Shipshewana a Crossroads of Past and Present

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If Indiana is the crossroads of America, then Shipshewana, Indiana, is the crossroads of past and present. Every Tuesday and Wednesday this little town comes alive with one of the largest flea markets and horse auctions around. Amish buggies, local traffic, UPS trucks and some semi trucks can all be seen sharing the streets of this tiny burg.

Vendors set up their booths and sell their wares to half a million visitors annually. What makes this town unique is that it has managed to offer hand-crafted Amish furniture and their homegrown produce right beside the T-shirts, sunglasses and other wares of the “English” as they refer to anyone outside their culture.

You will even find unique stores and shops that sell items that just can’t be found in many other places. Shopping aside, perhaps the best part of a day spent in Shipshewana is feeling the ambiance where the modern world and a gentle people who have not changed their customs in over a hundred years co-exist in an atmosphere that is strictly “Shipshe.”

Some of the Amish ways seem impractical for this modern world. Often it appears that they choose to live a harder life than need be by rejecting modern technology. However, when you delve into the reasons behind some of their customs, they do begin to make sense, sometimes more so than some of our “English” ones.

One thing I could never understand is why the Amish can ride in cars, use telephones and other modern conveniences, but not own them. Isn’t this contradictory? Either you believe in something or you don’t. Quite the contrary is true. They believe that owning speedy transportation will take them away from family more. When you think about this it makes a lot of sense. When you jump in a car, arrive at your destination in 20 minutes and listen to your favorite tunes on the way, there isn’t much time for actual communication. Now, that same ride in a horse and buggy leaves a lot of time for getting to know what’s on each other’s mind.

The same is true for using horses for farm work instead of tractors. Engines and machines may do the work more quickly but the value of teamwork is lost. Ever notice that when Amish do a task it usually involves the whole community? How many times could you find 10 or 20 farmers working in a field together and all agreeing on how to do the same task?

As for riding in vehicles, it has become a necessity. Doctors are specialized and sometimes they have to travel farther than going in a buggy is practical. More and more they are not only farmers, but also craftsmen whose jobs take them farther than their own communities so they need modern transportation.

As a whole, they believe in life separated from the non-Amish. This is evident in their simple dress style. Most of their clothes are handmade, and no bright or printed patterns are used. Men’s trousers can have no creases or cuffs. Belts, ties, gloves and sneakers are banned, and women can wear no jewelry.

Married men must grow their beards but mustaches are forbidden. Women are forbidden to cut their hair. This belief can be a cause of violence between different orders of the Amish. As punishment, one order will cut the hair of a woman or the beard of a man causing great embarrassment. Disputes don’t have to be over anything major. Sometimes the dispute can be over a matter as trivial as hat brims.

Each division has its own rules that govern their members. We stopped at a bicycle shop once and were surprised to learn that some groups were allowed to use bikes and others were not.

One custom that virtually all divisions embrace is what is referred to as Rumspringa, whereby young men, more often than young women, will go into the world and experience the “other” life for a period of time, usually a year. They buy cars, go to movies, and generally do all the things that we consider normal for teens. Since they have not yet been baptized in the church, they are under no obligation to follow the laws of the order. However, at the end of Rumspringa, they must choose to follow the Amish lifestyle or turn their fling with worldliness into their permanent lifestyle. Surprisingly, many do choose the Amish lifestyle.

They usually have no formal churches, choosing to worship in each other’s homes on alternate Sundays. On the opposite Sundays they visit relatives. They are true to their beliefs and the practice of shunning is upheld. Members who violate the rules of the division are cut off from all activities within their order until they repent. This is pretty heavy duty punishment, but it does serve to make sure that their beliefs are strictly upheld.

Their practice of “bundling” is still practiced in the Pennsylvania Dutch community. This one is still hard for me to believe. It involves binding a young courting couple in two separate blankets and then laying them together on a bed for intimacy that does not involve touching. Sometimes the bed even has a board down the middle. OK, enough said on this custom, I just can’t go there!

On a recent trip to Shipshewana, I saw the perfect blending of the Amish world and ours. An Amish buggy was meandering down the street pulling a boat behind. Then we passed a horse pulling a cart equipped with four modern car seats. Ahh, whenever two worlds collide, a new world that blends the best of both is created.

Perhaps I have more of a vested interest in this topic than most. My dad was Pennsylvania Dutch, and he knew no other life until he was almost 5 years old. He spoke their language and lived their ways. He always related stories of staying with his Amish grandparents in northwest Indiana.

Someday I will look into my Amish heritage of which I have the utmost respect. But I also say, “Thank you, Dad, for not remaining true to the faith you were born in.” As much of a country girl that I am, I just don’t think I was cut out to be an Amish girl.