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Ohio's Plain People

August 09, 1987|BETTY HUGHES | Times Assistant Travel Editor

ILLERSBURG, Ohio — This state is almost never singled out as a vacation destination. Never have I met anyone who was saving up for a vacation to Toledo or Columbus or Cincinnati . . . or even such Buckeye towns as Knockemstiff, Snively or Snodes, although to send a post card from any of these would almost make a trip worthwhile.

Yet more than $1 billion is put into the state's coffers annually by armies of tourists who use Ohio as a go-through state, many of whom exclaim with pleased surprise somewhere en route through, "Hey, I didn't know this was here!"

"This" could be anything from the haunted Confederate cemetery on Johnson's Island to the first Mormon Temple built in America and one of the deepest salt mines in the nation--it stretches more than 2,000 feet deep under Lake Erie.

Despite the fame that the more publicized Pennsylvania Dutch Country gets (they're only No. 2), more Amish remain in Ohio than anywhere else in the world (Indiana is No. 3).

A little more than an hour's drive south from Cleveland via Interstate 77, in a tranquil pocket of the state, thousands of Amish still live contentedly and prosperously, following their Old World ways according to their Mennonite precepts. Minutes from the interstate, gentle, two-lane Ohio 39 (west) opens to a scene of rich, emerald green hills that undulate gently as far as the eye can see.

Adding to the timelessness of this pastoral scene, clip-clopping at a brisk pace ahead of us a neat black buggy was drawn by a high-stepping mare. With the car windows open we could hear the staccato sounds of the horse's hoofs on the shaded country road. Two young women, dressed almost identically in faded blue dresses and white aprons, wearing white sheer caps on their heads, chatted and laughed as we drove past.

They were our first sightings of the Amish who contributed so much to making this part of the state one of the nation's finest agricultural centers . . . and a growing tourist lure.

In Holmes and its adjoining counties hundreds of contented Amish families live without electricity or phones or automobiles, not even tractors or machinery to help run their big farms.

Growing Population

They haven't succumbed to the ways of the world in more than 500 years, and a local historian says that Ohio's Amish population is growing so fast that it doubles every 23 years.

And so we "English," which is what they call us if we're neither Amish nor Mennonite, come here to study a way of life we don't understand. We stare with curiosity at these plain people as they go about their daily chores, to see if maybe we can get a hint of why they're so adamant about adhering to their simple lives.

No TV, no appliances, no movies or dances, not even an occasional trashy novel--yet, look there in that yard where a bonneted woman is hanging her clothes on the line this Monday morning. There's not an outlet in her kitchen where she can plug in a toaster or mixer, yet she smiles happily as she bends to hug the two children in their old-fashioned clothes who cling to her skirts.

And still farther on, there in the field, see the older bearded man haying with a younger clean-shaven one. He stops the team of horses, takes a thirsty drink of water from a jug. He throws his head back, laughing hard at something the other has said and then, reaching his arm around the shoulders of his sturdy son, gives him an affectionate shake.

A Clue to Happiness

How can these people be so happy when they have so little? Or do they have so little?

So we drive past their farms, trying to see into their lives, and dally a while in the towns and villages where they shop and do business, hoping to get a clue.

First along Ohio 39 is the small town of Sugarcreek called "The Little Switzerland of Ohio." Settled by Swiss and Germans, later joined by Amish and Mennonites, it's startling to come upon. The one main street has been completely done in the theme of Swiss and Bavarian chalet-fronted stores. Swiss/Bavarian music is piped into the street by loudspeakers. More than 25 cheese factories are in and around town and almost all welcome visitors to tour the plants and curing cellars if they get there before 11 a.m.

We stopped for a coffee break at the Swiss Hat on Main Street. Two bearded, straw-hatted Amish men were talking in one of the booths. On the wall over their heads a prominent sign read, "Profanity Or Boisterous Talk Is Not Tolerated Here."

The coffee was strong and hot and the doughnuts were baked that morning, we were told, by the Amish cook who presides in the kitchen. The menu offered sandwiches and full dinners of roast beef ($4.15), meat loaf or ham steak ($3.50) or 12-ounce T-bone steak for $7.95.

October Festival

An annual Swiss Festival, Oct. 2 and 3 this year, draws thousands of visitors and features a parade, dancing, yodeling, Swiss foods and costumes and such sports as schwingfest (Swiss wrestling) and steintossen (hurling a 138-pound stone).

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