The Amish tour business in the Harmony area is quiet this time of the year — not many folks venture into the countryside during March to see the farms owned by members of the religious community known for shunning electricity and automobiles and clinging to a pre-modern way of life.
But if you make the trip — and we did — you’ll find many Amish ready to show and sell their amazing varieties of handmade furniture, quilts, baskets, candles and candies no matter the season.
The Amish themselves were getting around fine in their horse-drawn buggies, even on the soggy gravel roads and rutted dirt driveways of late winter. Buggies bounce along the highways and on Main Street, and a couple sat parked outside the Harmony grocery store, the horses patiently waiting. Several buggies sat outside a one-room schoolhouse attended by Amish children (up to 8th grade only), but those horses were stabled somewhere out of sight.
Richard Scrabeck, our non-Amish guide, said we were his first tour of the year and he seemed glad to get back into the field, catching up with some of the Amish families he’s come to know over the past 10 years that he’s brought small groups of tourists to their farms and shops.
Scrabeck, a Harmony native who lived in California for years before retiring back to his hometown, has been a tour guide for 10 years; he’s one of 14 guides who work for Rich Bishop’s Amish Tours of Harmony, which offers group tours in vans and small buses, or will put a guide in your car for the three-hour tour.
Five years ago Bishop bought two competing Amish tour businesses and consolidated them, operating out of the Essence of Harmony Gift Shop.
From the East
The first Amish families began arriving in the area from Wayne County, Ohio, in 1974, as the sect expanded to find new farmland more affordable than what was available in traditional Amish areas in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
They’re descendants of a Swiss group that believed the religious reforms of Martin Luther didn’t go far enough to return the Christian church to its roots. They came to America in the early 1700s and haven’t changed all that much in nearly three centuries, disdaining electricity, plumbing, natural gas and other modern conveniences.
The Harmony Amish community has grown quickly — large families are a staple — and there are now about 150 families within a 15-mile area, divided into several districts for worship and administrative purposes.
Strict cultural and religious codes keep the Amish isolated in their own community, although they do have limited social and business interactions with the “English” — anyone who’s not Amish.
Without power machinery in their fields and having generally farm tracts of about 80 acres — much smaller than the large farm operations now common in the state — Amish farmers don’t get the large yields of modern farms, and they consume much of what they grow. With limited farm incomes, many Amish families have side businesses — making furniture, baskets, quilts and other items.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the town of Harmony’s economy was fading, as families’ farms were bought out, people moved to the cities and businesses closed. A man named Vernon Michaels saw a possible business idea that would help both the town’s economy and help the Amish sell goods to supplement their incomes. He wanted to set up tours and bring tourists around to the farms, where they’d get a look at an interesting new culture, and maybe buy some goods while visiting.
But the Harmony Amish is one of the sect’s old order groups, considered among the least progressive in the wide range of strictness found in the various communities. So when Michaels visited the local bishop to suggest the tour arrangements, he was turned down.
It took several attempts, but finally the bishop approved the idea, and the tours began in 1988.
About a dozen different Amish families have agreed to let Bishop bring tours to their farms, with the understanding that many visitors will likely purchase some of their merchandise. Many others families don’t want visitors, but don’t seem to mind that their neighbors do.
Each three-hour tour hits four to six of the farms, depending on how much time people want to spend at each place. Guides customize the tours, taking people interested in furniture to more of the wood-shop stops, while hitting the basket makers for others interested in them.
Scrabeck, our tour guide, has become quite friendly with many Amish families, sometimes driving them to doctor appointments or on other errands outside of buggy distance.
During the busy summer season, he’ll take out six tours a week, sometimes two in a day on a sunny Friday or Saturday.
“It’s as win-win situation,” Scrabeck said. “It’s a great deal for Harmony as a tourist spot, and it’s important for the Amish community, because their income is limited due to the way they farm.”
The Amish don’t have phones, so the tour guides can’t check ahead before heading out to a farm, but those on the list welcome visitors any day but Sunday, which is strictly observed as the Lord’s Day.
He can’t visit every farm with every group, and sometimes he’ll get stopped in town by an Amish farmer wondering why the tours haven’t been out his way in a while.
Some other farms don’t want tourist visits on a regular basis, Scrabeck said, but like to meet those with a particular interest in their product. One dining-room-furniture maker prefers to deal only with those ready to place orders. And a harness shop is so busy that he only takes folks there if they’re looking to buy saddles or equipment.
A very popular Amish bakery is a stop on almost every tour, but is open only during the busy summer season. It was closed last week when we drove past.
Bishop said tourists are urged to be respectful of the Amish hosts: “You can visit with them, but try not to have private conversations or pry into their personal lives,” he said.
Photos of their faces are verboten — they might lead to vanity. But pictures of the farms and buggies and products seem to be fine.
Bishop’s business offers van and car tours year ’round, although fewer farms are available during winter and wet spring months.
Cost for the car tours, where the guide rides along in your car, is $50 for up to three people, then $20 for each additional adult, $15 for each additional teen, or $6 for each additional child. Riding in the company’s vans, the cost is $25 per adult; $20 for teens and $8 for children 8-12.
Reservations can be made via email or phone — 800-752 6474 or 507-886-2303
Amish tours in the area are also run out of two places in nearby Lanesboro, R&M Amish tours
and Bluffscape Tours.
Slide show: Touring Minnesota’s Amish country