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
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
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
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
(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.)