Rolling pastures dotted with grazing sheep and horses, modest white farmhouses with strung banners of clotheslines, buggies parked by the barn. These are the images that conjure up Amish country. Look once, and you’ll think you’re in Lancaster County, with its characteristic flat land and wide open skies. Look again, and you’ll realize you’re in another state entirely.
Buchanan County, Iowa, in fact. This area, stretching from Independence, Fairbank, Hazelton, Jesup, Oelwein, is made up of seven churches in an area of about seven square miles. It’s considered to be one of the most conservative Amish communities. They hold tight to traditions here; it’s the very reason the first settlers moved up here from Kalona in 1914–seeking to preserve more conservative church standards. They use very limited technology: no pneumatic tools, no tractors (permitted with steel wheels in Kalona), no chainsaws.
I sat and enjoyed a cup of coffee at the kitchen table of one family’s home. As I stood to leave, I took my coffee cup to the sink. Guess what? No sink! Just countertops. There is no running water in the homes. They use a hand pump to get water from a well and bring what’s needed into the house. No flush toilets, no bath tubs.
Bicycles weren’t permitted as in Ohio and Indiana, nor were there any unique Lancaster scooters. Even a woman’s prayer covering seemed more modest than most coverings–made of a thin organza, like the Lancaster Amish, but this covering went nearly to a woman’s hairline–two fingers distance, my friend said, and covered her ears.
I was intrigued by the public one-room schoolhouses that sat on the main road. They’re a compromise from the state of Iowa, if permitted by the town (Oelwein refused). The state runs and funds the private schoolhouses for the Amish, on the condition that a certified teacher was employed. I met some of the teachers, who loved, loved, loved their career as a teacher to the Amish (no discipline problems, they said! Not one). Many teachers apply for the job until they hear about the outhouse. With bitter Iowa winters in mind, they withdraw from the interview process.
Do you remember the famous 1960s photo of young Amish school boys, running into a cornfield to escape the truant officer? That took place in Buchanan County. These Amish Iowans found themselves on the forefront of education disputes that led all the way up to the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed Amish the right to educate their children up to grade eight, in their own parochial schools.
Here’s what I find endlessly fascinating about studying the Amish: Just when you think you understand them, they surprise you. One family I met with told me about their most recent trip. Now, most all Amish love to travel, and they love nature. So if they go to California, it’s to see Yosemite and the Giant Redwoods–not Disneyland or the Golden Gate Bridge. And yet this Amish couple–in their 70s, parents of ten, grandparents of umpteen children, who live in the most conservative Old Order Amish community, had just returned from . . . a Princess Cruise to Alaska