Searching for An Authentic Amish Experience in Ohio

authentic amish buggy ride

Upon arriving in Berlin, Ohio, I made a pit stop at a restaurant and grabbed an “Amish Country” brochure from the counter to read while I dined.

But when I sat down, surrounded by several Amish and/or Mennonite families in nearby booths, I immediately felt awkward and hid the brochure in shame.

These are real people! Why am I reading about them as if they’re objects in a museum?

Given my own Amish heritage, and the fact that I’ve met and chatted with many Amish folks in the past, treating them as zoo animals to be observed and studied just didn’t feel right. I began to wonder… Do the Amish even want me here? Am I an intruder?

Dealing with one’s nagging voyeuristic guilt was one of the challenges when it came to visiting Amish Country. These sorts of mixed feelings are common, but as I learned from talking to local Amish folks in Berlin, Ohio, my fears were largely unfounded.

In fact, Amish and Mennonite families in towns like Berlin are reliant on your tourism dollars. So by all means, plan your visit – but take the extra step to try to be respectful and responsible when you come.

Amish Experiences – Guided Tours in Berlin and Lancaster

While this article is about my experience with the Amish in Berlin, Ohio, most of the guided Amish tours you can find in this country are based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

So for the sake of those who are interested in booking a guided tour, here are your options for tours in both places.

Berlin, OH: Amish Heartland Tours. This small, locally-owned company has been operating tours in Ohio’s Amish Country for 30 years. Options include bus tours, Amish farm tours, and meals in Amish homes with local families.

Lancaster, PA: Premium Amish Country Tour. This affordable 2-3 hour tour features a guided drive through Amish country and the chance to visit an Amish farm and schoolhouse.

Lancaster, PA: Authentic Tour & Meal with the Amish. This tour offers the chance to eat a home-cooked meal in an Amish home and observe life on the farm.

Finding an Authentic Amish Experience in Berlin, Ohio

My goal was to have as many authentic experiences as possible. Rather than peering at Amish folks and snapping photos from afar, I wanted to meet and chat with as many Amish and Mennonite folks as I could to learn about their history, their culture, their perspective on life.

The best place to start in Berlin is the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. There, you’ll learn about the local folks and have the opportunity to ask as many questions as you like of the Amish and Mennonite staff members.

They can also point you in the direction of authentic activities that may interest you.

If you’re taking any tours, do your homework on the companies involved. One Amish resident half-joked, “Anything with ‘Amish’ in the name probably isn’t.”

While I didn’t find that to be entirely true – in fact, my backroads experience with Amish Heartland Tours was fantastic – you should make an effort to make sure any companies you work with are reputable.

Some Berlin businesses offered rides in Amish buggies. As an outsider, getting a ride in a buggy seemed like the ultimate Amish experience.

But as our horse, Shirley, guided myself and an older Amish gentleman around a back street, I was again hit with some of that guilt. Is taking a ride in an Amish buggy belittling to Amish culture?

view from buggy - authentic amish experince

I enjoyed the brief ride, and it’s certainly a life experience that most people never get to have. But I spent most of the trip chatting with my Amish driver to learn about his perspective on life in Berlin.

That convo ultimately proved more rewarding than the few minutes sitting behind the backside of a horse.

How do the Amish in Berlin feel about all the tourists?

By this point, my go-to question when chatting with Amish folks in the Berlin area had become: How do you feel about all the tourists? The range of responses was interesting.

One Amish man bit his tongue at first, but eventually acknowledged that the presence of the tourists was partially positive and partially negative.

Common reservations the Berlin Amish expressed were the rapidly changing nature of the town due to visitors, as well as the traffic, which can get heavy during peak tourist season in the summer as cars and buggies vie for space on the two-lane roads.

On the flipside, many Amish and Mennonite folks pointed out that the tourists pump a lot of money into the economy. One Amish woman was surprised that anyone in her community would question the value of outsiders.

“Without the tourists, a lot of people would be out of work,” she told me. Since many of the Berlin Amish and Mennonites are not farmers and have jobs that rely on tourism, they need and appreciate the visitors. Tourists frequent places like Heini’s Cheese Factory, which is one of the most popular businesses in the area.

Back to the question I raised about the initial awkwardness of being in Amish Country. Isn’t it bizarre to have people come from all over the world just to see how you live your daily lives?

The Amish residents I spoke with acknowledge that it’s odd, but they understand the curiosity and find that the overwhelming majority of visitors are nice people genuinely interested in the Amish way of life and seeing an authentic Amish experience.

And the Amish themselves do travel. Many go to Florida for large gatherings each year. Some have been to Europe. Amish folks told me of their dreams to visit places like Alaska and some remote Pacific islands.

amish open buggy

One Amish man recalled a trip to Europe, where he observed the locals in much the same way that tourists come to Berlin to observe his culture. That helped him understand the perspective of visitors to his own town.

Can you take photographs of the Amish?

There’s also the issue of photographs. The Amish prefer not to be photographed, especially up close, as pictures can be seen as prideful and unnecessarily drawing attention to oneself.

I was advised not to take pics in which faces were recognizable, and I certainly respected that guideline.

On another issue, I typically buy magnets from every place I visit. Was it cool to buy a horse & buggy magnet? Because I did that.

It felt weird turning the Amish’s reliable method of transportation into a novelty item to stick on my fridge. At least I bought it at the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center, so I knew the money was going to a good place.

Despite the mixed emotions, visiting Amish Country was one of the highlights of my year, and I would encourage anyone curious about the Amish to make a visit.

Berlin is a wonderful community, as are many of the surrounding little towns. Do some research, figure out what kinds of experiences you want to have, and schedule your visit!

Busting Myths at the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center in Ohio

amish-mennonite-heritage-center
The Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center is like a visitor center for Amish Country.

My first stop in the culturally-rich town of Berlin, Ohio was Burger King.

Yeah, I know. But it was getting late and I needed a quick bite.

As I walked out of the self-proclaimed champion of the frozen hamburger patty, I spotted something interesting: An Amish man in the parking lot talking on a cell phone, while standing next to the van he drove to the restaurant. Confused yet?

This is probably quite surprising to folks who thought the Amish had no electricity or technology and did not drive vehicles. I had seen Amish folks driving cars before, traveling via Amtrak, and shopping at Walmart. But even I was not prepared for the cell phone moment.

The mobile chatter was most likely Mennonite rather than Amish. There is a difference, one I didn’t fully grasp until I visited the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center the next morning.

What’s the difference between the Amish and Mennonites? How do they feel about all the tourists? How do they feel about all the Amish reality shows? (Yes, they’ve seen them.)

amish-school

If you plan to visit Berlin, Ohio, make the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center your first stop. It’s informative and really serves as a visitor center for the area.

Whether you’re an expert on these communities or your only awareness of Amish culture comes from tv and movies, you will learn a lot and leave the center more prepared to experience the town.

Among the Amish and Mennonite staffers was Mark, a local Amish man who was extremely candid and knowledgeable and served as my guide for the visit.

The Behalt is a sight to behold. Also known as the “Sistine Chapel of the Amish and Mennonites,” the Behalt is a massive mural 10 feet by 265 feet that adorns a large circular room inside the Heritage Center.

The painting, which took 14 years to finish, goes all the way around the room, providing a 360-degree view of Anabaptist history, dating back to 1525 in Switzerland.

For a small fee, you can step inside the room and see the incredible artwork. Mark narrated while pointing out the images on the wall, many of which depicted the struggle for religious freedom that the Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites experienced over the course of centuries.

Elsewhere, the Heritage Center offers a 15-minute video that provides a great overview of Amish and Mennonite life, a resource room with genealogy books, and a gift store with novelties and crafts made by local residents.

schoolhouse amish & mennonite heritage center

Outside, you’ll have the opportunity to visit a couple of old buildings. One is South Bunker Hill School, which served as a schoolhouse from 1857 to 1951 and shows how a traditional one-room Amish schoolhouse looked.

The other building is a pioneer barn that houses a retired Amish buggy (go ahead and sit inside it) and an old Conestoga wagon that was used to bring settlers to Holmes County.

Attached to the back of the wagon is a contraption full of grease that was apparently used to grease the wheels.

Decades later, you can still smell the grease inside. Seeing history is cool, but smelling it brings a whole new level of appreciation to the experience.

amish-wagon

Myths and discoveries about Amish and Mennonites

As for those questions about the residents of Amish Country, here are some of the answers, according to folks at the Heritage Center.

The Berlin / Holmes County region is home to about 38,000 Amish and 11,000 Mennonites, making it the largest such population in America. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which many people think of as the center of U.S. Amish life, has about 31,000 Amish.

There are many subgroups within the Amish church, with various groups including the Old Order, New Order, Beachy Amish, and Swartzentruber Amish.

The Old Order Amish typically do not drive motor vehicles or embrace technology. At the other end of the spectrum are the more modern Mennonites, who may have cars, telephones, and even computers and the Internet.

While it’s commonly believed that all Amish and Mennonites are farmers, Mark said that only about 30% of the Mennonites in the Berlin area farm. There isn’t much open farmland left in the Berlin area, so the locals have to consider other ways to make a living, often by working for local businesses.

The tourism industry has helped in that regard, bringing in millions of dollars to the region and helping to support these communities.

amish-buggy

I asked about the practice of shunning. It’s widely-believed that the Amish will refuse to talk to family members who leave the religion. Mark said this is typically not the case.

While some limitations may be put in place, such as not allowing the individual to eat a meal with the family, most Amish would not totally shun someone who is flesh and blood.

Shunning can vary depending on how conservative a particular sect is. In my grandfather’s case, he has a pretty good relationship with his Amish relatives.

They are cordial when he shows up at Amish sales, although nobody notified him when his brother passed away recently, so the relationship is not perfect.

Regarding television, Mark has seen most of the reality shows, like “Amish Mafia” and “Breaking Amish,” and says they could not be further from reality. The lead character in “Breaking Amish,” for instance, left the Amish more than a decade ago.

And that’s just one of many deceptions in the presentation of the program. So watch these shows with a grain of salt. Especially if you tune in to the upcoming drama, “Vanilla Ice Goes Amish,” which is a real show. I kid you not.

Have you ever had an authentic Amish experience?