Where time stands still in Amish community in Missouri

An Amish community in Jamesport, Missouri, shuns cars and electrical appliances

A horse-drawn buggy appears on the other side of the road. I catch a glimpse of the heavily bearded man, clad in a cerulean shirt and suspenders, helming the buggy.

He waves to barefoot children traipsing across the sprawling farmland, chortling and clutching their straw hats.

Life seems to slow down as we enter Jamesport, Missouri, home to the largest Amish community west of the Mississippi River in the United States.

"The Amish lead peaceful lives," our guide Jim Smith says, as we drive through the rolling hills. "Life is all about cohesive families, farming and strict discipline of faith."

He points out a yellow traffic sign with a symbol of a horse-wagon. "Here, these signs are more common than other road symbols," Mr Smith says. The Amish shun modern vehicles such as cars and travel only by horse-drawn buggies.


A horse-drawn buggy at the four-way junction in downtown Jamesport and a telephone booth shared by five families to facilitate business with the outside world (above). PHOTO: DENISE LIM

They also avoid electricity and appliances such as radios and television sets to prevent secular influences from intruding their homes and church, we are told. This has, perhaps, become the most public symbol of their separation from the contemporary world.

Jamesport, located 90 minutes outside Kansas City, is the only Amish community in the vicinity that permits organised tours within its borders.

Mr Smith is a Jamesport native who grew up among the Amish and their decades-long friendship has gained him access to Amish living spaces. Today, he is taking us on a fascinating visit to an Amish home, its adjacent farm, as well as old-world craft stores and bakeries in the countryside.

"It feels like time has stood still," my husband observes, intrigued, as we pass the four-way junction in downtown Jamesport.

A bearded man trailed by three little boys, clothed in identical purple outfits and broad-brimmed hats, disappear around the corner of a brick-laced store. A chestnut mare hauls an open carriage with girls in indigo dresses and black bonnets.

Passers-by - clearly "English", the local term for everyone who is non-Amish, regardless of ethnicity - pause to gawk.

I feel like I am on an 18th-century vintage film set, but as I am reminded, this is real and everyday life for the community.

The elderly Amish man stands on the porch of a homestead.

Mr A wears a thick greying beard without a moustache, the signature look of married Amish men. Moustaches have a long history of being associated with the military and are thus forbidden by the Amish, Mr Smith tells us.

  • GETTING THERE

    United Airlines flies from Singapore to Kansas City, with stopovers in Tokyo and San Francisco. From Kansas City International Airport, drive onto Interstate-35 North to Exit 61. Turn right on US-69. Stay straight on Missouri Highway 6 and turn right onto Missouri Highway F. The drive takes about 90 minutes.

    TIPS

    • We visited Jamesport, Missouri, with Step Back In Time Tours (www.stepbackintimetours.com; US$7, or S$9.60, a person or US$40 a car).

    • Drive slowly in Jamesport. Horse buggies travel at 8kmh. You may also encounter children riding miniature horses.

    •Avoid visiting on Sundays and Thursdays as Amish businesses are closed.

    • Do not ask an Amish person to pose for a picture.

    • Carry US dollars as few businesses accept credit cards.

The house, like many Amish homes we see in Jamesport, is a single-storey building of white wood panels and a brick chimney. The interiors, which are minimally furnished, provide insight into their simple way of living.

The walls are painted white or brown with touches of blue and green or the colours of nature. They are bare, save for a functional art piece that incorporates a handdesigned calendar.

"In Amish homes, there are no family photos," Mr Smith tells us. He explains that the Amish are not allowed to pose for photographs, prohibited by their literal interpretation of creating a "graven image" in the Bible.

I now feel awkward about the hefty camera in my hands. Mr Smith assures me kindly that in Jamesport, visitors are allowed to snap general photographs in which individuals are not recognisable.

I see a washing machine, albeit a hand-cranked one. My husband spots a refrigerator and lights.

The Amish have adapted some household devices to work with other energy sources. "We use compressed air and propane in our household," Mr A says.

His genial tone is typical of Midwest Americans, tinged with an accent from the Pennsylvanian German dialect. His ancestors originated from German-speaking parts of Europe and migrated to Pennsylvania in the US in the 18th century.

There are no television sets, computers, radios or modern appliances that are typical fixtures in modern homes today. Air- conditioners are also missing - a must-have for most Missourians, given the blazing summers of more than 40 deg C.

I step into the kitchen. It is equipped with kerosene and wood-burning appliances for cooking. Hand grinders and cast-iron crockery are neatly stacked on a shelf.

The smell of caramelised fruit wafts through the air. Mrs A, a soft-spoken woman in an olivecoloured calf-length dress overlaid with an apron, is bottling berry preserves. Her two daughters, who have their hair tucked under white prayer caps secured with strings around their chins, flash me bashful smiles.

Amish women spend their days working in kitchens, making pastries, caring for young children and tending to domestic affairs.

They are also incomparable hand-quilters. I do not have the privilege to witness them in action today, but my eyes are drawn towards their home quilts with geometric, solid-coloured fabrics.

Each stitch is remarkably even. Having attempted to hand-sew a quilt - giving up in the end to ask for help with a sewing machine - I appreciate why the Amish's impeccable workmanship sets the benchmark for the American quilt.

Mr A tells us that he has eight children, which falls within the norm of around seven to 10 children in an Amish family.

From the original seven families who settled in Jamesport in the 1950s, there are now close to 1,500 Amish living here. This makes the Amish population almost thrice as large as that of the "English" in Jamesport.

A young man is ploughing the field with a horse-drawn cart, his brows furrowed in unwavering deep focus even as we approach. In Jamesport, farming is not just seen as work, but a sacred lifestyle.

"The rigours of farming help them live out their values of simple existence and hard work," Mr Smith says.

Fieldwork is done with horse- drawn tools. Tractors and hay balers are used, powered by horses instead of electricity.

In a nearby enclosure, we spot trophy deer that are raised to be sold to hunting lodges in Texas.

We enter a woodshop in a simple steel building, where furniture is hand-made with tools powered by compressed air. The quality is immaculate, even from a distance.

"We make beautiful furniture, but only for sale," Mr A says. "We don't need them in our homes."

The young and old toil together to ensure continuation of trades and skills. Exquisite craftsmanship is evident from their wares - furniture, quilts and baskets - displayed in shops nestled peacefully in the countryside.

The hand-sewn quilts for sale entail more applique work and vibrant textiles, compared with those in Singapore. They do not come cheap, though, priced at US$795 (S$1,090) for a king-sized quilt.

I am fascinated to discover a whole new literary genre - Amish fiction, browsing through titles such as Plain Wisdom, Lilly's Wedding Quilt and The Amish Nanny.

At the Countryside Bakery, we devour delicious fried pies fashioned somewhat like curry puffs or empanadas. Homemade bottled preserves such as pickle and zuchinni relish, apricot and blackberry jams are snapped up quickly.

While the Amish shun attention, they appear to have come to terms with tourism. I am told that visitors have created a new market for sales of Amish wares and tourism has fuelled continual distinction in craftsmanship.

We spot a small hut at the end of a gravel lane. It is a telephone booth, a surprising break from tradition. Five families share the telephone booth, which the elders have allowed to facilitate business with the outside world.

A sparsely furnished wooden cabin stands solitary in an open field, with a hand-painted wooden sign that reads Pleasant Hill Parochial School.

An unmarried girl teaches in the tiny one-room school, where religious education and basic academics are taught. Children are educated up to the eighth grade (the equivalent of Secondary 2 in Singapore), beyond which education is considered more harmful than helpful.

Later, we notice a teenager in plain clothes with earphones plugged in, standing by his buggy and looking somewhat nonchalant. "Rumspringa," Mr Smith says with a smile. "That's the Pennsylvanian German word for 'running around'."

At age 16, teenagers enter rumspringa, a phase that lasts between two and four years when they are allowed to engage in activities of the "English".

They take their buggies to town, watch movies, drive cars and download music from Spotify. This helps them make an informed decision on whether to officially join the Amish community later.

"One is never born an Amish," Mr Smith explains. "He is only born a child of an Amish."

To his knowledge, about 90 per cent of teenagers eventually choose to return to the ways of the Amish.

He also explains that the Amish do not evangelise or seek to add outsiders to their church. They are happy to lead their lives quietly and never expect people to join them.

Annually, the Amish and "English" children in Jamesport have a baseball game, which has always been won by the Amish team. Mr Smith attributes this to their dexterity and strength - disguised within their sinewy frames - honed from working the farms.

Mr Smith shares that while the Amish are generally private, his friendship with them has grown strong over the decades.

The kinship proves poignant months after our trip, when Mr Smith is discovered to have late-stage cancer.

His wife tells me via e-mail that his Amish friends are pillars of support, warmly blessing them with homemade foods and organising a community auction to raise funds for the family.

Ironically, it is the Amish's turning away from the modern world that has drawn attention to them. Their determination to uphold tradition and lead peaceful lives, juxtaposed against the speed with which the rest of the world is embracing new technologies, makes them mysterious and compelling.

As we drive away from the tranquillity of Jamesport towards the relative bustle of Kansas City, we are held up behind a horse- drawn buggy. Instead of hitting the accelerator to overtake the buggy, my husband slows down.

I surprise myself too, resisting the impulse to check for cellular signal on my mobile phone.

I choose instead to relax and enjoy views of the verdant countryside.

• Denise Lim is a freelance travel writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'Where time stands still'. Print Edition | Subscribe