Living a Simple Life: the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English.  I'm Faith Lapidus.

And I'm Steve Ember.  Come with us today as we visit some people who lead a simple life: the Amish in Pennsylvania.


A visit to parts of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is like a trip back in time.

People live in simple farmhouses.  Family members, including small children, all work in the fields.  Crops are planted and harvested without modern farm technology.

Most Amish people are easy to recognize.  The women make their own long, dark-colored dresses.  They cover their hair with white cloth hats, called prayer caps.  They do not wear jewelry.  The men grow long beards.  They wear black clothing and dark hats.


About sixteen thousand to eighteen thousand Old Order Amish live in Lancaster County.  This area is also known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

"Dutch" is a name for people from the Netherlands.  Many of the Amish, however, came from Germany.  It is often said that they were called "Dutch" because English colonists could not say the correct word, Deutsch.  But language experts note that people in England often used the term "Dutch" as another word for "German."

The Amish live much like their ancestors did.  Modern things like electricity, central heating and indoor water pipes are not considered necessary.

The Amish do not drive cars.  Instead, they travel in buggies pulled by horses.

A group of Old Order Amish recently won a legal battle against the state over safety markings on these wooden vehicles.  Pennsylvania requires buggies to carry a red warning sign that can be easily seen in car lights.  But the Old Order Amish do not have to observe that law.

The group is called the Swartzentrubers.  They hang a light from the driver's side door of their buggies.

In any case, even a red sign might not have helped ten Amish people injured in Somerset County recently.  A car that may have been speeding struck their buggy -- during daylight.

You meet many Amish people in Lancaster County.  It is a popular place for visitors.  Between now and November, even more are coming.  Lancaster County is marking the twentieth anniversary of a famous American film, "Witness."  Many people learned about the Amish and their ways from this movie by director Peter Weir.

Some Amish, however, said the story misrepresented them.

Harrison Ford plays a city policeman.  He stays with an Amish family as part of an investigation.  A tour shows where the different parts of "Witness" were filmed.  The Lancaster Cultural History Museum also has an exhibit about the movie.


"You have no right to keep us here.

Uh…yes I do.  Your son's a material witness to a homicide.

You don't understand.  We want nothing to do with your laws.

Doesn't surprise me.  Lot of people I meet are like that."

One of the scenes in the movie shows a barn-raising in which men from the community put up a farm building.


"Hurry up now…we have a barn to raise and a day to do it."

The barn-raising in the film looks real -- because it was.  Local workers played the parts of the Amish in the movie and built a barn.  But the filmmakers brought in heavy equipment so they could speed up the work.

Fifty years ago, a musical play about the Amish life was first seen on Broadway.  "Plain and Fancy" is still being performed today.  The musical is now being performed in the Midwestern town of Nappanee, Indiana.

"Plain and Fancy" is the story of what happens when two people from New York go to Pennsylvania to sell a farm to an Amish man.  Throughout the play, the audience sees the differences between the city people and the Amish.


The Amish heat their houses with wood stoves.  And they get their water from wells.

Many Amish people do not use the telephone.  They do not want to be connected to the outside world.  But some earn money by cooking lunch or dinner for visitors.  Visitors can join a family for a meal that includes meat, potatoes and vegetables grown on their farms.  If the guests have any room left in their stomach after all that, they can have a sweet, rich dessert.

The Amish and other groups in Lancaster County, including Mennonites, are known as the Plain People.  Many came to the United States from Germany and Switzerland in the seventeen hundreds and eighteen hundreds.  They were expelled or chose to leave because of religious oppression.

Most of them settled in Pennsylvania, where they were promised religious freedom.  Lancaster County officials say about fifty thousand Plain People currently live there.  That is about ten percent of the population.  But not all Amish people live in Pennsylvania.  There are settlements of Amish in twenty-two American states and in Ontario, Canada.

Some people have expressed concern about the growing number of businesses in Pennsylvania Dutch country.  The people worry that this will interfere with the Amish way of life.  Sometimes, visitors stop near an Amish family and take their picture -- an act that angers the Amish.

As you tour Amish country, you will see small, well-kept farms of about twenty hectares.  The Amish are known for their success at farming.  Amish farmers produce as much corn, peanuts, tobacco and other crops on each hectare as other farmers.  But they always have been more concerned with protecting the land than with producing huge crops.  The Amish also raise farm animals such as cows, pigs, horses and chickens.  Each family takes care of its own farm.

But the community works together to do big jobs.  People also gather for religious services.  The services are in German.  At home, the Amish speak a form of German.


The Amish believe that hard work is important and enjoyable.  They do not believe in depending on the world outside their community.  Almost every Amish man can build a house, make furniture, and raise crops and animals.  Almost every Amish woman can preserve food, make clothing and covers for beds called quilts.  Quilt-makers all over the world recognize the beauty and complexity of Amish quilts.

Young Amish women make the dresses they wear for their marriage ceremonies.  These dresses are blue, instead of the white that is traditional for many other Americans.  After their weddings, the women wear these dresses to church.  And when they die, tradition calls for them to be buried in their wedding dresses.

Most Amish families have seven or eight children.  Traditionally the children do not leave home until they marry.

The Amish live by rules they believe are explained in the Bible, the Christian holy book.  For example, they believe that Christians must always treat other people with love and gentleness.  They believe it is wrong to fight wars.  They do not become soldiers or police officers.

These religious beliefs sometimes have brought the Amish into conflict with American law.  For example, Amish men refuse military service during wartime.  Instead, they are permitted to perform some other kind of public service.

Many Amish refuse to send their children to public schools.  Instead, they have their own community schools.  The Amish pay taxes, but they do not usually vote in elections.  They refuse help from the federal government.

The Amish permit few differences among their own people.  They are different from most other Americans, and happy to be that way.  And their way of life is what brings visitors to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, year after year.


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus.  Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.