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For Amish, it's all about simple living

An Amish man and woman mow a field east of Frazee earlier this summer. (Photo by Brian Basham)

Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on the Amish of Becker County.

Looking at the everyday life of the Amish in Becker County through a modern person's eyes, it may look very primitive and hard. But to the Amish, their lifestyle is exactly the opposite.

"Our lives are pretty modern in many ways," an elder of the Amish community said.

Everything the Amish do now, our ancestors did not long ago.

Some of the older people around here might remember when they had to carry water out of the creek, using candles or kerosene lights. For an Amish couple sitting down in their house at night, a kerosene lamp works just fine for doing most things.

A big family or a gathering of people may require more light. For that, the Amish may use a Coleman-like house lamp, which puts out more light that a light bulb can. One might think to find such an item might be a problem. Not so in the Amish community. The Amish can find useful, everyday things at a flea market or just buy it new.

"Almost everything we need is now made by the Amish," said the elder. "As things became hard to find, we just started making them."

The wood-burning stove in the elder's kitchen is a good example.

"There's at least three or four companies making stoves like that," said the elder.

The stove is airtight with a 25-gallon water reservoir, and heats the entire house.

"As long as the stove is going, we always have hot water," said the elder's wife.

In the winter, their small house isn't cold. In fact, they have the opposite problem -- it gets too hot in the two-room house with the stove going.

"We can hardly run the stove at night in the winter. It's just too hot in here," the elder said.

A lot of things around the Amish household and land are run on gas engines -- larger things with diesel. The water pump runs on a gas engine, and when they cut wood, their buzz saws run on gas engines. They don't, however, use chain saws.

"We saw the trees down by hand and cut them up on a buzz saw," the elder said.

A chainsaw is an item the Amish in Becker County haven't adopted to use, while many other communities have. While the engine runs on gas and could be the same engine as their water pump, you won't see the Becker County Amish using a chainsaw.

The same is true of gas engines in the field. Engines are used on a baler, silo filler and feed grinder but they are stationary and not brought into the field.

"I guess that's more or less the line right there, is we use things stationary," he said. "I don't think that's really chiseled in stone, but that tends to be where we draw our line."

The elder said a man once asked him what they do without electricity. It's not that the Amish in Becker County can't have electricity, they just haven't adopted it yet. Some communities have very simple electricity for their bulk milk tanks, for example.

"We tend to avoid things that are going to entangle us in other things," the elder said.

Winter dress

Wintertime in the buggy can get cold, but the trick to keeping warm is simply to wear more. Long underwear, multiple layers, several vests, a coat, and a wool overcoat are worn on cold days when riding in a buggy.

"(The overcoats) are made out of wool, they're totally impervious to weather. You can't blow enough to blow air through these things," the elder said.

Rubber boots are worn over the shoes and if it gets really cold, there are earmuffs, mittens or gloves.

The elder said that modern people sometimes aren't the most sensible dressers in the winter. When someone can turn on their car from the kitchen and wait until it warms up, then dash to the warm car, drive to work and dash from the car to the office where it's warm there's not a need for a lot of clothing to stay warm.

"You'll notice that all the old-timers around here do," said the elder. "They wear wool hats, boots. The old-time natives around here tend to dress sensible because they remember when it was cold."

A modern material like Thinsulate is acceptable to use for much of their winter clothing. The outer cloth of the Amish clothes is usually denim or a plain material, but the inside can be a number of materials, the elder said.

"Occasionally, we use quilted lining," he said. "We have all kind of tricks like that to keep warm."

Amish houses

Although it's not considered ideal, Amish people oftentimes purchase a modern house along with the land, and have to make some major changes and renovations to de-modernize it. A modern split-level house will have three different levels with three rooms in each level.

"That makes it difficult for us to have church in. We have church in our homes. There's no place to spread out 200 people," the elder said.

An Amish-built house will have a centrally located heating system with one or two large rooms. Fresh air circulation is also a consideration.

"Our new house will have lots of windows," the elder said. "We open the windows and let the breeze blow through."

According to the elder's wife, the Amish are allowed a certain amount of time to use the house's modern appliances.

The Amish will take out the carpet and put in a wood stove, which may come later because a chimney may have to be built.

"You have to change the pump to our system, which all takes time and money," she said. "And you're allowed time to do that."

Electrical and plumbing in the walls are usually left there, but wall outlets are covered over with a plain outlet plate. Light fixtures are sometimes never taken out and become more decorations than practical lights.

A lot of people will take out walls to make several rooms into a larger area.

"If you live in the house long enough, and you remodel, eventually you'd just push that (wiring) up in (the wall) and drywall over it," the elder said.

That attitude towards electric can sometimes come back to bite the Amish when it's time to sell a house.

"Because there's no electricity in the house, and we tear out a wall, we don't get a qualified electrician in to seal off the wires. We just coil them up and stick them in the wall," the elder said. "People usually don't mess with electricity until they've been there a while and are planning to stay for a while."

The elder built his former house in Michigan, and it represented a fully-developed Amish house and property -- a large house, big barn, fruit trees, silo, vegetable gardens.

The problem came when trying to sell there was no electricity or indoor plumbing.

"It was a very large house and sold for a lot, but we had a hard time selling because there was no electricity in the house," the elder's wife said.

It's typical for a young couple that just moved here to build living quarters in a shop or garage to live while they get themselves established and build a larger house that will conform to Amish use. The elder's son-in-law and daughter lived in a garage for several months while building temporary living quarters. Eventually, they will build a larger house of their own, and the temporary house will become a shop.

"Basically, you put up something for the time being until you can afford to put up something better," the elder said.

Amish jobs

Most of the Amish community in Becker County are or will be dairy farmers. They might not all be right now because they have just moved and are just starting to set up their operation.

"The young families here aren't starting milking right now because they're too poor and they can't pay for it out of their pocket or out of their receipts, so they're not starting milking," the elder said. "But everyone will probably milk cows, eventually."

The current milk market isn't exactly promising, either.

In the winter -- when they can't farm or if they don't have cattle -- the Amish keep busy doing chores, making firewood.

"Basically, that's what you do all winter. Haul manure, feed the cattle, fix the pump, cut up firewood, haul out the ashes," the elder said.

They may attend farm meetings or just relax.

"It gets dark at 4:30 so you just spend longer evenings. Winter's definitely more relaxed, but we're never lacking for work even in the winter," he said.

Many Amish have shops and do a wide variety of things there in the winter. The Becker County Amish have such services as mounting deer antlers, fixing clocks, fixing water pumps, building furniture, furniture refinishing and quilting.

"Almost every family has something they do on the side," the elder said. "It keeps us busy and brings in a little more income than farming does right now."

There's a guy who does horseshoeing, but he's not what you'd call a blacksmith. The Amish tend to do their own veterinary work.

"We have people amongst us that are better at that than others. They tend to go around and help the neighbors, but not for pay," the elder said.

Sawmilling is a big occupation among the Amish, especially in communities where the people can't afford farms, according to the elder.

"There's no one here doing woodworking or cabinet making, but there will be," he said.

Other occupations include produce growers, greenhouses, a bulk food store, a material store, bakeries, mechanics shops and blacksmith.

There may eventually be a buggy-maker, but that is something that isn't immediately needed, according to the elder.

"Most of us are still struggling to get established," he said.

Many of the community members are focusing on building barns and larger houses.

The fact is, that many in the community are highly in debt trying to get established, the elder said. The people who make a move like the Frazee community made tend to be younger, and they don't have much to begin with.

"But once we get on our feet, once you get your buildings built, your costs go down. Then you start to have more time and you can put in a shop and work in the winter. That's when the buggy shops will come in," he said.

Somebody will establish a buggy shop to build and repair the Amish transportation, stock parts and fix wheels.

"The wheels need repair pretty regularly," he said.

When a man's sons start to get a little older and can take on the responsibility of chores, he has more free time.

"That's usually when dad puts in a shop," the elder said.

"Something to just keep busy, really, so everybody has something to do. And there's not that many people in that category here yet."

Plain clothes

The plain clothing with no bright colors that the Amish wear is nearly identical to what our grandfathers and great-grandfathers would have worn a century ago.

"I've got pictures of men thrashing wheat a century ago that we're just sure that's an Amish guy," he said laughing.

"We don't try to be different from the world. They've changed, and we haven't."