Touring the Amish Backcountry, by Tad Clark

Ever wonder what it was like to live in a rural setting at the turn of the 20th century?

A  tour through the interior farmlands of Jefferson, Lewis and St.  Lawrence counties provides a pleasant change of pace for both parents  and kids alike.

Whereas Upper Canada Village gives a visitor a  sample of frontier living in a theme park setting, the pockets of Amish  in upstate New York offers a real life demonstration of the travails  encountered before the advent of modern conveniences. Tractors and cars  have no place in the daily lives of these Christian traditionalists.  Telephones, computers, televisions are a mystery to most of these folks.  Kerosene substitutes for electricity when it comes to lights and  cooking.

For those who cherish the memory of products crafted by  hand, the Amish continue to create high quality goods at  bargain-basement prices. In the days when I taught tennis for long hours  each day, I sought the protection of a straw hat to shield my face and  neck from the sun’s harmful rays.

In the mid-1980s on a tour of  the Heuvelton area, I stopped to ask an Amish man if it was possible to  buy a hat like his.  It was a Sunday and he advised me it is a day for  rest and religious observance, but from Monday through Saturday I could  visit his home for directions to the hat maker.

We purchased a  quilt, fresh eggs, jams, a raspberry pie, and a sturdy straw hat that  survived wind, rain, and rough treatment for ten years before I returned  to the big farmhouse at the end of a dirt road seeking a replacement  model. A lady came to the porch to see who was calling. I held up my  tattered hat and said, “I think I need a new one of these.”

The  elder woman said, “Come ahead,” and she inspected the crumbling remains.  “I don’t think we can fix this one,” she said stating the obvious while  inviting me to enter the dwelling. Inside was a large room with a wood  stove in the middle of the space. Two younger women were making straw  hats with foot-driven sewing machines tucked up against windows for  there was no other light.

The lady who greeted me found me a new  hat of the proper size while I watched one of the hat makers stitching  the brim of the hat she was working on. It was nearing noon, and I asked  the lady, “How many hats have you done so far today?”

She replied, “This will be my second.”

I  figured she’d produce three and maybe four hats a day. I’d paid $8 for  the hat I bought ten years earlier, and I had no complaints when I paid  $10 for the shiny new model.

Dan Miller fabricated top-notch  duplicate windows for our Victorian cottage at a fraction of what it  would have cost from a commercial vendor and his son-in-law, Eli  Slabach, continues the trade today. The Zooks from Omar came via rowboat  to work on several projects at Comfort Island. Their work ethic is  legendary.

Last year we took our granddaughters along to order  new windows, and to share the experience of a different way of life.  Little Amish kids waved excitedly as we passed, and one little fellow  was riding one of the draft horses his father was using to plow his  field.