Think of Amish Country, and the bucolic Pennsylvania Dutch countryside likely comes to mind. But take just one trip to another Amish Country, in east-central Ohio, and that association will be broken forever. There, tens of thousands of Amish — the largest Amish community in the world — reside in a land almost impossibly picturesque, their tidy farms nestled among rolling hills polka-dotted with pastures and woodlands.
Pennsylvania actually is second in Amish population. Ohio has about 56,000 and Pennsylvania 51,000. Indiana is third, with about 40,000.
Yet ample surprises are guaranteed. Look! Is that Amish woman talking on a cell phone? Is that van filled with Amish men? Where are they going? And is that a solar panel atop that Amish farmhouse?
It's true that the Amish have made some modest accommodations to modern life, though they cling to their core beliefs and agrarian way of life. Nowadays, the Amish warmly embrace their "English" visitors, which is how they refer to the rest of us. Initiate a conversation, and you will learn all manner of amazing things — that, depending on how liberal their particular order is, many now can use telephones for work, that they can accept rides in motorized vehicles and that they even can have electricity in their homes, provided they generate it themselves.
For this immersion into Amish culture, head to the eastern half of Ohio's Holmes County and the southeastern corner of neighboring Wayne County. The villages of Berlin and Walnut Creek are the "metropolises" here, but be warned: On many weekends, tourists throng these towns, and cars, not buggies, jam the highways.
So to truly experience Amish Country, get out into the countryside. Arm yourself with a detailed map showing all the county and township roads snaking their mazelike ways through these beautiful hills, then set off. Yes, you will get behind a buggy, and inevitably it will be at the crest of a hill. But what's the hurry?
Here on these back roads, the bulk of the Amish live and work. As their population grows, fewer can work the available farmland and they have found other ways to support their families. Their skills in making cabinetry and furniture are legendary, but other small cottage industries abound. On just one road, Township Road 114 south of Walnut Creek, you will find a leatherworker, a candle shop, a broom-maker, even a purveyor of "weather vanes, tin signs and pioneer equipment."
A tip: Watch for signs on the main highways that point down side roads to crafters who fashion hickory rockers, rolltop desks, baskets — you name it. You might even happen upon an "Amish Wal-Mart," the general stores that carry everything from buggy whips to posthole diggers. For quilts, head to the charmingly named town of Charm, where Miller's Dry Goods (330-893-1117, millersdrygoods.com) carries 8,000 bolts of fabric and hundreds of quilts. At every stop, you will interact with the shopkeepers and perhaps watch them work.
Besides shopping, be prepared to do some serious chowing in Amish Country. The Amish are especially famed for their sweet tooths and are happy to share. Bulk-foods stores carry plentiful candy and other sweets to sample, but for the best pie, head to Troyer's Home Pantry (668 W. Main St., Apple Creek, 330-698-4182), where 40 kinds beckon. For something unique, try the "ground cherry," made from a local yellow berry.
And though bakeries are omnipresent in this land, one of the best, Miller's, also is one of the smallest. Up a hill on narrow Township Road 356, it's literally off the beaten path. Expect gigantic cinnamon rolls, cookies, and apple fritters the size of a baby's head. Save room for Amish "fry pie," fruit tarts fried to a golden brown. Also try Millers' signature item: little cheese tarts in eight flavors. Arrive early.
With all the dairy farms in the region, it's no surprise that cheese is a staple. Two of the best cheesemakers are Guggisberg and Heini's Cheese Chalet. Guggisberg (5060 Ohio Highway 557, Millersburg, 800-262-2505, guggisberg.com), with its imposing clock tower, is billed as the originator of baby Swiss, a creamy, sweeter version of the traditional product. At Heini's (6005 County Road 77, Millersburg, 800-253-6636, heinis.com), coolers are lined with dozens of gourmet cheeses for the sampling, all made from milk delivered daily by 250 local farmers. At both establishments, visitors can watch cheesemaking during specified hours.
For more substantial fare, consider the traditional "family style" dinner with a table full of food such as fried chicken, green beans and noodles to pass. Der Dutchman (4967 Walnut St., Walnut Creek, 330-893-2981, dhgroup.com) originated the concept 40 years ago. Ask for a table near the windows; the spectacular view is worth the visit alone. Or head to the Chalet in the Valley, which serves Swiss, Austrian and Amish fare in a dining area bedecked with cuckoo clocks, beer steins, cowbells, even an Alpenhorn. Wherever you eat, be sure to sample trail bologna, a regional delicacy made from premium meats and spices and smoked over hardwoods. Get it as a sandwich, warm, and don't even think of having it without melted cheese.
How about a meal inside an Amish home itself? Amish Heartland Tours (330-893-3248, amishtoursofohio.com) offers a number of excursions and arranges meal stops at homes. The granddaddy of their tours is their Amish Progressive Dinner, literally a movable feast and a 12-hour immersion into Amish culture that takes you to meals in three homes and stops at any number of artisans and tourist attractions. You will even learn the "secret ingredient" of Amish cinnamon rolls. (Mashed potatoes! They are what make them so light and fluffy.)
Other regional highlights:
The Behalt — A vibrantly colored 265-foot mural in the round at the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center (5798 County Road 77, Berlin, 877-858-4634, behalt.com) illustrating the history of these simple folk from 1525 to the present.
Lehman's Hardware, 1 Lehman Circle, Kidron, 888-438-5346, lehmans.com) — Need a wood-burning stove? Or a wringer washer? Preserving the past for future generations is the motto of Lehman's, which stocks thousands of nonelectric items you probably didn't know are still being made.
The Farm at Walnut Creek (4147 County Road 114, Sugarcreek, 330-893-4200, thefarmatwalnutcreek.com) — A working Amish farm that allows visitors to stroll through two homes and watch a blacksmith shoeing a horse, cows being milked or fields being plowed. The big surprise? The drive-through zoo with giraffes, buffalo, llamas and elk.
Mount Hope Auction (8076 Ohio Highway 241, Mount Hope, 330-674-6188, check mthopeauction.com for dates and times) — A weekly livestock and produce sale that draws hundreds of Amish and "English" participants. Another place to see the Amish en masse is Family Farm Field Day, an Amish country fair held the third Saturday in July. You won't soon forget the spectacle of a sea of buggies parked as far as the eye can see. Visit http://www.tiny.cc/eswk7.