Buying My Way Into The Amish Lifestyle

Trip Start Oct 08, 2000
Trip End Oct 15, 2000

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Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Wednesday, October 11, 2000

The day again began at Borders, with another two hour coffee session. After coffee, Tom headed off to meet the Lucent relocation specialist and get a tour of the house that we had seen a couple of days earlier.  I spent some time wandering through the shops in Wyomissing's malls.

Tom got back from his visit with the relocation specialist about 90 minutes after he left.  He said that the house was as nice on the inside as it was on the outside.  Better yet, it was in one of Reading's better neighborhoods. To really seal the deal, the house was only a five minute drive from the Lucent plant. Still, the specialist told him to pass on the place. The reason she gave was that it was located inside the Reading city limits. She said that if he bought the place, he would have a very difficult time selling it, despite all its attractions. She mentioned that the house had been on the market for a year and a half, with no serious offers coming forward.

By now, I was really noticing that of many of the residents of Reading and its suburbs had a shell-shocked attitude. It seemed that the disappearance of the traditional industries, like steel production, had left people feeling lost and unsure of the future. As a result, they seemed unmotivated to maintain houses and buildings that might have to be abandoned in the future. At first, I thought I was imagining these impressions. But, while Tom was out touring the house, I saw an editorial in the Reading Eagle exhorting the town’s leadership to do something to change the direction-less quality of the town. That editorial convinced me that my impression was not inaccurate.

With business addresed, it was time to do some more sightseeing.  Today's itinerary would address one of the images that I had about Southeastern Pennsylvania:  that of Amish families working on their farms. Their combination of simple lifestyle and strong individuality had become a cherished part of the American persona. Since I enjoy exploring the truth behind the myths, I thought it was fortunate that I would be able to see just what the Amish were really like during my stay in Reading. It was a crisp Fall afternoon when Tom and I set out for what is known as the Dutch Country. It didn’t take long before the hills surrounding Reading turned into rolling countryside. And it didn’t take long before we started seeing the horse drawn carriages for which the Amish are known. At first, we saw them from a distance. But as we continued along the narrow country roads, we eventually ended up behind one of them. Since there was no room to pass, we just followed until it turned into a farm. We weren’t upset with the slower pace. It turned out to be a great excuse for turning our attention toward the Amish farms. Other than the neat arrangement of the grounds, the item that stood out was the Amish themselves. Here was where I first saw the long beards and black hats on the men and the gingham dresses on the women. Strangely enough, I didn’t think the attire looked anachronistic. I suppose it’s the result of being inundated with the Amish’s popular image, but their appearance actually seemed somewhat comforting. It just felt right to find something which was a representation of such traditional values.

We drove into the small (but unfortunately named) town of Intercourse, which is considered the heart of the Dutch County. It didn’t take long to discover why it has that reputation. There were scores of covered wagons either moving up and down the town’s streets or parked next to cars and buses in the town’s various parking lots. There were plenty of tourists there to gawk at the Amish. They were also there to buy Amish goods, which could be purchased in the town’s many stores. These arrangements led me to wonder: were the tourists there to see the Amish and bask in the "superiority" of the modern lifestyle, or were the Amish there to take the tourists’ money as a means to maintain their simple lifestyle?

Certainly, capitalism is an essential part of the Amish experience. There are plenty of products on which people can spend their money. I ended up spending my money at the Old Country Store. Yes, I spent more than I should have. But, I was very happy with the quality and the selection of this store’s quilts. It’s definitely worth visiting.

Ultimately, I discovered that Amish style capitalism centers around that premise that you pay a lot, but you feel like you got your money’s worth. This feeling, which I first observed at the Old County Store, was reaffirmed at the Farmer’s Market in Bird-In-Hand (another unique town name). I had never seen so many home-canned goods, baked goods, sewn goods, meat goods, and decorative goods in my life. Because of travel considerations, I only bought one item (a shoofly pie). It was expensive, but it was also big and extremely tasty!

We only spent about four hours in the Dutch Country, but it was enough time for me to notice several points. First, it’s clear that the Amish are very sincere about maintaining their beliefs. It can be seen in their clothes, their transportation, and the incredible cleanliness of their farms and homes. Second, their presence adds a tremendous sense of culture to the area. You can’t look at the covered wagons and the antique farm implements and not feel a sense of community permeating through the area. Third, the crafts that the Amish create have a practicality and a beauty that is difficult to match. There is a good reason why their quilts are hung in museums. They are truly worthy of the term “art.” Fourth, while the Amish might try to lead simple lives, it’s clear that poverty is not a vow they take. There are plenty of opportunities to purchase one’s own Amish keepsake before leaving Dutch Country. While one never feels pressured to buy, one never feels discouraged either. This seems rather disconcerting, especially given Christianity’s espousal of poverty as a virtue. But, in many ways, the Amish are a microcosm of America: the reality isn’t quite what the myth would lead you to believe. Yet, discovering that truth isn’t upsetting. Instead, it leads to a rather amusing conclusion: the Amish are admired in America because they have the individualistic tendencies that Americans profess to admire, while also possessing the capitalist spirit that Americans truly admire.

With our Amish goods in hand, we set off for Lancaster.  But, it didn't take me long to realize I wouldn't want to stop in Lancaster.  The same urban blight that I saw in Reading was present in Lancaster.  So, we turned around and headed back to Reading.  Just before entering Reading, we found the Far East Restaurant.  Tom was in the mood for Asian food, so we stopped.  Like our other meals on this trip, it wasn't great.  But, it satisfied our hunger enough to get us back to our rooms and off to bed.
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