With a day off on an unusually warm Good Friday and nothing to do, I packed my camera bag and drove off to Etheridge, Tennessee, a large Amish settlement in the middle of absolutely nowhere. My intentions were somewhat sacrilegious, as I intended to get some great shots of Amish children at play and the grownups at leisure during their Holiday. What I found was completely opposite of what I had expected.
I drove for what seemed hours off a back road of the Interstate just outside of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. Surrounded by fields of yellow canola sprouts, the latest trend for agricultural Tennessee, I finally sited the familiar horse and buggy crossing sign to let me know that I was on the right track to locating the settlement. I turned off one country road only to go down another, winding through miles of fields dotted with random dilapidated red barns. The roads became tapered and less fitted for modern locomotives as I wound through the fields. After about an hour, I drove through mounds of horse patties and found myself in the middle of Amish country. A cow with a bell roped around his her neck stared me in the face from her stance in the middle of the road. Parking my car to not offend the livestock, I decided to walk and stretch my legs.
Along the street, I came across quiet clusters of Early American two-story style homes, with wide porches and stoops. Every house was painted white with silver tin roofs and unadorned windows. There was not a chair on any porch or a flower to be seen in the gardens. The only apparent decorations were clotheslines full of drying clothes across the porches. Rows of gourds were strung high from the rooftops to every barn, like strings of party lights, except the gourds were for the purpose of drying and re-selling. Each house had a well pump dug as close to the front door as possible. Random man powered farm equipment rested in the front yards, abandoned by the working hands for Holiday. But most important, not a person was seen anywhere. I had drove miles to come across an Amish ghost town!
Without the prospects of photographing people, I settled on the next best thing, the farms. To the left of the first cluster of houses, there was a large red barn in pristine condition, very unlike our "English" dilapidated barns commonly found in any part of Tennessee. Turning the corner to the entrance dirt road, I spotted my first opportunity. A new colt with his stout mother, apparently a well fed work horse, which was spending her happy day in the sun licking her new colt. The colt was so new it wobbled on unsure legs that seemed much too long to support his trunk. What was even better; at the end of the road, a closed sign was hung over the hand drawn horse and tack shop sign, directly in line with the shot I planned to take. Unusual signs such as this one add great character to photographs.
The first rounds of shooting was interrupted with an abrupt "Hey you!" coming from someplace near the barn. I looked around for the caller but no avail. Next I heard "No pictures, please!" from the barn. Like a surrendered soldier, I laid out my camera on the ground before me and held up my hands to indicate that I was unarmed. What would happen next is probably beyond the Amish code of conduct.
An elder Amish man, whose name not mentioned for protected privacy, with an unkempt beard, dark slacks with matching suspenders, and a plain light blue colored shirt appeared from behind the barn door like ghost of the past. He quickly informed me of my choice of actions in a thick accent. Referring to me as an "English," he told me either I can take up my camera and be escorted from the grounds or put it away and be shown around. I immediately agreed on the latter and was told I'd be picked up 'round my car. While a horse was being tied to a black buggy, I put my camera bag away and climbed into the cramped buggy moments later.
The first thing to notice while in this buggy was the hard seat. Next is the horse smell that one could only imagine how much worse it could get on a hundred degree day. Especially while wearing such hot and heavy clothing. But listening to the clopity-clop of the horses trot along the dirt roads at ten miles an hour down an absolutely picturesque valley, without an electric pole in sight, one could also imagine the tranquil lure of this lifestyle. I was out to understand it. About halfway down the road, opposite of where I had started, a car slowly drove past. The horse that led our buggy spooked and bucked against the reins, and for one second I began to think that maybe this was not such a great idea. The Amish man seemed to have things under control and talked the horse back into calm.
On the way down the road, he explained to me that the settlement came from Ohio in the early nineteen-forties, and was Swartzentruber Amish, and older sect of Amish that perhaps held on to traditions more tightly than others. It was started out of just four families and now the community held two hundred adults. Without the help of an outside court council or police force, the Amish man explained to me that there were six different deacons over so many families within the community, or church, in which the people went to with any sort of problem or dispute. The deacon, from what I came to understand, kept the people of the community in order, from the kinds of hats worn to the color of dresses made. How can you tell a deacon who was over the community? The brim of his straw hat is slightly larger than the standard worn by all male members of the community.
Along the way, a small bare foot girl of about six years old walked into the street from one of the bare white houses. Eyeing me suspiciously from beneath her bonnet, I asked about the children. There were a total of six school houses, narrow buildings with four windows on the sides and one square door in the front over a three step stoop. Kids went to school just several months out of the year, and only completed eight grades. Teachers were appointed from within the community to teach the basics of reading, mathematics, and writing. After the eighth grade, the children went to work on the farms. There was no reading of novels, no philosophy, no arts, and no playing with plastic toys. If a child was lucky, they had a faceless doll made from rags. All kids walked to school when it was in session.
The Amish man told me his two boys; one eight and the other ten ran the family's saw mill. Young boys worked for neighboring English farms or doing roof work and carpentry. They kept a whopping twenty-five percent of what they brought home while the rest went to the family. I wondered if this was the same as child exploiting, but did not find it appropriate to ask. Oh, and that coming of age tradition of Rumspringa that we so often hear about, is not practiced by older sects of the Amish such as this community.
Kids are kept close to home. So close, that even after marriage, it is normal for the daughters family to build an adjoining house to her father's house to help get the new family started and vice versa. New son in- laws are often new workers of her family's farm. And adjoining means just that, a large two story white country house connected directly to the parent's house by a covered wooden porch.
All of the house structures look exactly the same, white, two-story, one water pump beside the porch, no curtains, and a tin roof. Only the narrow covered porch connecting another house indicated that the particular family inside had an older daughter that married. Some of the houses had a bell that would be rung every afternoon for dinner. Anything that promoted leisure seemed to be left out and forgotten about. However, when asked, the Amish man told me it is common for them to shop at Wal-Mart for bed mattresses, tie them to the roofs of their buggies, and cart them home. Wal-Mart had a trough to accommodate Amish horses. I wondered why the Amish would not be allowed modern technology, yet Wal-Mart was ok? It seemed a grave contradictory.
Somewhere, a bell rang across the fields. This was the hour of visitation, the Amish man explained to me. Church was held at a relative's house that evening and the young people were able to make visitations. Each Sunday, church services were hosted at a different house. But church would be held that evening for Good Friday. It was easy to tell which house church would be at, wooden planks would be stacked high on the porch for people to sit on. All at once, young men in small two wheeled black buggies led by the best looking bred horses that I ever saw raced down the streets as fast as they could go, eager to get were they were headed to. Some had young women passengers, presumably wives or sisters, wearing round sixties sunglasses, a hint of the modern world we occupied. The Amish appeared very into family life and community, but only if you were Amish. None of them acknowledged my presence. Just as fast as they came around, the community turned into the previous ghost town I drove into as the dust kicked up from road settled.
We rounded a bend that took me back to my car, indicating that the Amish man had enough of my touring his life. I wanted to know one more thing before I would exit his buggy and enter back into the twentieth century, why did they decide to wear their hair, and beards, and hats and dresses in such a manner? The answer I got, it was what their father's have done before them. No one really knew how such a tradition was set previously. Or maybe, the community has been taught to never question things.
It was a good trip into the past, but I was glad to rejoin the twentieth century of cars, good books, and times of leisure to enjoy them.