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Touring the Amish Backcountry, by Tad Clark


Ever wonder what it was like to live in a rural setting at the turn of the 20th century?

A tour through the interior farmlands of Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties provides a pleasant change of pace for both parents and kids alike.

Whereas Upper Canada Village gives a visitor a sample of frontier living in a theme park setting, the pockets of Amish in upstate New York offers a real life demonstration of the travails encountered before the advent of modern conveniences. Tractors and cars have no place in the daily lives of these Christian traditionalists. Telephones, computers, televisions are a mystery to most of these folks. Kerosene substitutes for electricity when it comes to lights and cooking.

For those who cherish the memory of products crafted by hand, the Amish continue to create high quality goods at bargain-basement prices. In the days when I taught tennis for long hours each day, I sought the protection of a straw hat to shield my face and neck from the sun’s harmful rays.

In the mid-1980s on a tour of the Heuvelton area, I stopped to ask an Amish man if it was possible to buy a hat like his. It was a Sunday and he advised me it is a day for rest and religious observance, but from Monday through Saturday I could visit his home for directions to the hat maker.

We purchased a quilt, fresh eggs, jams, a raspberry pie, and a sturdy straw hat that survived wind, rain, and rough treatment for ten years before I returned to the big farmhouse at the end of a dirt road seeking a replacement model. A lady came to the porch to see who was calling. I held up my tattered hat and said, “I think I need a new one of these.”

The elder woman said, “Come ahead,” and she inspected the crumbling remains. “I don’t think we can fix this one,” she said stating the obvious while inviting me to enter the dwelling. Inside was a large room with a wood stove in the middle of the space. Two younger women were making straw hats with foot-driven sewing machines tucked up against windows for there was no other light.

The lady who greeted me found me a new hat of the proper size while I watched one of the hat makers stitching the brim of the hat she was working on. It was nearing noon, and I asked the lady, “How many hats have you done so far today?”

She replied, “This will be my second.”

I figured she’d produce three and maybe four hats a day. I’d paid $8 for the hat I bought ten years earlier, and I had no complaints when I paid $10 for the shiny new model.

Dan Miller fabricated top-notch duplicate windows for our Victorian cottage at a fraction of what it would have cost from a commercial vendor and his son-in-law, Eli Slabach, continues the trade today. The Zooks from Omar came via rowboat to work on several projects at Comfort Island. Their work ethic is legendary.

Last year we took our granddaughters along to order new windows, and to share the experience of a different way of life. Little Amish kids waved excitedly as we passed, and one little fellow was riding one of the draft horses his father was using to plow his field.