Little has changed in the rolling hills of northeastern Ohio since the early 1800s, when word of inexpensive acreage in this fertile firm country first lured members of Pennsylvania’s well-established Amish community to move west. Today nearly 37,000 Amish and Mennonites call the region home, with the highest concentration–some 17,000 strong–in bucolic Holmes County, a 424-square-mile oasis south of Cleveland.
The Amish, whose religious beliefs mandate that they eschew many modern conveniences (including automobiles, electric appliances, and telephones), continue to live much as their forebears did two centuries ago. This lack of 21st-century trappings and the slower-paced lifestyle it engenders now attract a new breed of traveler–visitors who seek out the area because of its unspoiled scenery and gender ways. Word has gotten out, though, and the growing popularity of the region at times threatens the very tranquillity that makes Holmes County so special. Since tour buses have been known to monopolize main thoroughfares and attractions during peak travel seasons (summer and fill), heading off the beaten path is the surest way to experience the true peace and beauty of the area. Turn off busy State Route 39, and you’ll find mares grazing in green pastures, children playing outside one-room schoolhouses, and colorful quilts airing on clotheslines in the neat yards of whitewashed clapboard farmhouses.
Before you begin your back-road rambles, pick up a free map of the area at the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce, in Millersburg. Small white signs at each intersection indicate road numbers, so it’s easy to stay on course. Keep an eye out for hand-lettered signs outside homes inviting you onto the property, as many of the region’s residents are accomplished part-time craftspeople. Provided you don’t drive by on a Sunday, when the Amish worship, you’ll likely be welcomed between the hours of 9:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M. Although somewhat reserved, Amish people are also exceedingly polite and more than obliging when fielding visitors’ questions. In fact, you’ll probably be invited to step inside their simple, comfortably furnished homes to transact business. Personal checks are sometimes accepted, but cash is the preferred currency, so be prepared if you’re in the market for big-ticket items. Feel free to bargain, but be forewarned: Some sellers will lower their prices, but many aren’t likely to budge.
If antiques and collectibles are your passion, Holmes County will not disappoint. Stores are plentiful and prices are surprisingly reasonable considering the popularity of the area. Don’t miss Winesburg Antiques & Sweets, which, as its name suggests, showcases vintage apothecary bottles, leather-bound books, hand-tinted maps, cast-iron toys, and patchwork quilts alongside rich hand-dipped chocolates and colorful peppermint sticks arranged in old-fashioned glass candy dispensers.
Try to schedule time to attend the Amish farmers auction, where seasonal fruits and vegetables, eggs, livestock, farm equipment, household goods, even the occasional hand-stitched quilt make their way to the auction block. Held every weekday morning (it’s best to arrive by nine), the sales rotate between auction barns in the towns of Farmerstown and Mount Hope, in Holmes County, and Sugarcreek and Kidron, in neighboring Tuscarawas and Wayne Counties.
Don’t overschedule yourself, though–tight itineraries and busy agendas belong to the world that you’ve (temporarily) left behind.