Visit the largest community of "gentle people" in the world—located in Holmes County, Ohio, 70 miles south of Cleveland.
by Bob Kerstetter
While it might be tempting to map out exact road numbers and specific turns, this could actually create a traffic problem for those Amish of Holmes County who live along the designated route. Made curious by the horse-and-buggy lives of these extraordinary, but orthodox, Christians, thousands of people already trek to north central Ohio to absorb a little of the simple life. Some come by the busload to dine on Old Order Amish cuisine. Others pause to stare and gawk.
"It's difficult when people think of us as being quaint," says Paul, a wood shop owner near Millersburg, the seat of Holmes County. "If we're not careful, the attention could dilute our community, but we are also good business people and the tourists add to our living."
Don't misunderstand Paul. "Good business people" does not mean the Amish are all about money. That simply is not true. You seldom, if ever, get ripped off by roadside sellers of vegetables or quilts. Most all of the goods available directly from the Amish are high quality at more than fair prices. To illustrate this, the handmade tables and chairs available from Paul's business easily match and surpass the caliber of high quality machine made products costing two to four times the price in any urban area. The value of Amish goods is generally very high. So your worries are few here.
What you do need to be wary of are "English" opportunists hawking fake wares as authentic Amish, or overpricing Amish products by means of extraordinary markups. In Amish terms, the "English" are people who speak the dominate language of the United States as their primary tongue. A dialect of German or Dutch is the first language of most Amish, with fluency in English learned by most to communicate with the outside world. From the Amish point of view, if you are not Amish, you are English, but not because you are from Great Britain. They know world geography as well as any other group of people.
So how do you find the real Amish? First, remember this: there are no "real" Amish. Like all groups of people, the Amish are diverse. The majority in Holmes county are Old Order or New Order, avoiding the direct use of any modern technologies which might dilute the community. This includes, of course, television, radio and video games. They drive horses and buggies for wheeled transportation, light their homes and businesses with kerosene or natural gas, and use no electricity obtained directly from public power lines. There are almost no land-line telephones in homes or businesses. Solar and battery-powered lighting is common. Cell phones are working their way into Amish use. While some Beachy Amish drive automobiles, you find very little of this in Holmes County.
To see the Amish, wander around in Holmes County. Before you start, stop to the north in Wooster, Ohio, in Wayne County and obtain a map of Holmes County. While you can definitely find a map in Millersburg, going to Wooster first gets you ready for the Amish contrast. Use the map to navigate to the Holmes County border, someplace in the middle from east to west. Then close the map into your glove box in case you get lost. Forget about the map. Drive south to the first intersection with a road of lower quality than the one you are currently on. Turn left or right, it does not matter, unless the turn takes you out of Holmes County. Drive to the next intersection with a road of lower quality and turn on it. Keep doing this until you are on dirt roads. By now, you are probably seeing Amish working their fields, walking, bicycling and driving buggies. On Sundays, no one drives buggies. Be polite. Drive slow. Nod or wave. Keep moving. Watch for buggies over the hill and around the curve. These people are at work or play and don't really need to be bothered or injured. If you mistake a driveway for a dirt road, turn around and leave, apologizing if necessary. You are driving through some of the most beautiful countryside in the Midwest.
You find more Amish East of Millersburg than West. Look for the wood shops. In these you can find excellent handmade furniture, including the famous bent wood rockers. There are good restaurants along the way. While Berlin has a really good restaurant, the town also features some amazing tourist traps. A little tourist trapish, but still worthwhile, is taking a buggy ride. When asked about his faith, one buggy driver replied: "We believe all people are sinners and need a savior. That savior is Jesus. He was born to a virgin, lived to show us how to live, died for our sins, rose to give us life and he is coming back to get us." This is simple belief inline with the larger history of their faith, but few live it as well as the Amish.
Why not take pictures of the Amish people? Respect for Amish beliefs. They do not believe the camera captures their souls. Forget that myth. Many—but not all—do believe posing for a photo is a sign of vanity. So, when can you take picture? That depends on the Amish. Some allow it. Other do not. Just ask, "May I take your picture?" Then respect whatever answer you receive.
You also find Mennonites in Holmes County. But that is for a different trek.