Escape to Amish Country

For some Ohio Valley residents, a jaunt to Ohio’s Amish country is a regular occurrence. They may spend the day Christmas or furniture shopping in Berlin, take in a fall festival with the family, or make the two-hour trek for the sole purpose of purchasing some of the best-tasting cheese in America.

I’ve heard many people talk it up, but I am embarrassed to admit I had never visited until my sister, mom and I spent our girls’ weekend there in May. It was their first time, too.

For a hodgepodge of reasons – not the least of which is that my mom, Janet, and her husband have moved back to the Ohio Valley after 28 years in Florida and Georgia – it has been three years since our trio had a girls’ getaway. I had almost forgotten how much fun the three of us have together, swapping family stories, people-watching, laughing about our foibles, and of course, eating delicious food.

While many people from here will spend just a day hopscotching around Holmes or one of the surrounding counties, we found that even a weekend wasn’t enough. I imagine that’s why people return again and again.

There’s just something ironic about a “whirlwind” trip to Amish country, where the slower, simpler pace of life pervades the countryside and before long seeps right into your spirit. Even as Mom, Luann and I fussed over our itinerary, trying to figure out how to fit it all in, we individually discovered a sense of calm and peace coming over us among those rolling hills; there was an undeniable quieting of our minds and souls.

The discovery process began as we pulled up to our wooded cabin on the grounds of the Inn at Honey Run, a unique wooded getaway bordered by farmland near historic Millersburg and Berlin in Holmes County. The inn has 25 guest rooms, 12 earth-sheltered “honeycomb” rooms and two cottages. All are equipped with king size beds, fireplaces, Keurig coffeemakers and beautiful views of the woods and countryside.

Much to my delight, right in the center of the expansive windows in our two Cardinal cottage bedrooms hung a full-to-the-brim birdfeeder just a few feet away. The grounds are a birdwatcher’s bounty. Just a novice when it comes to our feathered friends, I was tickled to find not only a set of binoculars, but also a bird guide book provided in each bedroom. I felt like I’d been handed a precious gift when several gold finches, which have eluded my home feeder for years, perched on the feeder within minutes of our arrival.

First and Second Breakfast

On Saturday morning, we played hobbits (quite fitting considering the neighboring grass-topped abodes) and had first and second breakfasts. The first was at the inn’s restaurant, Tarragon, where we enjoyed a rich and satisfying quiche, poached eggs with smoked salmon and asparagus, and griddled cornmeal mush, along with fresh fruit and a selection of just-made breakfast pastries, muffins and rolls. Not a huge fan of coffee cake, I gambled with the cinnamon cake and hit the jackpot.

Second breakfast was a short drive away in the village of Charm, home of the humble yet hugely popular Miller’s Bakery, where everything runs without electricity. The ovens are fired with natural gas, and propane provides kitchen lighting. Manager Ada Miller, the third generation in the business, said they are known for their cheese tarts, a secret family recipe created by her father and aunt for small cheesecake-like pies that come in a variety of flavors, from black raspberry to pineapple to pecan.

Their most popular item, however, is their apple fritters, she said. During the busy fall season, she and her staff have been known to bake from 4 p.m. until 4 a.m. when the next crew arrives. We were told to get there early (they open at 7) because they are usually sold out by 10.

We bought a few tarts, a glazed doughnut the size of a bread plate, an apple fritter and several fried pies. All were sinfully scrumptious, but no pastry I have ever tasted compares to that doughnut. Up until then, the top fried-dough delight for me was the glazed pretzel-shaped offering at Bill’s Donuts in Centerville, Ohio, south of Dayton, where Luann lives. This, however – and we all agreed – was the best … doughnut … ever. I still daydream about it.

After picking up some of Miller’s dried noodles (made by Ada’s parents), fresh bread (still warm!) and locally made blackberry jam and bread-and-butter pickles, we headed down the road to a bustling farm market, Hershberger’s. We checked out the cheese offerings but held off until we visited the actual factory, and we visited the petting zoo before driving back to the inn for our 11 a.m. buggy ride.

The Buggy Ride

The inn owns its own Amish rig and hires retired farmer Dave Schlabach and his horse, Jim, to take guests on rides by appointment. In his Old Order Amish garb of dark denim, light blue shirt with suspenders, and black broad-brimmed hat, Dave greeted us with a warm smile and patiently waited while we took pictures of Jim, the buggy and each other before setting off. It was a little chilly and the sky was overcast, but the redbud’s shock of purple against the gray and slightly greening woods delighted us.

We hit it off with Dave right away, peppering him with questions which, when he realized we were sincerely interested, he happily answered. Owner of a 106-acre farm and 28 dairy cows 6/10 of a mile from the inn, he explained his family uses gas, solar and wind power, and his son-in-law uses horses to plow. The cows are milked using a gas-powered milking and cooling system, and the resulting 500,000-600,000 pounds a year to Holmes Cheese in nearby Millersburg.

As Jim clip-clopped along, we learned to relax into the shimmies and shakes of the buggy on the country roads. Offering an editorial on global warming – he doesn’t credit it – and his prediction that it would be a bad year for the morel mushrooms, Dave told us about the Amish lifestyle and the different sects in the five-county region where 36,000-38,000 Amish live.

He said that Old Order and New Order Amish aren’t very different in their ways of life and beliefs – shunning electricity, plowing by horse and traveling by horse and buggy (although they will ride in vehicles driven by others). The biggest differences, he said, are found among the most conservative group, the Swartzentrubers, who live as people did in the 19th century and will not ride in motorized vehicles; and what he calls the New-New Order, who use electricity, and operate tractors but still travel by horse and buggy.

We rode through spring-green woods and passed a few young farmers in straw hats riding horse-pulled plows. As we crested a hill, Dave pointed out his farm ahead, cows grazing in the back pasture, red tulips blooming in the yard and a swingset for his seven grandchildren.

He wanted us to know he and his community are not forced to live the way they do; they choose to.

“We’re comfortable. But we’re used to it,” he said, quipping they keep warm in winter using “armstrong” heaters and pointing to his arm.

Our 4 2/10-mile buggy ride at an end, we said our good-byes and our affable new friend invited us to stop by his home the next time we were in the area. And you know, I think he meant it.

Say Cheese!

Our only full day in Amish country was half over. A great lover of cheese, visiting a cheese factory was a priority. You can find Amish cheese in retail outlets all over Amish country – places like Hershberger’s, Walnut Creek Cheese, Dutch Valley Market and Troyer’s, but I felt it necessary to go right to the source. We only had time for one cheese stop, so I chose Heini’s Cheese Chalet in Millersburg. (My second choice was Guggisberg, driver Dave’s favorite and creator of the Baby Swiss variety. Next time!)

Family-owned Bunker Hill Cheese Co. operates under the Heini’s moniker. The cheesy-sounding name (my 7-year-old had a field day with it) is a shortened version on Heinrich, a common Swiss name used as a tribute to the owner’s heritage, according to the company website.

They produce 35 varieties of cheese and are known for developing an award-winning yogurt cheese, which is lower in fat and sodium than most cheeses. Their milk comes only from local farmers who milk their cows by hand. They produce 34,000 pounds of cheese a week and ship it all over the United States.

The retail cheese section of Heini’s consists of rows of open refrigerated coolers at waist level (like those found in the center aisles of the grocery store). Each variety had a corresponding covered plastic container with tiny cubes for sampling. I am not ashamed to admit we lunched on Heini’s samples. I purchased several pounds in about four varieties, and since then have seriously considered making the four-hour round trip to buy more. (They do have an online store with free shipping on orders over $75.)

Heini’s also offers free tours, has a large gift shop and sells pickles, meats, jams and more. There’s even a coffee bar, Macchiato Moments, and by that time we were ready for a pick-me-up. To my surprise (I don’t know why), our barrista was a lovely Amish teen girl. We were her only customers, and she greeted us with a bright smile and didn’t mind answering our many questions about her home life.

Like many Amish children, Karen left school after eighth grade. She is one of seven children whose father is a woodworker. The Old Order family lives on a farm but rent the land to others who work it. They use what she calls “Amish electric” – gas and solar power, and to our surprise, have cell phones that are charged using solar power. Karen and her family speak a combination of Dutch and German, and while they grow their own vegetables and get eggs from a neighbor, her mom and aunt ride in a rented van (with a hired driver) to Wooster every four weeks to hit Wal-Mart and Aldi’s.

Karen’s openness and friendliness, on top of our buggy ride experience with Dave, encouraged us to shrug off another layer of our careworn attitudes and wrap ourselves in the experience of a simpler, slower life.

General Store on Steroids

Up the road we drove to our next must-see destinations, Lehman’s Hardware store in Kidron, a last bastion of the bygone general store – on steroids.

Our drive took us through rolling pastures and farms, carefully passing several buggies, some driven by teen boys who looked no older than 13. We passed a home where a form of choreographed outdoor social event for teens to get to know one another was taking place in the front yard while dozens of their little brothers and sisters, in bonnets and hats, climbed on a nearby split-rail fence. I wanted to slow down and was tempted even to pull over to watch, and I know my sister wished she could photograph the precious scene, but I also know the Amish don’t like to be photographed and that it wouldn’t be appropriate. After all, I wouldn’t want a stranger photographing my daughter playing in my yard.

When we arrived at Lehman’s it was mid-afternoon, and the adjacent livestock auction house was in full swing, with dozens of horses and buggies parked outside.

Founded in 1955, Lehman’s is a destination in and of itself, a 45,000-square-foot retail center featuring a gamut of sustainable living items and organic gardening tools, to the latest in gas-, wood- and solar-powered appliances, to toys and a downright alarming selection of houseware items – from cast iron to pottery to cookie cutters. Walls are lined with antique farming equipment, and the store itself is one big antique, cobbled together with four pre-Civil War era buildings.

My sister was pleasantly surprised to find her dish pattern in a variety of colors and pieces that she hadn’t been able to find anywhere else. She bought several at the main store and scooped up some great deals at the Lehman’s outlet across the parking lot.

Lehman’s also hass a huge online and catalog customer base and counts among its clientele “missionaries and doctors working in developing countries; to homesteaders and environmentalists living in remote areas; to those with unreliable electricity living on islands and mountains; second home owners, hunters, fishers and cabin dwellers; the chronically nostalgic; and even Hollywood set designers looking for historically accurate period pieces,” according to its website.

On the way back to Berlin, we figured we’d have time to check out some of its many specialty shops before our dinner reservation at Tarragon back at the inn. By that time, it was about 5 p.m., however, and nearly everything in Amish country shuts down at 6. We perused some boutiques and found a few fun items, but I am looking forward to a return visit to check out the antique malls, the Holmes County Flee Market, ‘Tis the Season Christmas store, Coblentz Chocolates, Miller’s Dry Goods and especially Breitenbach Wine Cellars down the road in Sugarcreek.

By the way, you know all those signs you see at convenience stores and markets throughout the Ohio Valley advertising “Amish wine”? To my chagrin, I learned from a snickering non-Amish store clerk there is no such thing. “Amish wine?” She said and shook her head. “Amish people don’t drink wine and they certainly don’t make it!” I realized then how I may have misunderstood those signs. It’s not “Amish wine” as in “made by the Amish,” it’s “wine that happens to be made in Amish country” – which of course is too wordy for a roadside sign.

Even without the wine, our evening was relaxing and pleasant with a gourmet dinner and decadent desserts at the lovely Tarragon and soaking in the hot tub on our cabin’s deck after dark.

Sunday morning, we bird-watched, read the newspaper that was delivered on our doorstep (major points for the inn in my book) and lounged around before heading south to find a restaurant open for lunch. As we parted ways, we all vowed we’d visit Amish country again soon.

And not just for the shopping or the doughnuts or the cheese. But to escape the world as we know it and experience that quieting of the spirit that occurs while gazing on those rolling hills and pondering the slower, simpler lifestyles of the people who live there.