When he cuts open the peach, juice flows to the ground. He sits on a wooden crate surrounded by his six sons, who are also slicing fruit, huge piles of them, before placing them in jars. The youngest, who’s only five, joins in, as they all sit together inside a rust-red barn in the early evening light.
They’re dressed identically, in blue shirts and dungarees with battered straw boaters pulled over blond bowl haircuts. I’ve long been drawn to the lifestyle of the Amish, so here I am with my husband and two sons, watching this Amish family preserving peaches for winter. The Amish first settled in Pennsylvania – where the film Witness is set – but then created a larger colony in the rolling hills of Ohio’s Holmes County, where more than 35,000 now live.
We fly into Columbus, Ohio’s capital and stay in the recently opened LeVeque hotel, a beautiful art deco building – zodiac signs and suns are carved on to the stone exterior and the celestial touches continue inside. We spend a couple of days exploring the city, wandering past historical houses in German Village and the enormous conservatory biomes at Franklin Park.
Columbus’s zoo is one of the largest in America. We watch cheetahs chase each other and see bison and beavers. Afterwards the boys are delighted to cool off at the adjoining Zoombezi Bay Water Park, tube rafting along a “lazy river” and shooting down water slides.
Holmes County is only a 90-minute drive away, but as we start to hear the clip-clop of hooves and see horse-drawn black buggies, it seems as if we’re leaving the 21st century behind. It’s hard to compute that this way of life is going on next door to modern America.
We spend our first two days with Shelley Millage, an English woman (the Amish call anyone “English” who isn’t Amish), who runs Amish Heartland Tours. “I used to be a teacher,” she says. “But have long been fascinated by the Amish, so began doing tours to show how they live.”
Shelley drives us past fields, where ploughs are horse-drawn, to meet a dairy farmer called David. He takes us for a ride in his buggy, giving the boys turns at the front. We trot along back roads as David tells us that the Amish don’t own cars because they represent a lifestyle which is too fast-paced. “We also don’t have televisions or smartphones as they tear down family time.”
Later, as we sit in his spartan kitchen eating home-baked pizza and apple pie, Shelley explains that the Amish are known as the “plain people” because they believe the Bible teaches a life of simplicity. It’s easy to spot an Amish home because they stand alone with no electricity lines.
“We don’t want to be connected to the world or to conform to it,” David says. “So we aren’t hooked up to the power grid.” However, most Amish do have some light – even if it’s just lanterns using natural gas or kerosene. David points out that traditionally the Amish have always been farmers, but now less land is available so they do other work, like carpentry.
“When I was young we milked by hand,” he says. “Since land prices have increased some of us now use machines [operated by generators] to milk our cows because we need more money to live,” he continues. “We have to allow certain changes if we want our lifestyle to survive.”
We visit another farmhouse where we eye up a silver wagon in the drive. Anna, a mother of nine, invites us in. “This is one of our church wagons,” she says, while the boys start playing football with her children.
“We don’t have churches,” Anna adds, “instead Amish services are held in our homes, with a different family hosting each week. These wagons carry everything we need from house to house: plates, benches and hymn books.”
Part of the reason the Amish are happy to invite us in is because they feel that outsiders have a misconception of their way of life. They want people to understand their beliefs and why they’re proud to live the way they do.
The Amish are Anabaptists, a group of Protestants driven from their homes in Germany and Switzerland in the 1500s because of their religious beliefs in adult baptism. They were forced to move around continuously to avoid persecution and so they initially worshipped in caves, which is why they never had churches.
Anna tells me that following Jesus should be a voluntary, grown-up decision – thus their belief in adult baptism – but leaving the Amish way of life voluntarily is an immensely hard decision to make, not least because people are often then ostracised. This is the hardest aspect, it seems: the irreparable damage to the parent/child bond if anyone chooses to leave the Amish life behind.
Shelley asks later if we’d noticed the truck parked outside. “It belongs to one of Anna’s sons,” Shelley says. He’s in “rumspringa”, a period when young Amish experiment with an “English” way of life before deciding once and for all to join the faith. The few who don’t come back would be going out into a world with no education past the age of 14. “The Amish have their own schools which only go up to eighth grade,” Shelley explains.
That evening we return to Berlin Village with its colourful wooden buildings selling gifts and quilts. We’re staying just outside in one of the Berlin Woods tree houses – ours is 10m high with huge windows and balconies looking out on to towering oaks.
The next morning we meet Shelley for the busy Mount Hope auction where the Amish come as much for a day out as to buy food and animals. A long line of parked buggies trails past the hall. There’s a flea market, too, where some Amish men with big beards chat in Pennsylvanian Dutch. Women in pleated bonnets stroll around looking at the stalls with gaggles of barefooted children.
On our last afternoon we walk up through wildflowers to a farm to buy some of the beautiful handmade baskets the Amish are known for. Chickens cluck around and the porch is full of onions for sale. I want to reach for my camera, yet I know the Amish rarely allow pictures – it’s a world where social media doesn’t exist – which makes moments like this all the more rare and special.