Community offers glimpse into Amish way of life
BUILDING TOGETHER: When members of the Amish community need a new house to be built, or a barn raised, men come from miles around to help out.
photograph courtesy of Southeastern Minnesota Historic Bluff Country
A tour through Harmony, a small town in Southeastern Minnesota, offers insights into the Amish lifestyle. Although they aren't the only ones who live in the area, everywhere one looks are reminders that this isn't a typical American community, from the handmade quilts and expertly crafted furniture to the occasional reminder in the road that a horse-drawn buggy has recently passed by.
Originally from Germany and Switzerland, Harmony's ancestors came to the area by way of Pennsylvania and New York, attracted by the rolling hills and sparsely populated forests and fields. Taking a two-hour summer tour by van offered a chance to experience this country and its people and learn more of their gentle way of life through the commentary by guide Russ Nagel.
The community around Harmony numbers between 700 to 900, he told us, with groups being kept relatively small by design. When one gets too large, another is formed. The schools are built four miles apart. Getting to one means, at most, a two-mile trek on foot or by horse-drawn buggy. Just 20 to 30 children attend each school.
Our first stop
We had our first encounter with a member of the community's youth on our first stop - a small, roughly built farm structure sporting a homemade 'Open. Self-Serve' sign on an unpainted door.
Inside was a young girl in bare feet and traditional Amish clothing. She was selling hand-woven baskets, each item bearing the name of the individual who made it. As for her lack of footwear, Nagel explained that all the children go barefoot in Harmony all summer.
The next attraction offered another meeting with a barefooted stranger - this one with four legs. At the Austin Goat Farm, visitors were encouraged to stroke the silky, white coat of a small goat. In a large display room, various goat-related products were for sale: soap, cheese, meat and items woven of mohair. There were even sample cubes of goat sausage. (It tasted like beef.)
Customs of the country
Back in the van, we made our way down a winding gravel road. Nagel told us that the community uses its grazing animals to keep grass under control. The vehicle of choice in the community is the traditional, black horse-drawn buggy. The vehicle clip-clops along paved highways and gravel back roads alike at a leisurely 10 miles an hour or so. Many of the horses used to pull the buggies are retired racing horses that have taken up second careers.