Story by Diana Ballon
Photos by Diana Ballon and Rick Eckley
On a hot July morning, my husband, two kids and I load up the car to make the seven-hour drive from Toronto to northeast Ohio, where we will be sharing the road with Amish on bicycles and in horse-drawn wagons. Here in Holmes County and the surrounding area, about 48,000 Amish live, the largest population of Amish in the world.
I have chosen to visit Amish country en route to visiting family in Columbus because I want to introduce our children to an alternative community where simplicity, closely-knit family values, community-mindedness and the church are privileged over what see as “modern advancements.” Although the Amish lifestyle can vary substantially depending on the order, among most Amish orders here, there is no electricity: no Blackberry, no home phone —much less a cell phone (though many do share use of a phone booth). Instead, the people live lives of austerity, hard work, simplicity and thriftiness.
What I am first struck by is the beauty of this countryside. We drive the rolling hills, past red barns and silos, diamond-shaped road signs indicating tractor crossing, alongside pastures of horses and patchwork fields with black and white cows. Simple
clapboard and vinyl-sided homes sit quietly on crooked side streets, interspersed with the occasional one-room school house. Occasionally, you can catch a glimpse of the women and girls dressed in bonnets with chin straps, what are referred to as “coverings,” and boys and long-bearded men in straw hats.
Over the next four days, we travel along back country roads, eating traditional Amish cooking at local restaurants, and visiting the many quilting, hardwood furniture, leather and cheese shops that reflect the produce and workmanship of the Amish and Mennonite who make up about 85 per cent of the population here.
Our first two nights we stay at the White Oak Inn, the main building originally a lovely arts and crafts style home, built from the white and red oaks that surround it. The inn is located eight miles outside the town of Danville, and just outside the hub of Amish community. What I love here is the stillness. You can hear it. We stay in a lovely guest house, formerly a chicken barn, which is adjacent to the main inn, and next two luxury log cabins. During the day, the kids feed crackers to Buster and Butterfly, the sheep in the barn, and at night, they catch fireflies in jars.
“The Amish exist because of a community mindset, and to express individual thought out of the expected norm is considered prideful and rebellious,”
Innkeepers Yvonne and Ian Martin, who moved here from demanding jobs in Ontario, are the perfect guides to all things Amish in the area. They provide lists of suggested tours of the area, and feed us massive country breakfasts in the mornings that keep us nourished much of the day.
Our first evening, we eat dinner at Spearman’s—an intimate old school diner only five minutes from the inn, which has been converted from an automotive service centre, and is now part of a Marathon gas station. Its classic home cooking include chicken and dumplings over mashed potatoes with gravy, and other comfort food with a choice of about 20 different pies for dessert. Servings are massive, and prices are bargain basement.
The next day, we follow our GPS around more back roads and up a steep hill to Holmes County Pottery, where artist Cary Hulin sells beautiful craft pottery—microwave-safe bowls, mugs, birdhouses, casserole dishes, beer steins and other wares that he crafts and finishes in a Korean-style kiln he built himself.