Getting To Know The Amish

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Horse and buggy is the chosen mode of transportation for the Amish.

Many years ago when I was a young television director working my way up the ladder to the big time and living in Indiana, it was suggested by the TV station’s program director that I do a documentary about the Amish. There are counties in Indiana that are heavily populated by the religious group, and little was known about them since they lived their lives primarily with their own population. They were successful farmers mostly, and their lives revolved around that business. I thought this would make a good documentary so agreed to do it.

One of the first things I did was to drive to Amish Country and investigate the possibilities of successfully putting together a TV show. Upon arrival in the small town, which was surrounded by Amish farms, I began asking questions regarding whom I might contact in order to obtain permission to do the show. I was given a leader’s name and address and immediately drove to his farm. You should know that the Amish do not, for religious reasons, believe in living a so-called modern life. They do not drive cars, trucks, tractors, etc., and they do not have modern plumbing in their homes. It’s as though modern advancement stopped for them 150 years ago. They have no electricity, therefore they use oil lamps for lighting, use hand-cranked well water pumps in the kitchen as well as firewood to fuel their ovens. No bathrooms, simply the “outhouse” in back of the home. Their transport is the horse and buggy. In fact, when I was driving into the town for the first time, I spotted a large sign that read “Jake, used buggy dealer.”

Upon arrival at the local Amish leader’s farm home and as soon as I applied the brakes on my car, many children ran out to inspect the “modern conveyance.” The Amish love to ride in the car, but will not own one. I walked up on the porch, knocked on the front door and soon the Mrs. of the house answered and asked what my business was. I briefly explained my mission and she told me that her husband was in the field, but invited me in for a piece of peach pie. I accepted and was escorted to the kitchen, sat down at the large table and began eating one of the best pieces of pie since my grandmother had last served some to me when I was a kid.

She explained that her husband would return from the fields at 4:30 that afternoon. The lady showed me around the house and was very proud to do so. Their two sons, their sons’ wives and their grandchildren all lived under one roof. The family came together for meals. The ladies did the cooking, washing, cleaning, child rearing and some early morning chores. The men did the farming, plowing, tending the cattle and many other duties. When construction is required at their farms or when someone’s home or barn burns down, the Amish community comes together to re-construct the buildings. They look after one another as though they were an extended family. I guess many are.

When “father” came in from the field this day, we introduced ourselves in the parlor, sat down and, over a fresh glass of milk, discussed why I was there. He explained that their religion did not permit them being photographed. After more conversation, I told him that I felt their group should cooperate with me to make this documentary because the general public did not understand their religious practice. He listened and finally said that he would talk with his “council” and would get back to me soon. They don’t have telephones either, so he said he would contact the local general store manger in town and have him call me with an answer.

I waited at least a week and really didn’t expect a positive answer. One afternoon at the TV station, I received a telephone call from the general store manager, who reported that the “council” had given permission for me to do the documentary with provisos. I nearly fell off my chair! He said that I was to return to the town the next Saturday afternoon to discuss details and with the “council.”

I returned as requested to meet with the group to explain that I was thrilled that they were perhaps in favor of the TV exposure and that the documentary would not only be shown in Indianapolis, but also on our sister stations in Fort Wayne, Tulsa, Houston and Sacramento. Their eyes grew wide when they thought of being seen in other areas of the country. Smiles came to their bearded faces. At the end of this meeting, the leader farmer said they would have another “council” meeting and, as before, they would let me know through the town’s general store manager.

Three weeks passed and I was beginning to think there would no be documentary. However, soon the Amish town’s general store manager phoned to say I could meet with them again the next Saturday afternoon.

So it was off to the rural area again, accompanied by my production manager on the “shoot” to answer more of their questions and probably get a final answer. We sat down at the farmer’s large kitchen table and, as before, had a large glass of fresh milk. Everyone attending had a glass of milk with some cookies placed at the center of the table. More questions were posed — such as how we would photograph the women, what would we show, etc. The afternoon meeting proceeded in a friendly manner and we told them we would like to film perhaps a wedding, one of their parties or get-togethers, and show how they live in general and how they farm their fields not using modern implements or machinery. After some consideration, they agreed to the project. I almost couldn’t believe we had reached an agreement. We drove back to Indianapolis and the following Monday morning began to write the show and plan our scenes. We knew we had to be very careful not to offend these nice people and to not, in any way, embarrass them or ourselves. We had to walk a tight rope.

Some two weeks later I, with my film and sound crew, arrived at the small town and began photographing the local people coming and going, showing plenty of horses and buggies passing by on the roads and talking with the non-Amish folks about living with the Amish. We even interviewed Jake, the used buggy dealer. Then, went on to the leader’s farm and followed the men, women and children around for two days while documenting on film their duties, actions and home lives. My only objection was having to use the outhouse. Not nice! One day, the crew and I were invited to have lunch with the family. It was fantastic food using recipes of the past.

They invited their community for a party get-together, which we filmed, and also later shot an Amish wedding. We showed how the women hand-make the families’ clothing and the materials used. Their attire is basic, with little variance in color. The women wear bonnets. Remember, no sewing machines allowed. They heat the water for bathing on the wood stove and use a metal tub in the kitchen. Their bathing pecking order is: men first, then the women, followed by the children. Got to be clean for church on Sunday. We also filmed one of their crews building a home that had burned.

In all, it was a grand experience for them and us. We were able to get to know some of them fairly well, and I can remember how nice and friendly they all were.

The TV documentary won an award and I was proud that I had taken the time to direct the piece. When did this happen? Sometime around the late 1950s. My, how time flies when you’re having fun!

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