It rained so much it almost felt like Oregon, only with prettier trees. I took to driving the wending, back roads, because they told me that’s where the “real Holmes County” was. Sometimes I was lost on purpose, and sometimes on accident.
After my long road trip east, after Texas and Tennessee, it seemed to me that Oregon has slower-than-usual speed limits. But they’re even slower in Ohio. I wonder if it’s because of the curves, or because of the buggies and bikes, or because of the potholes. And I wonder why there are so many potholes. Even on the Interstate. I always tense up when one looms unexpectedly, imagining my tire popping like a balloon.
And I’m never prepared for the school zones. In the wandering nowhere, suddenly a wee little schoolhouse appears and I’m supposed to go 25 mph. But only “during restricted hours.” What are restricted hours? Regular school hours? I slam on my brakes, but I’m already 2/3ds of the way through the zone before I hit 25 mph.
I suppose they’re Amish schools.
On these roads, it feels like no one exists except Amish. I’m passing a version of the same house, over and over. It’s huge, and white, and squarish, with a simple gabled roof. And the first story sticks out farther than the second story. Or maybe it’s just a lean-to.
I wondered, then, if I’d gotten things mixed up in my head. If Holmes County was actually the Amish capital of the world, not Lancaster County PA, as I’d always thought.
Wikipedia told me that while Lancaster County has a bigger Amish population than Holmes county, Amish make up 41.7% of Holmes County’s population, vs. only 7% of Lancaster County’s population. Although the 41.7% number is from 2010, so it must be closer to 50% now. Wikipedia projects that it will become the first majority Amish county by 2025.
I imagine Amish taking over Holmes County, then Wayne County, then Ohio, then America. I imagine Apple creating an Amish friendly phone that can’t connect to the internet. I imagine more train companies forming, offering competitive rates, and courting Amish clientele that won’t fly. I imagine Forever 21 offering ready-made Amish dresses, stitched by exploited communities overseas.
When my grandpa was four years old, only 5,000 Amish existed. Now, at latest count, there are 330,465.
I found a tiny Amish town, and pulled up to the general store to check my directions. Then, a sign outside caught my attention. “Fabric Store, Lower Level.”
I wanted some yellow knit for a sewing project, so I peeked around the corner of the general store, but found no handy entrance to the lower level. Perhaps I had to go through the general store?
The general store was empty except for a couple Amish employees. I made my way to the back. There was a small wooden door that looked like the entrance to a closet. But it was open, and there was a staircase behind it.
It reminded me of an entrance to a speakeasy.
Like a speakeasy, there was much more activity below than upstairs. As I passed the long row of suspenders on the stair wall and entered the hidden fabric store, I saw people everywhere. All Amish. All chattering happily in Pennsylvania Dutch. I wished Mom was there to translate. I wished she’d taught me.
It was more than a fabric store. It looked to me like an anything-an-Amish-person-might-want store. Sweaters and jackets in black, gray, and navy blue. Long dark socks. And earmuffs! I’ve had a hankering for earmuffs lately, so I nabbed a pair.
I was about to ask the Amish cashier to cut a half yard of yellow knit for me, when I looked at the long bookshelf behind her. “Oh! You have my mom’s books here!” I said.
“Which ones? Who is your mom?”
“Those ones. Fragrant Whiffs of Joy and Sunlight through Dusty Windows. My mom is Dorcas Smucker.”
She gave an excited exclamation. “I love your mom’s books! She always makes me laugh!”
In this way, I suddenly had an Amish friend. Susan. We talked about all sorts of things, and then her husband jumped into the conversation, wanting to know what crops we grew in Oregon.
I told them about getting off the 39, away from Berlin, and seeing the real Holmes County instead of the tourist version. They told me that tourists never come into their store. “We get Amish from other areas sometimes,” said Susan’s husband. “Like, Pennsylvania Amish. But see, we don’t advertise anywhere that non-Amish might see it.”
I got a delicious feeling then, like I’d discovered a magnificent secret.
It was a tiny town, hardly significant. But Carita told me it was one of the most Amish towns in existence. And my mom told me, later, that my ancestors came from there. Including my great-great grandpa, who fathered three sons and then took his own life. My family still battles the mental illness that he passed on.
The fanciful side of me likes to say that perhaps I wasn’t lost. Perhaps I was drawn to this little town where some of my family’s most painful roots are buried.