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The Amish country of central Illinois is about as far away from Chicago as you can get without resorting to time travel.
The area around the towns of Arcola, Arthur and Sullivan has much more than Amish farms, though. You'll find a museum dedicated to Raggedy Ann, a monument to the age of the hippie, a theme park that hosts some fairly eccentric festivals and the sole Equity theater between Chicago and St. Louis.
But it's the Amish who will engage your spirit.
The countryside is home to about 3,000 members of the Old Order Amish, the most conservative offshoot of the Mennonite Church, founded in Switzerland just after the Reformation. Named for Jakob Ammann, a 17th Century Mennonite elder, the Amish believe that simplicity of living and detachment from the world are the keys to salvation. They do not use electricity or tractors (but do use small gasoline motors) and respectfully decline to vote, send their children to state schools or serve in the military.
Most of the Illinois Amish work their own land, and the rest run the same businesses their precursors must have run in the 1860s, when members of the sect began migrating here from Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Arcola Chamber of Commerce has a sheet with directions to 73 Amish businesses dedicated to buggies, harnesses, cabinetry, outdoor furniture, dry goods, canvas and horseshoeing.
Start your visit in Arcola, at the Illinois Amish Interpretive Center on Locust Street. They have a nice little museum and a good introductory video, but the main reason to go is to set up visits to Amish farms. Because the Amish do not welcome outsiders on Sundays, the schedule for Saturday can get crowded, so be sure to call the center in advance to make reservations for tours.
While busloads of people take these tours, it seems that more visitors are simply families here for the weekend from St. Louis and Chicago. If you've only been to Disney World, you'll be pleasantly surprised at the down-to-earth reality of visiting an Amish home and farm. There's nothing animatronic about these animals.
We had called to book a dinner at one home and a tour at another farm, and when we got to the center late Saturday morning and paid the tab ($15 apiece for dinner, $3.50 for the farm tour) we were simply handed a photo-copied map and pointed west out of town.
Dinner in the country means the noon meal, and we had to fairly zip along the country lanes to make it. Zipping is not recommended during low-visibility periods because of all the buggy traffic, which can't zip out of your way.
Reuben and Ruth Yoder (it seems every third Amish family is named Yoder) run a farm called Double R Belgians, which refers not to waffles but a breed of draft horses they raise. Surprisingly, a TV antenna rose over one of the two houses on the farm. Turns out the Yoders had bought the place "from one of your people" a year ago, and Reuben hadn't gotten around to taking down the antenna. He has neither electricity nor a TV set, so there was no danger of sneaking a peek.
With all but one of their six children raised, the Yoders had moved to these 17 acres (mostly pasture) with one son and his family and slowed down a bit. Their last daughter, who helped her mother cook and serve our dinner, was going to be married in a few weeks on the farm, and the family was gearing up to serve 400 guests dinner and supper. The "caterers" would be 28 women from various branches of the family.
So this noon meal for 25 was child's play: Salad, mashed potatoes, noodles, gravy, Salisbury steak, oven-fried chicken, vegetables, homemade bread, lemonade, coffee and two kinds of pie--cherry and chocolate.
The next stop was the tour of the Willis Helmuth farm several miles up the road back toward Arcola. Haymaking was in full swing when we arrived: In a theological oddity you might call downright Jesuitical, a motorized baler was being pulled through the field by a team of horses. So intense was the work that Willis begged off the tour and asked his next-door neighbor, David Schrock, to give us a look at his farm.
The Schrock place has been in the family since 1882, and things must not have changed much since. While back then most farms may have been as diverse and self-sufficient as this one, modern economics have made the diverse family farm a museum piece--except for the Amish ones.
Despite the amount of physical labor it takes to work such a farm, it was obvious during the tour that David Schrock had amassed skills and knowledge to match the difficulty of the work. He found it stimulating, for example, to experiment with grafting different varieties of apple trees onto his existing trees to improve hardiness and yield of his apple trees.
He pointed out construction details of the barn, built before his time, and showed how the frame had been fabricated in advance of the traditional multi-family barn-raising. He explained how a gravity feed keeps the pigs' water trough full, and proudly showed off the way he had rigged a small gasoline engine to the washing machine in the wash house to ease his wife's labor.
(As for the use of gasoline engines but not electric ones, and of automated balers but not tractors, Schrock said the rules of the Old Order Amish "are an evolutionary thing. I personally think we should use tractors, but it isn't up to me. It's like the Catholic Church: You might not understand all the rules, but you understand that they are the rules.")
Schrock and his wife built a new house for themselves right next to the original house, in which his son's family lives. The enclosed porches of the houses actually touch, so that when it is their turn to have Sunday services they can raise the wall between the two porches and have plenty of room for the 18 or 20 families who make up their district.
(Besides doing without church buildings, the Amish do without paid clergy; the families themselves provide the preachers at services.)
While the Amish aren't much for night life, weekend visitors don't have to do without the pleasures of the theater here.
The Little Theater on the Square in nearby Sullivan turns out big-time entertainment at small-town prices.
In August we saw an excellent production of "A Chorus Line," the last show of the 2000 season. The wacky "Nunsense" Christmas show will be performed the first two weeks in December, and there will be a full summer of shows in 2001.
While Sullivan has the theater, Arcola may have the most eclectic collection of things to see of all. Besides the largest array of antiques shop in the area, there is the Raggedy Ann Museum (the doll's originator, Johnny Gruelle, is a native), September's Broom Corn Festival and the Hippie Memorial, a local resident's home-made monument to the freedom of the '60s.
And nearby Rockome Gardens theme park has weekends devoted to fiddling, clogging and Native American rituals.
I guess you don't have to be Amish to do your own thing in central Illinois.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Weekend expenses for two:
Lodging (two nights, including full breakfast)$204
Meals ............ $146
Gasoline .......... $24
Theater tickets ... $40
Admission fees ..... $7
Total ............ $421
IF YOU GO
Arcola, the first stop in Illinois Amish country, is about 175 miles south of downtown Chicago, at exit 203 on Interstate Highway 57. It is one corner of a triangle connecting to Arthur and Sullivan.
The Flower Patch, 225 E. Jefferson St., Arcola, IL 61910; 217-268-4876; www.illinoisads.com/flowerpatch.html. Bill and Lynn Harshbarger run this flowery Victorian B&B in the heart of Arcola. The couple's three sons are on their own now, and Lynn is apparently indulging her frilly side, filling the house with flowers and beautiful porcelain pieces. Lynn is an artist in porcelain as well as with real flowers: In August, flowers were on the breakfast menu as well as on the table. The living room doubles as a gift shop.
Bill teaches history at the high school and writes poetry. With very little coaxing he'll read you a couple of his poems. (Ask him about the time his son took him to the poetry slam at the Green Mill in Chicago.)
The two rooms that share a bath rent for $69 and $76 a night, while the three rooms with bath go for $87.
Little House on the Prairie Bed and Breakfast, R.R. 2, Patterson Road, Sullivan, IL 61951; 217-728-4727; www.bbonline.com/il/littlehouse. Guy S. Little, founder of Sullivan's Little Theater on the Square, has turned his grandfather's house a few miles outside town into a sophisticated and charming B&B. With the flair you'd expect from a theatrical producer, Little and partner Kirk McNamer have turned the house with five guest rooms, parlor, sun room and secluded swimming pool into a show-bizzy yet tasteful retreat. Guy has some fascinating stories to tell about the stars who have stayed in the house (ask about Ann Sothern).
Depending on season, the rates range from $60 to $82.50 for the four guest rooms; the suite cost us $110 in August, but goes as high as $137.50. All have private baths.
B&Bs seem to be the way to go because of how much you'll learn at the breakfast table, but if they aren't your thing or you've got kids who need room to run, good motels in Arcola include the Arcola Inn (888-729-9137) and the Amish Country Inn, which is larger but right on I-57 (800-BUD-HOST).
In Arthur, which is quieter than Arcola, try the Arthur Country Inn (217-543-3321)
Just south of Sullivan is Lake Shelbyville and the Eagle Creek Resort (800-876-3245; www.eaglecreekresort.com). It's a real resort with 148 rooms, restaurants and a spa. The lake itself is the area's premier recreation spot, with fishing, boating and swimming.
The Dutch Kitchen, Main Street, Arcola. If you can't eat on a farm, this is the place to go. Recommended: fried chicken, sausage, homemade bread, homemade pies. Lunches are about $5.95, dinners $7.95. Open daily 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Jibby's Restaurant, Main Street, Sullivan. This is the place to eat before or after attending the Little Theater on the Square. If you like filet mignon, don't miss Jibby's Pepperloin, a huge hunk o' meat for $19.95. It might be the state of Illinois's best deal. And be careful of the chicken wings: They're hot enough to melt a banker's heart.
Stoney's, Main Street, Dalton City. This steak and seafood house is dwarfed by grain elevators in a little town between Sullivan and Decatur. It's worth finding, though, especially for the blackened catfish--spicy and delicious.
Amish Interpretive Center, 111 S. Locust St., Arcola (888-45AMISH). This is the place to call to reserve farm meals and tours. Stop in and tour the museum and watch the video.
Rockome Gardens, 125 N. County Road 425E, between Arcola and Arthur; 800-549-7625; www.rockome.com. An old-fashioned theme park with special events unique to the area, and maybe the state. Special weekends to come: Native American powwow Sept. 16 and 17; horse farming demonstrations the weekends of Sept. 22, 29 and Oct. 6; quilt auctions Sept. 23-24; cloggers Sept. 30-Oct. 1; and storytellers Oct. 7-8.
The Little Theater on the Square, Sullivan; 888-261-9675. Founded by Guy S. Little, the theater is now run by a not-for-profit corporation. Unlike most summer theaters this place pay Actors' Equity wages and attracts top talent to the beanfields. A holiday version of "Nunsense" is scheduled for early December. Call for next year's schedule.
Start your inquiries at www.illinoisamishcountry.com. For brochures, call the Douglas County tourism office at 877-DOUGLAS or the Arthur Visitors' Bureau at 800-722-6474.