The Amish country of central Illinois is about as far away from Chicago asyou can get without resorting to time travel.
The area around the towns of Arcola, Arthur and Sullivan has much more thanAmish farms, though. You'll find a museum dedicated to Raggedy Ann, a monumentto the age of the hippie, a theme park that hosts some fairly eccentricfestivals 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, themost conservative offshoot of the Mennonite Church, founded in Switzerlandjust after the Reformation. Named for Jakob Ammann, a 17th Century Mennoniteelder, the Amish believe that simplicity of living and detachment from theworld are the keys to salvation. They do not use electricity or tractors (butdo use small gasoline motors) and respectfully decline to vote, send theirchildren to state schools or serve in the military.
Most of the Illinois Amish work their own land, and the rest run the samebusinesses their precursors must have run in the 1860s, when members of thesect began migrating here from Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Arcola Chamber ofCommerce has a sheet with directions to 73 Amish businesses dedicated tobuggies, harnesses, cabinetry, outdoor furniture, dry goods, canvas andhorseshoeing.
Start your visit in Arcola, at the Illinois Amish Interpretive Center onLocust 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 theAmish do not welcome outsiders on Sundays, the schedule for Saturday can getcrowded, so be sure to call the center in advance to make reservations fortours.
While busloads of people take these tours, it seems that more visitors aresimply families here for the weekend from St. Louis and Chicago. If you'veonly been to Disney World, you'll be pleasantly surprised at the down-to-earthreality of visiting an Amish home and farm. There's nothing animatronic aboutthese animals.
We had called to book a dinner at one home and a tour at another farm, andwhen we got to the center late Saturday morning and paid the tab ($15 apiecefor dinner, $3.50 for the farm tour) we were simply handed a photo-copied mapand pointed west out of town.
Dinner in the country means the noon meal, and we had to fairly zip alongthe country lanes to make it. Zipping is not recommended during low-visibilityperiods 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 breedof draft horses they raise. Surprisingly, a TV antenna rose over one of thetwo houses on the farm. Turns out the Yoders had bought the place "from one ofyour people" a year ago, and Reuben hadn't gotten around to taking down theantenna. He has neither electricity nor a TV set, so there was no danger ofsneaking a peek.
With all but one of their six children raised, the Yoders had moved tothese 17 acres (mostly pasture) with one son and his family and slowed down abit. Their last daughter, who helped her mother cook and serve our dinner, wasgoing to be married in a few weeks on the farm, and the family was gearing upto serve 400 guests dinner and supper. The "caterers" would be 28 women fromvarious 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 theroad back toward Arcola. Haymaking was in full swing when we arrived: In atheological oddity you might call downright Jesuitical, a motorized baler wasbeing pulled through the field by a team of horses. So intense was the workthat Willis begged off the tour and asked his next-door neighbor, DavidSchrock, to give us a look at his farm.
The Schrock place has been in the family since 1882, and things must nothave changed much since. While back then most farms may have been as diverseand self-sufficient as this one, modern economics have made the diverse familyfarm a museum piece--except for the Amish ones.
Despite the amount of physical labor it takes to work such a farm, it wasobvious during the tour that David Schrock had amassed skills and knowledge tomatch the difficulty of the work. He found it stimulating, for example, toexperiment with grafting different varieties of apple trees onto his existingtrees to improve hardiness and yield of his apple trees.
He pointed out construction details of the barn, built before his time, andshowed how the frame had been fabricated in advance of the traditionalmulti-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 smallgasoline engine to the washing machine in the wash house to ease his wife'slabor.
(As for the use of gasoline engines but not electric ones, and of automatedbalers but not tractors, Schrock said the rules of the Old Order Amish "are anevolutionary thing. I personally think we should use tractors, but it isn't upto 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 theoriginal house, in which his son's family lives. The enclosed porches of thehouses actually touch, so that when it is their turn to have Sunday servicesthey can raise the wall between the two porches and have plenty of room forthe 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 todo without the pleasures of the theater here.
The Little Theater on the Square in nearby Sullivan turns out big-timeentertainment at small-town prices.
In August we saw an excellent production of "A Chorus Line," the last showof the 2000 season. The wacky "Nunsense" Christmas show will be performed thefirst 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 eclecticcollection of things to see of all. Besides the largest array of antiques shopin the area, there is the Raggedy Ann Museum (the doll's originator, JohnnyGruelle, is a native), September's Broom Corn Festival and the HippieMemorial, 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 centralIllinois.
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 southof downtown Chicago, at exit 203 on Interstate Highway 57. It is one corner ofa 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 thisflowery Victorian B&B in the heart of Arcola. The couple's three sons are ontheir own now, and Lynn is apparently indulging her frilly side, filling thehouse with flowers and beautiful porcelain pieces. Lynn is an artist inporcelain as well as with real flowers: In August, flowers were on thebreakfast menu as well as on the table. The living room doubles as a giftshop.
Bill teaches history at the high school and writes poetry. With very littlecoaxing he'll read you a couple of his poems. (Ask him about the time his sontook 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 thethree 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 hisgrandfather's house a few miles outside town into a sophisticated and charmingB&B. With the flair you'd expect from a theatrical producer, Little andpartner Kirk McNamer have turned the house with five guest rooms, parlor, sunroom and secluded swimming pool into a show-bizzy yet tasteful retreat. Guyhas some fascinating stories to tell about the stars who have stayed in thehouse (ask about Ann Sothern).
Depending on season, the rates range from $60 to $82.50 for the four guestrooms; the suite cost us $110 in August, but goes as high as $137.50. All haveprivate baths.
B&Bs seem to be the way to go because of how much you'll learn at thebreakfast table, but if they aren't your thing or you've got kids who needroom to run, good motels in Arcola include the Arcola Inn (888-729-9137) andthe 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 isthe place to go. Recommended: fried chicken, sausage, homemade bread, homemadepies. 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 beforeor 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 thestate of Illinois's best deal. And be careful of the chicken wings: They'rehot enough to melt a banker's heart.
Stoney's, Main Street, Dalton City. This steak and seafood house is dwarfedby grain elevators in a little town between Sullivan and Decatur. It's worthfinding, though, especially for the blackened catfish--spicy and delicious.
Amish Interpretive Center, 111 S. Locust St., Arcola (888-45AMISH). This isthe place to call to reserve farm meals and tours. Stop in and tour the museumand 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 eventsunique to the area, and maybe the state. Special weekends to come: NativeAmerican powwow Sept. 16 and 17; horse farming demonstrations the weekends ofSept. 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 mostsummer theaters this place pay Actors' Equity wages and attracts top talent tothe beanfields. A holiday version of "Nunsense" is scheduled for earlyDecember. Call for next year's schedule.
Start your inquiries at www.illinoisamishcountry.com. For brochures, callthe Douglas County tourism office at 877-DOUGLAS or the Arthur Visitors'Bureau at 800-722-6474.