An Amish Journey

By Clay Riness  

The Cashton area is Wisconsin’s largest Old Order Amish community with about 300 families. The Amish are divided into districts, each of which will have 25 to 35 families. Each district has a bishop, two ministers and a deacon. The Cashton settlement, says Kathy Kuderer, probably contains 14 church districts and 24 schools. Further, the Amish are one of the fastest-growing populations in North America.

I first met Kathy a few years back when I was assigned a short story on her business, Down a Country Road, a self-made village of gift shops located on her farm a few miles east of Cashton. We became fast friends, and I soon learned that she had a particularly close and longtime relationship with the Amish community. It seemed time to reconnect with her to get an expanded backstory of her life and business, and maybe get an idea of what a day in the life of an Amish family might entail. 

“I grew up in the Cashton area,” she says. “I’m the second oldest of 11 children, and we lived on a dairy farm. We probably lived a lot like the Amish—barefoot all summer, handmade clothes, country school … the whole 9 yards. I was about 6 years old when the first Amish started moving not too far down the lane. That was in 1966. As I grew a little older I became fascinated with them.”

In 1978, she married her husband, Chuck, and the two settled in the valley where Down a Country Road is now located. The Amish were neighbors. She began getting to know many of those neighbors and forging friendships. However, in 1983, when she was in the hospital after the birth of her second child, she shared a room with a neighbor Amish woman whose baby was stillborn. Through that sobering experience, she says, she became very close with several Amish families and eventually an elderly couple who became like grandparents to them. “We got to know them, and then their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. You know, you get to know one or two and pretty soon it’s hundreds,” she adds.

A decade later, Kathy was trying to figure out her life. She’d been selling home interiors and gifts though a “home party plan” that took her away from home several evenings a week. By the early 90s, with her children in school, she realized she needed to be home more. She struggled with the prospect of getting a day job that would require some form of commute and arrangements for the kids. She always imagined opening a store, but that would likely be an in-town scenario. However, with the encouragement of her Amish neighbors and friends, she embraced the idea of opening a gift shop at home on the farm, which would solve the problem.

Down a Country Road

“The Amish put a very, very strong value on family life, and so that was my encouragement,” she admits.

“In the spring of 1994, we hired an Amish crew to come to the farm and build the first gift shop. In the meantime, I was out and about visiting with Amish families, gathering up merchandise, seeking families that might work with me on consignment. Families started bringing their things to sell. I began marketing the business any way I could, and Down a Country Road was born. To finance the business, we actually sold our cows.”

It was also about that time that she began thinking of offering private tours of the Amish community. She reached out to some of the bishops and other Amish about the idea, to see what they thought. Some, she says, were totally open to it, others a bit leery. In the end, it worked. She would travel discreetly through Amish country as a passenger in the vehicle of the tourists, visiting the shops of numerous Amish craftspeople while explaining the Amish way of life and its history. As it turned out, it was good for the Amish shops. “I was very careful to make sure I didn’t do anything that would be amiss with their cultural beliefs,” she confesses.

About a year and a half into the business, a second shop was opened to sell non-Amish products, the result of other local artisans and craftspeople seeking to sell their wares. Then, a third shop, which is now the ice cream shop, was added. Then came a fourth shop, Emma’s Kitchen, to house all the food products in one location. Their son, home one summer from traveling with Disney on Ice, built a fifth shop, which is now Kinner Korner Children’s Shop. Finally, in 2011 a sixth shop was added called Not So Plain & Simple, featuring women’s accessories, lotions, potions, scarves, jewelry and the like. The little village is beautifully landscaped and cared for thanks to long hours of hard work by Chuck, who can also be found behind the counter on a regular basis. 

In 2014, the couple got a scare when they found out Highway 33 was to be closed for repair and resurfacing for the summer. After the panic subsided, a decision was made to purchase the Olde Newry Store on Highway 27 and convert it to a gift shop. The move helped them make it through the lean months. 

This spring, Down a Country Road added “Papa’s Farm” to its upper farmyard, which features a sandbox, outdoor children’s activities and a few farm animals.

A Day in the Life

One of the things we all seem to wonder, since the Amish seem quite private in general, is what a day in their life is like. That’s a complicated topic, but surprisingly simple in the end … you’ll see. We, the English (a moniker the Amish use for all non-Amish people), find the Amish enigmatic, if not quaint. We wonder how anyone can live without electric appliances, indoor toilets, hot running water, computers, television, radio, iPads and smartphones. We are curious about the irony of not being allowed to own a car or phone, but being allowed to ride in or make use of one. We marvel that field work is still done with the Old World technology of horse and plow in an age of hydrostatic drive. We think our lives are simpler, thanks to all the conveniences we have at our fingertips, and that our lives are enriched, even as entire families sit sedentary within the same house, each member staring at a different screen, sometimes even at dinner.

While Kathy and I talked at length on the subject, she suggested we take a little spin around Amish country so she could introduce me to a few of her closest Amish friends, maybe gain some insight straight from the source. 

Homestead Products

The first folks I had the pleasure of meeting were Homestead Products owner Paul Shrock and his nephew, who make some of the most beautiful grandfather clocks and bedroom sets I’ve ever seen … simply stunning. Paul is responsible for most of the designs. 

All the machinery in the shop is driven by a diesel-powered engine and a belt and line shaft system. Each piece has a clutch to engage it to the system. Any machine can run individually or all can be run at the same time. Ingenious. 

I asked Paul’s nephew what a day in the life is like. “Well, a lot of them milk cows, so it’s get up around 5 and do chores,” he says. “Then it’s breakfast, and then you go out and do your work. For me that would be coming here. I had a good teacher; my uncle has quite a bit of experience.”

After that, he says, he goes home, has supper and gets some time with his children. Sometimes he needs to mow the lawn or do chores around the house. Sometimes he likes to go fishing or bowhunting for deer.

So, how is that different from the rest of us? When I asked him what he thought makes Amish life unique, he shot me a calm smile and said, “Simplicity.” 

With humility, he also expressed his appreciation for community support. “We couldn’t do without the English people. They’re good to us. We’re very fortunate for the support we have,” he adds.

H&L Rustic Reclaim

Our next stop delivered us to H&L Rustic Reclaim and owner Henry Miller, whose wry wit and business savvy were clear from the beginning. A tall, 30-something, gregarious man, Henry gave us a tour of his shop, display room and office where we sat down for a visit.

In addition to his own location, his products, including kitchen cabinets, center islands, bedroom sets and sliding doors, are on display and for sale at The Barnwood Company in Galesville. Much of what Henry and his crew turn out is reclaimed barn wood furniture made from 75- to 150-year-old wood. It’s pastoral and beautiful. However, he also manufactures book boxes for www.littlefreelibrary.org. These are made of plywood and pine.

“When I got married 10 years ago, I needed something that would make me a little more money,” he says. “I liked rustic stuff and antiques, and that was the trend I was seeing in the high-end stuff that was coming. I had an idea to build this stuff, and we tore down a few old barns and pretty much had the barn wood for nothing. I was renting a little shop and had it set up to build. I was not taught how to build furniture. I was raised on a farm. So, it was really tough to build that first dresser. If it wasn’t for my wife, I probably would have given up a few times, but she kept saying ‘hang in there.’”

Now, he says, the business has turned around completely. In 2009, the co-founder of the Little Free Library concept found him and was interested in reclaimed barn wood book boxes. Henry’s been making boxes ever since, even though the materials have changed.

What about a day in Henry’s life? He doesn’t farm, although they make a little hay for the horses, he says. He’s up early morning, has a shave, chores, out to the shop, sweep up and get ready for his employees before they arrive, back home for breakfast, work a long day with an hour lunch break, home for supper, yardwork and other chores, time with family, then bedtime. He emphasizes that a day in his wife’s life involves cleaning, baking, cooking and other simple, everyday things. In other words, as we English say, rinse and repeat.

“Then what sets Amish life apart, Henry?” I ask.

“No cars, no phones, no TVs, different clothes. We have different clothes,” he answers.

“You do? I never noticed,” I reply, smiling.

“What?” he blurts. Then he understands I was joking and says, “And we have beards, but we don’t have ponytails.” I deserved that for my mischief. 

There you have it … normalcy by every count. Hard work, love of family, faith in God, and a sense of humor. Simplicity … albeit without the tech.

THE AMISH CHURCH

The history of the Amish church began with a schism in Switzerland within a group of Swiss and Alsatian Anabaptists in 1693 led by Jakob Ammann. Those who followed Ammann became known as Amish. The Amish largely share a German or Swiss-German ancestry. 

Amish church membership begins with baptism, usually between the ages of 16 and 25. It is a requirement for marriage within the Amish church. Once a person is baptized into the church, he or she may marry only within the faith. Church districts average between 20 and 40 families, and worship services are held every other Sunday in a member’s home. Each district is led by a bishop and several ministers and deacons. The rules of the church, the Ordnung, must be observed by every member and cover most aspects of day-to-day living, including prohibitions or limitations on the use of power-line electricity, telephones and automobiles, as well as regulations on clothing. As present-day Anabaptists, Amish church members practice nonresistance and will not perform any type of military service. The Amish value rural life, manual labor and humility, all under the auspices of living what they interpret to be God’s word.

Today there are more than 308,000 Old Order Amish in America.

Source: Wikipedia

Wisconsin v. Yoder

Wisconsin is of particular significance in the matter of Amish education. On May 15, 1972, a final verdict was delivered in Wisconsin v. Yoder. By a vote of 7 to 0, the Supreme Court justices granted that both the First and 14th amendments supported the Amish practice of removing students from school before age 16. 

Source: Erik Wesner/www.amishamerica.com

SHUTTLING THE AMISH

Seventeen years ago, Tom and Chris Johnson, both retired teachers from Lake Geneva, moved to the Brush Creek Valley east of Cashton. Not long after, Tom began driving his Amish neighbors around. “I tell people I drive Amish for drug money,” he jokes. “I take two prescription drugs, so I can say that. It helps pay for them. I had no intention of driving Amish; it just started with a neighbor here and there.”

Over the years, he says, there have been some interesting experiences. He recounts one of the most memorable: “My friend Meno drops by one day and asks if I can drive him and his wife to Viroqua. I say, ‘Sure.’ He tells me he needs about a half an hour. When I get there, he comes out with his wife and he’s kind of half carrying her. I can see she is quite pregnant. They’re going to Viroqua to have the baby … but they have two other children that they have to drop off at somebody’s house. We go to her sister’s house and nobody’s home. We go to somebody else’s house and nobody’s home. Eventually, we find some neighbors to take them.

“I get into Westby and by now he’s crawled into the back seat with her and says ‘Tom, I think you’d better step on it.’ Now, I’m starting to push the panic button. I have a little TracFone, and I call 911 and tell them I have an Amish woman in my back seat that’s having a baby and I’m not slowing down. They tell me to be careful and that they’ll see that the hospital is ready for us. When we rolled in they had a gurney and five strappin’ guys there waiting, and they had that gal out of my car and gone in 10 seconds. “On the way back, I’m like, whew, I’m a biology teacher but I don’t want to deliver any babies!”

Kathy Kuderer is the author of two books: “Down a Country Road with the Amish,” and “Walking Away—From Amish to English.” She also has a cookbook titled “Recipes from Down a Country Road with the Amish.” Books are available for purchase at her Down a Country Road shop and also online.