges), a grass-roots organization that is spreading community awareness on the impact of a potential local wind turbine development project.
“The companies find that they’re more successful if people don’t know what’s going on until it’s too late,” says SOAR’s president, Laura Jackson. “These things aren’t efficient. They’re not going to run at more than 25 percent efficiency. The idea is wonderful. We need more renewable energy, but the technology is just not there at this point to be sustainable.”
She goes on to explain the negative effects the turbines will have on migratory bird patterns in the area and the local recreation industry by halting hang-gliding and sail-planes that launch from Jack’s Mountain. The turbines would also severely devalue the surrounding property.
I am more interested in the involvement and impact on the Amish community. “I can say to the Amish, they aren’t going to look nice or they’re going to take part of Jack’s Mountain or they’re going to be noisy. They don’t care about that,” says Laura. “You mention water. They get their water from the mountain. They don’t have electricity. They have to dig a well and get the water up. They also don’t want to pay for connecting to the public water source. Their biggest issue is water. The turbine companies are going to disrupt our water and what are we going to do?
That’s all the schooling they have
“A lot of people had been taken advantage of when they [the turbine companies] came in here in 2010 and said, ‘Here, sign this. You’re going to get money.’ Their education is one through eight, that’s it. That’s all the schooling they have. We’re not saying that they’re not bright because there are some incredibly bright Amish, but many of them – we feel – were taken advantage of. They don’t have lawyers. They don’t want to pay for lawyers to go over these contracts.
“You have to realize too that the way our community works, it’s about integrity. When you say something to the Amish, they don’t automatically think that you’re lying to them. They expect you to be telling the truth. The wind turbine people that came in did not tell them the truth.”
I watch the ridge on Jack’s Mountain undulate on the horizon as I drive through back roads hedged by grids of towering cornstalks. I wonder what the valley would look like without all this corn, without the soy, without the top-half of Jack’s. Would it be replaced by strip malls and wind turbines outsourcing energy to New York? Being a Pennsylvanian, I hope for better.
About an hour east is my hometown of Altoona, where I often escaped the drab shopping centers in my youth by heading into the countryside. At one such former refuge, I now see a row of wind turbines standing like sentinels across the valley at Allegheny Ridge Wind Farm, Pennsylvania’s largest. My friends and I would drive through Sinking Valley to explore Arch Spring or Tytoona Cave. My mother would take us to the Amish farms, where one small Renno settlement – an offshoot from Big Valley – still sells sweetcorn, beets and shoofly pie.
I can remember a picnic with my girlfriend in a field nearby, and hearing a horse and buggy approach with little Amish children hanging out the back. They smiled widely, waving and seething with excitement at seeing us. The Amish melded with nature to offer a comforting dignity that made me feel grounded.
We weren’t poor, we just didn’t have any money
I arrive at an old friend’s house, Al Benn. He and his wife Darla live in Milroy, just northeast of Belleville. Al was born and raised on Jack’s Mountain and has close ties to the community. “Rosanna was my great, great aunt!” he says. His smile lights up his entire face. Al is 79 with white hair. He does not get around as quickly as he used to but is more than happy to discuss his Big Valley childhood.
Al’s circumstances parallel those of his great, great aunt Rosanna’s in that he was an outsider, of sorts, on the inside. “We weren’t poor, we just didn’t have any money,” he says. “We used to go to my grandparents’ for a meal. There were two tables. The one tablecloth was across both of them, but we all knew where the end of the table was. A couple of my uncles had joined the church, and then they had left. Became what they call English. So, my grandfather could hand them food across that threshold of the tables, but he couldn’t take anything back from them. And the church would allow that. But my mother was alright because she had never joined the church.”
Shunning is common practice in Amish culture. If church members commit unacceptable transgressions that go against the local Ordnung or leave the church, they will be shunned in the aim of winning them back. The severity depends on the bishop of the particular church district, though it can come to completely severing family ties.
During the lulls in his story, I can hear the sound of horse hooves clopping past on the macadam out front of the house. “You’ll see the Amish going here on Sunday, one buggy after the other,” says Al. “And the evening that they have their church, the young people get together and have a hymn sing. You’ll see them, boy, their buggies go so much faster with these young guys driving.” He laughs.
They get out there and do their racing
“We went up to get some cider at Schwarey’s orchard and there was an Amish boy out there chatting his buggy up. I says: ‘Big date this weekend, huh?’ He didn’t say much. I said: ‘Do you have the fastest horse in the valley?’ He said: ‘No. I don’t know.’ But they do know. They get out there and do their racing. In fact, the cops stopped two of them and gave them a ticket for racing up the valley not too long ago.”
“They can be as devilish as the English kids are,” Darla says. “At the truck stop there, they have a hitching post for them. Saturday nights, you’ll see a bunch of horse and buggies up there.” She chuckles.
“Saturday evenings, you’ll see a lot of the boys up there because they can sneak into the bathrooms and get their condoms,” says Al. “You’ll hear most of the kids in their buggies going back about one, two o’clock. Then you hear them four, five o’clock going back down the road. I tell my wife, I say, now there’s a summer wedding going on!”
Even though Al’s immediate family was not officially Amish, their self-sufficient, minimally wasteful lifestyle on Jack’s Mountain was. “We had to bring the water from the spring on Sunday night to fill the kettle,” he says. “Father would get up early and start a fire so mother would have hot water. We burned wood. We used to have to go out and cut wood in the summer and get stacks of wood around the place. In the winter, we had one room that had heat in it – a huge kitchen. We had a woodburning stove in there and that’s all. At night, you’d dress and undress under the covers. Covers so heavy you couldn’t even turn over. Water would freeze in a glass up in the bedrooms – it was cold living, but you know what? I don’t have no regrets living up there.”
It just doesn’t look as good as nature
When I ask Al about the wind turbine project, the nostalgic cheer fades from his face. “Number one, I don’t like it because all the electricity’s going to be sent to New York. If it were used here locally, that’d be one thing. But they’re going to level off the top of the mountain, then those windmills will be sitting up on the top and you won’t have the beautiful view that you have now. I know going to Altoona they have three different places now with windmills and it just doesn’t look as good as nature.”
Whether Big Valley will retain its bucolic purity, time will tell, with some of its biggest stakeholders being the new generation of Amish. How they will face the challenge of adapting to modern times must be balanced against preserving their heritage. Though similar to and seemingly more integrated into mainstream society, the younger Amish generations still maintain a measure of insularity. A good example of this can be seen in Amish Facebook groups, a digital space where “English” are prohibited.
Sitting with Al, however, it’s hard not to be comforted by his tone of optimism, even if it’s just for comfort’s sake. I feel that everything is going to turn out OK in Big Valley. That the new generation will rise to the challenge.
“I know when we lived in the city in Pittsburgh, I was glad to get back here because of the country,” he says. “I like the country. I was born and raised in this area and I like the country.”