Amish of Ethridge Share Secrets of the Tennessee Simple Life
Barely out of sight of the hustle and bustle of today’s technological society, the Amish of Ethridge, Tennessee exemplify a simpler way of life. Most of us find it hard to disconnect even for a day, but the Amish have discovered a peace and contentment in a life with no modern conveniences and a devotion to God, family and the land that is curious to many.
Today you can take a horse-drawn covered wagon ride through the heart of the South’s largest Old Order Amish community in Lawrence County, 90 minutes south of Nashville, and take a firsthand look at life on the Amish Farms.
Danny Gingerich met us at his little roadside stall filled with homemade preserves, peanut brittle, fudge, cakes and samples of his fine woodwork. An honesty box sat on the counter. Polite and softly spoken, he invited us into his woodshop to inspect the rockers and cedar boxes he had for sale. The Amish use no electricity, no cars, no tractors, no running water, believing any form of worldliness is sinful. But he did have an intriguing setup to operate his shop full of woodworking tools. An old diesel engine (as opposed to a generator with electrical plug-ins) was linked to an elaborate set of pipes, belts and pulleys to operate saws, planes and sanders.
The finished products showed the fine craftsmanship that draws people from long distances to buy Amish goods. Whether a wooden child’s swing, an ingenious 3-in-1 rocker/high chair/school desk, a cedar chest or household furniture, anything you buy is directly supporting the local community.
The Amish were originally an offshoot of the Mennonite Church in Europe, immigrating to North America in the early 1700’s and first settling in Pennsylvania. They are now scattered in communities across 28 states and number over 250,000. The settlement in Lawrence County, just six miles north of the county seat of Lawrenceburg, has grown to 250 families who live within a horse and buggy drive from one another. These Christian folk live a peaceful life following the teachings of Jesus, raising their large families on farms, teaching them farming, trades and household skills. Although always willing to generously help their “English” neighbors, as they call the non-Amish, their communities are tight-knit and self-sufficient to reduce the negative influence of the outside world.
Yet there is limited interaction with the local community, and you will see a hitching post outside the Ethridge Walmart, Save-a-Lot and McDonalds. Signs of the reality of Amish life in the 21st century.
A flurry of children dressed in dark clothing, hats and black bonnets jostle down the road and turn into the farmyard. “No photos,” reminds Diann Pollock, our tour guide and manager of the Amish Welcome Center in Ethridge, as the children scamper shyly into the house to avoid our gaze. The camera is taboo to the Amish, who view a photograph as a graven image forbidden by God, and consider it sinful to do anything that would bring them worldly honor. We respect their beliefs, aware of many eyes watching our every move.
In the field of a neighboring farm, a young man in handmade clothes and straw hat rides a horse-drawn plough. A couple trots past in a black buggy, the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves a relaxing sound on a quiet afternoon in the country.
“Imagine if you had 12 children and each morning you had to cook breakfast for them on the wood stove, heat the water to wash the dishes, then cook lunch again on the woodstove for the menfolk.” Pollock began painting a picture of life on an Amish farm. “One lady with 10 children canned nearly 5,000 jars last summer, cooking on a woodstove in nearly 100 degree weather.” Women do all the canning, cooking, cleaning and sewing. Except for boots and the men’s black hats, they make all the family’s clothes.
Pollack pointed to another farm. “They planted over 6,000 tomato plants this summer. They have a lot of children! You could buy a 25 pound box of canning tomatoes for $8.”
The children attend a one-room schoolhouse in their neighborhood from the age of seven up to the 8th grade, and then return home to learn all the skills of life on a farm. Most young boys are eager to follow in their father’s footsteps and contribute to the family livelihood. One of the younger sons usually inherits the family home once all the siblings are grown, and the parents move into a smaller adjoining Dawdy (Grandparents) House.
You can’t help feeling the Amish have kept many of the attributes of life that our own grandparents knew. They practice a strong work ethic, extended families take care of one another, parents are influential role models, spankings are a normal part of a child’s discipline, and the community is all about helping one’s neighbor.
Church services, held every other Sunday in private homes, are in High German, but the common language is Pennsylvania Dutch as well as English. On the off Sunday, the Amish often visit relatives or the sick – rather closer to the intended purpose of the Sabbath than most of us follow today.
We pass sawmills, see the smoke rising from a molasses mill, and at regular intervals pass simple, hand-lettered signs tacked on posts alongside the road advertising the mix of homegrown and handmade items for sale. Leather saddles, sorghum molasses, bird feeders, fresh vegetables, lambs, goats milk products, harness and tack, quilts, furniture, wrought iron and wagons.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from April-October people come from miles around to the Plowboy Produce Auction in Ethridge to purchase fresh produce. Many restaurants, caterers and grocery stores are regular customers at the auctions. The big event to close out the season is a large consignment auction in October. This is the time to buy and sell livestock, farm equipment, furniture and household items.
Next time you’d like a reminder of the slower pace of life, contact the Amish Welcome Center in Ethridge and book a tour. You’ll come away with a fresh perspective – and very likely a handcrafted treasure or two.