My trip to Berlin, Ohio, also known as Amish Country, was so rewarding on a personal level. In case I haven’t mentioned it before, I’m Amish royalty. Ok, royalty might be stretching it, especially considering that Amish folks are too modest to throw around such terms.
But I did learn at a young age that I was descended from Christian Shetler/Schoettler, who apparently founded an Amish settlement in Pennsylvania in the 1800s. I’ve even heard that someone in our family still has the original land grant signed by William Penn himself!
So when the state of Ohio and Holmes County invited me to make a stop in Berlin, Ohio, the heart of Amish Country, I knew I had a great opportunity to get to know the local Amish and Mennonite communities and to reconnect with my roots.
Shetler is a big name in the Amish world. Surely there had to be some distant relatives living in the area…
My History With the Amish in Ohio
My grandfather was born Amish. He was one of 18 siblings, and as far as I know, all of the others remained Amish. He left the religion as a young man and became an electrician (oh, the irony.)
I didn’t ask much about my Amish ancestry growing up, but when I started getting older, I discovered that as an infant, I had traveled with my parents to New York state to visit some Amish relatives.
That was exciting on a number of levels. The idea that I could actually meet Amish uncles and cousins had previously seemed unthinkable. Didn’t they shun everyone who leaves the community? Didn’t they avoid “English” (non-Amish) people? I had little real knowledge or understanding of the Amish and their views on outsiders.
A few years back, I went with my dad and grandfather to an Amish event, essentially a massive garage sale in which dozens of Amish families came to meet and sell things to each other and to local non-Amish folks.
At this event I learned that not only was my grandfather not being shunned; he was greeted cordially and introduced me to some of my Amish relatives, including one of his sisters who remembered me from the time she last saw me as a baby.
During this trip I discovered the existence of a softcover book called “The Christian Shetler Family History” that tracked our ancestry back to the 1800s. At the time, I thought it was an interesting novelty item, but later I would wish I had obtained a copy myself.
Meeting My Relatives in Berlin, Ohio
Holmes County, Ohio is home to around 38,000 Amish residents, making it the largest Amish community in the world. As part of my visit, I hooked up with Amish Heartland Tours for a backroads trip around the area.
When Linda, my guide, heard that I was curious whether there were any folks in the area with my last name, she knew just where to go. One of the things Amish Heartland Tours offers is the chance to have a meal with an Amish family, and there’s a Shetler family that participates in the program.
It was too early for dinner, but we headed over there to say hello. The family welcomed us and chatted with us for a bit. As a recreational volleyball player, I was particularly interested to hear that their daughter plays volleyball, which is popular in many Amish communities (do a YouTube search if you’re so inclined.)
After I mentioned my last name, they brought out a copy of the Family History book that I had been seeking. It didn’t take long to flip through and find my grandfather’s name.
We confirmed that this family and I share a common great-great-grandfather, which produced smiles around the room. We shared a really nice moment upon realizing that the unlikely pairing of this Amish family from Berlin and this restless travel blogger from Chicago were family.
The book allowed me to trace my ancestry back to Christian Shetler, who was born in 1804 in Germany. Further online research that night uncovered a family website with additional information that traced my family tree back to a Michael Schoettler who emigrated from Switzerland to Germany in 1726.
How many people can say they were able to trace their ancestry back 300 years in less than 24 hours time? I was grateful that the Amish keep insanely detailed genealogy books, and grateful that I had gotten the opportunity to connect with relatives whom I had never met.
The visit was one of my most satisfying travel moments ever and provided further proof that often the best thing about travel isn’t the attractions you see, but the people you meet.
Tips for Visiting Berlin, Ohio
Berlin, Ohio is centrally located in the state, slightly more to the eastern side. You can see that it’s centrally located between three major metropolitan areas. That makes it an easy drive for many midwesterners.
Berlin is about a 90-minute drive from Cleveland, two hours from Pittsburgh, and just under two hours from Columbus.
Berlin isn’t a huge town, so you can see it all in a day. But there’s enough to do to spend a weekend if you like. Traffic can get backed up at times during the summer tourist season, since all the roads are only two lanes.
More Amish Country Content!
While many people think of Lancaster, Pennsylvania as the heart of Amish Country, Holmes County and Berlin have a larger population. Amish Country, Ohio is this month’s featured travel destination on the blog.
Click to read about the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center, how to find authentic Amish experiences, and visiting the famous Heini’s Cheese Factory in Holmes County.
These posts describe how the Amish and Mennonite communities in Berlin, Ohio live, how they feel about tourism, and how you can visit the Amish in Ohio responsibly.