KALONA, Iowa — A white van, its sides covered with the words Kalona By-Ways Tours, sits parked in front of an Amish country store, a steady stream of plainly dressed men and women coming and going.
"I call this the Amish Wal-Mart," tour guide Daniel Nisly told his guests as they ventured toward the front door. Inside, everything from homemade candles and pear jam to household supplies made in China packs the shelves.
Nisly waited outside, but not because he needed to keep an eye on the vehicle. Though his tourists and their dollars are welcome, he is not. Having left the religious order decades ago, Nisly finds himself shunned by many of the local Amish.
With Iowa's largest concentration of Amish, the countryside about 20 miles south of Iowa City and 30 miles southeast of the more publicized Amana Colonies draws a stream of visitors curious to learn more about the seemingly simple lives led by these plain, strict folk.
At age 76, Nisly still converses with his wife in the Pennsylvania German they learned as children. But there is no trace of an accent, other than Midwestern, as he chats with visitors while crisscrossing the rolling farmland, often on gravel roads.
The van pulls onto the shoulder as Nisly points out the brick-and-wood house where he lived as a boy. Moments later, he slows to a stop outside the school in which he completed grades one through eight alongside about 25 other Amish kids. The whitewashed building, with a black, horse-drawn buggy parked outside, begs to be photographed.
In an Amish bakery, another stop on the tour, Nisly chats with his grand-niece, a young woman named Nita, as she bags the bread, doughnuts and pies that all are in great demand.
The 90-minute ride through the farmland is a good way to get an informal overview of this conservative Christian community. More in-depth insights are shared in the center of town at the surprisingly large Kalona Historical Village. Here, the stories of the Amish and their Mennonite cousins are told at a couple of museums and a wealth of lovingly restored, historically significant buildings.
The early settlers moved west from Pennsylvania in search of fertile land on which to farm, according to Lois Gugel, a retired teacher who volunteers at the Iowa Mennonite Museum & Archives.
"The men were adventuresome (and) wanted to move west," she explained. "The women were submissive to their husbands, but many of them came unwillingly."
Gugel noted that the Amish broke away from the Mennonites in Europe in 1693.
"The difference between us and the Amish is the way we interpret the Bible," she said. "They interpret it more literally. They believe they should be different from the world in dress and many other things."
That means that while many Mennonites live side by side with people of various faiths, the Amish keep to themselves. They avoid modern conveniences such as automobiles, electric lights and TVs.
That said, the museum is a treasure trove of the machinery, such as lathes and looms, that early Mennonites used before they embraced electricity. Also displayed is an intricately detailed model of one of their churches.
Display cases tell the stories of various local families, Gugel's included. She points out the hand-lettered sign that once hung in her father's auto-repair shop. It reads, simply, "Clean Talk Please."
"Nowadays, there are some Mennonites who are quite liberal. But those with closer ties to the Amish can still be quite conservative," she noted.
Nearby, in the village's Welcome Center, the Kalona Quilt & Textile Museum displays dozens of quilts made by both Amish and English (non-Amish) women. The collection boasts more than 450 quilts, but its humble origin can be traced to the 32 bed coverings donated by Marilyn Woodin. She used to run a quilt and antique shop downtown. Now she leads visitors through the museum.
Amish women "had no training in geometry, yet they were able to create amazing geometric shapes," Woodin observed while standing amid the impressive accumulation of quilts. The smallest ones were crafted to cover babies in their cribs.
In addition to quilts, the museum also displays antique sewing machines, spinning wheels and spool cabinets. Shopkeepers used the elaborate wooden cabinets to showcase spools of thread in a rainbow of colors.
Visitors see other vestiges of the past as they stroll the village grounds. Among its gems are an Amish buggy shop and a Grandpa House, a small cottage in which Old Order Amish spent their golden years.
Behind the wheel of the tour van, Nisly revealed that his father was the minister of the Middle East District of Kalona. The man, he said, was "heartbroken" when his son left the order.
Though they disagreed on religion, Daniel Nisly still admired his father's relative enlightenment.
"He understood the Scriptures much more than most of the Amish," he told a passenger. That, he added, meant a more worldly perspective than many in his flock.
"He was teaching (about) having a walk with God," Nisly concluded.
That's something easier to fathom in this corner of God's country.
If you go
Kalona is about four hours by car west of Chicago via Interstate Highways 88 and 80. Exit I-80 at U.S. Highway 218. Go south to State Road 1 and turn west to Kalona.
The Kalona Historical Village (715 D Ave., Kalona, Iowa; 319-656-2519; kalonaiowa.org) is open Monday through Saturday year-round. Admission is $8 for adults and $3 for children ages 7-12. Van tours are offered Monday through Saturday from April 15 through Oct. 31. They depart at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. from the Kalona Chamber of Commerce (514 B Ave., 319-656-2660, kalonachamber.com).Tickets are $15 for adults and $6 for children ages 7-12.