Today starts the Escapees "Escapade" or Fall Conference. For the last two days I have been at a pre-conference "HOP" -- or Head Out Program. These are special event or themed excursions, and this particular one was a bus tour of the area surrounding Goshen. Friday's agenda was a guided walking tour of Notre Dame, a tour of an RV plant, and a visit to the RV/MH Hall of Fame. The what, you say? the Recreational Vehicle/Motor Home Hall of Fame -- the Elkhart area is the heart and soul of the RV industry, so it was a natural place for the Hall of Fame. The best part of the Hall of Fame was the museum displaying vintage RVs -- ones pulled with Model Ts, for example, or having a wood burning stove.
Saturday was Amish day -- a visit to the Amish-Mennonite Visitor's Center, a quilt shop, a buggy shop, a farmer's market, a drive through Shipshewana, and a woodcraft shop where we got to build our own birdhouse. Then the best -- dinner at an Amish house. You do not eat in the family's actual living quarters. Instead, they have constructed a dining hall, and that was where we had a marvelous dinner of ham, chicken, salad, potatoes, noodles, vegetables, and (of course) pie. If you ever eaten Amish food, you have an idea how good this was!
On both days, we had a local guide on our bus who would talk about the area as we travelled. Friday, our guide was a Mennonite man named Bill, who has strong family connections to the Amish, and Saturday we had a very personable, friendly, and funny Amishman named Orley. They were both very knowledgeable, and extremely willing to answer any questions we had -- and we had a lot!
- The Amish have little white phone booths in the fields that are used by several families when they need to make a call. These are not pay phones, but regular land lines that one homeowner has put in his name. When one of the neighbors makes a call, they are responsible for entering the information into a log so the phone's owner can collect the charge each month when the bill comes. One sadder-but-wiser Amishman learned to block "1-900" numbers when he put in a new line and the local kids discovered they could call these numbers for free!
- Each district (approximately 40 households) has a Bishop, who makes all the rules for the district, a Deacon, who conducts marriage ceremonies and funerals, and two Preachers (all are male). This is why the rules can vary even within a community -- each Bishop is free to make regulations for his district as he sees fit.
When there is a vacancy for a Preacher, each adult (women are included here) in the district can submit a name of a man in that district who they feel would be a good Preacher. Any man who receives two or more votes is automatically in the running. Song books, one for each candidate, are placed on a table and one of the books has been previously marked by inserting a slip of paper invisibly in the pages. Each candidate then picks up whichever book "calls" to him, and whoever has the marked book is the new Preacher. Refusal is not an option, and the job is for life. A similar process selects the Deacons and Bishops from the existing Preachers. The Amish believe that a divine hand guides the selection of these leaders.
- Some retired Amish snowbird to Florida for the winter. In the early fall, at least 6 bus companies run special buses to Florida, some scheduling three buses a day. These buses pick up throughout the Goshen/Shipshewana area, and then go straight to the Amish community in the Sarasota area with no additional stops. Many "English" (anyone who is not Amish) also use these buses.
- There is a thriving business of shuttle vans that will take the Amish wherever they want to go. This provides transportation for doctor visits, shopping, and surprisingly for vacations. Two or three couples may decide they would like to go, for example, to Niagara Falls, so they hire a van to take them there and split the cost (and the van driver and his wife get a free vacation, too). The charge for the van is about $1 per mile.
- Less than 10% of the Amish here live on a farm. Most of them work in the RV industry.
- New buggies use LED lights that run from batteries. Many buggies have solar panels to recharge the battery.
- Using a sleigh in the winter is problematic. They roads get salted and cleared so quickly that a trip into town for coffee could begin with a Dickensonian sleighride through the snow and end with a cleared road that is impassable for the sleigh. To solve this problem, some sleighs have wheels that can be dropped down to transform them into a carriage.
- The Amish can buy "Amish Medical Insurance." It is expensive from their point of view -- for a family of seven children, a husband and a wife, a year's premium will be around $500. The Amish believe in paying for what they can, and there are no malpractice lawsuits.
- When there is no logical explanation for an Amish practice or rule, the response to "Why?" is simply, "because that's the way it is."