The Amish for saleBy Marlin Jeschke
“Amish Country tourism attracts more than 19 million people every year and generates over $2 billion of economic benefit to the areas surrounding the three largest Amish settlements [of] Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio.” So says Susan Trollinger in Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia (Johns Hopkins, 2012). Her book is not about statistics, however, but about the meaning of this tourism.
In general, Trollinger says, tourists to Amish country are not interested in a meaningful encounter with the Amish. Citing a study by Thomas Meyers of Goshen College, based on 700 interviews, Trollinger says tourists “do not want to talk to the Amish. They have no desire to get to know Amish people. They are not even especially interested in learning about the Amish. Instead, they just want to shop.”
The tourist industry actually serves as a buffer between the Amish and tourists. Tourists “do not have to worry [about being] shocked … by the ‘exotic other’ [that is, Amish people themselves] or that they are intruding on Amish life.” On the other hand, this buffer “protects [the Amish people’s] life and culture from being overtaken by tourism.”
So what exactly is going on in this huge Amish-country tourism industry? Limiting her study to three meccas of tourism in eastern Ohio — Walnut Creek, Berlin and Sugarcreek — Trollinger tried to find out through 15 years of research.
In Walnut Creek she finds in the architecture and shops a suggestion of the Victorian era of the late 1800s. In its restaurant touting Amish cooking — that is, “home-cooked” food and family-style eating — it reminds time-starved people of today of a more slow-paced era. Also, with only women waitresses in the restaurant and a lot of lace and a feminine mystique in its shops, Walnut Creek reminds tourists — as does Amish attire — of a simpler era of clear gender roles.
In Berlin Trollinger finds a somewhat different aura, the suggestion of the mid-1800s frontier. With antique shops loaded with tools and housewares of a century and more ago, and with models of old farm machines in stores packed with memorabilia, tourists can pick up an old hand tool and exclaim, “My father (or grandfather) used to have one of these.” Berlin allows tourists to imagine themselves re-energized by the virtues of independence, self-reliance, courage and hard work that tamed the frontier and built America.
In Sugarcreek Trollinger finds tourism faltering. Identifying itself at one time as “Little Switzerland,” Sugarcreek has little to offer visitors beyond its Swiss Festival each fall. Sugarcreek doesn’t focus on the Amish. Tourists see only reminiscences of a past Swiss ethnic group that has dissolved by now into mid-America. Tourists do not see a living specimen of a radically alternative way of life.
Trollinger’s characterizations of Walnut Creek, Berlin and Sugarcreek sound slightly forced at certain points. Still, having lived in Berlin for three years, having visited Walnut Creek scores of times and with my wife having attended First Mennonite Church in Sugarcreek every Sunday for three years, I find Trollinger’s descriptions suggestive.
Her central point remains: Amish Country tourism sells nostalgia. In fact, the book might be more concisely titled, Selling Nostalgia. As Trollinger says, “It is tempting to conclude that Amish Country tourism is just another example of one group of people (tourism entrepreneurs) lightening the wallets of another group of people (tourists) by taking advantage of still another group (the Amish).”
On one occasion Trollinger asked a group of New Order Amish men “what they thought of Amish Country tourism, and … was surprised by their answer.” In reply they “spoke … about how hard it must be to live in the world … The tourists do not have time for their families, do not generally enjoy their work and often feel lost.”
The Amish men spoke of “how fortunate they were to live according to the Amish way … They see tourism as an opportunity to offer a witness of the kingdom of God to people who may be looking for answers to fundamental questions about their lives.”
Borrowing an apt term from her academic field, Trollinger calls this Amish witness “visual rhetoric.” By its way of life the Amish community is saying something to tourists. If only they had eyes to see the message.
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen (Ind.) College.
Comment on the article The Amish for sale
Please keep comments civil. MWR editors reserve the right to remove any comment. When posting a comment, you agree to the MWR Comments Policy. Name and comment will be posted; commenters are strongly encouraged to give their full name. Email address is for follow-up only and will not be made public.