If you spend some time on these country roads, you are sure to be familiar with the sight of a horse and buggy. You are likely to see them in town as well, with many stores providing posts for tying up horses and parking buggies. One of my bike routes dips into the largest Amish community in Wisconsin, which was founded in 1966 near Cashton. As of 2010, the Amish Wisconsin population was over 15,000 and growing fast. Wisconsin actually has the 4th largest state population of Amish, following Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana (Wisconsin Amish).
This bike route starts out on County P, east of WI-27. Instead of continuing on Country P, I climb the hill to Carlson Ridge Road. Two miles later, the road winds down into the valley and ends in a ‘T’. I take a left on Knapp Valley Road and soon cross the West Fork of the Kickapoo River. This takes me North following Knap Creek for about four miles.
At this point in the journey, I’ve passed mostly pasture land and rows of corn. From the look of the houses and the cars in the driveway, I can tell that these are “English” farms. English is what the Amish call the rest of us. The Amish movement actually began in Switzerland when the Amish branch split from the Mennonite branch in the late 1600s. After immigrating to the states, the Amish still speak German, or a version known as “Pennsylvania Dutch”, as their primary language. When, I turn onto County D, I immediately see signs of Amish living.
The most obvious way to identify whether a farm is English or Amish is the windmill. Practices will vary from community to community, but the Cashton Amish do not use electricity or indoor plumbing for bathrooms. There are some exceptions to the rule, like battery-operated flashlights. The windmills are often used to pump water into elevated storage tanks and to fill water reservoirs near or under the house where they are tapped by hand pumps (Scott 1990). On laundry day, electricity-powered dryers are not allowed, so all clothes are hung out to dry.
Early in the 20th century, the large majority of Amish leaders agreed that connecting to power lines would not be in the best interest of their communities. Easy access to electricity could present temptations that would lead to the deterioration of church and family life (Scott 1990). They also believe that fast, easy transportation would encourage family members to venture away from the home. Thus, they do not use motorized cars or tractors. Instead, they use horses for transportation, or they walk. Farm equipment is horse-pulled as well.
An Amish-harvested cornfield is an impressive sight.
Dependence on family and community is at the foundation of Amish living. Limited technology in the home further brings the family together. In the evening, it is common for family to gather in one room for reading, sewing, and playing games. While every family member, even the youngest, helps with chores, the kids do leave the farm to go to school. Every community will have their own school houses, so that the kids can walk themselves to school. Along County D, I pass a white, one-room school house. They are distinguishable by their two outhouses, one for the girls and one for the boys, as well as their baseball diamond. Baseball is a popular game among Amish kids.
The Amish regard physical labor as healthy for body and soul (Scott 1990). Farming the land is a family’s primary source of income. The Cashton Amish sell their goods through various methods. Many sell their milk to Pasture Pride Cheese, located in Cashton. The Produce Growers Auction, just outside of Cashton, is a popular method for selling fruit and vegetables. Of those farms that are certified organic, many sell their dairy and produce to CROPP Cooperative (a.k.a. Organic Valley) whose distribution center is located in Cashton. There were Amish among the founding farmers of CROPP back in 1988. CROPP’s CEO, George Siemon, is excited that the “plain folk” (a common term used to describe the Amish and similar Anabaptist groups, such as the Mennonites) now make up 42% of the farmer-members.
The Amish also sell produce, baked goods, and maple syrup right on their farms. It’s common to see road-side stands or signs advertising this to the general public.
Family members often have jobs off the farm for additional income.
As you may know, the Amish are famous for their quality furniture.
After about two miles heading south on County D, the road starts to descend back into the valley. I spot some maple syrup lines in the trees as I speed downward. Putting gravity to work, these maple syrup producers run lines downhill and collect the sweet sap into a large tank.
In the valley, I turn back onto County P to complete my loop and soon return to English farm territory. Whenever you pass an Amish person, whether they are walking along a road, driving a buggy, or working in the fields, they never fail to greet you. Their lives are not easy, living without the modern conveniences we take advantage of; yet, they seem to thrive. Through their lifestyle, they form close bonds with family, community, and land. One can’t help but admire them!
Scott, Stephen, and Kenneth Pellman. Living without Electricity. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1990.