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Clif Bushnell has racked up many miles -- and many friendships -- driving his Amish customers on those trips too far for their horses and buggies to take them.
Clif (short for Clifford -- but Im too lazy to write the second f," he quips) was working at Rubbermaid in 1978 when he spotted an advertisement in The Daily Record. A young Amish carpenter had a crew looking for jobs to do. Going around the area to do estimates took too much time in his slow-moving horse and buggy, so the Amish crew chief was looking for a taxi driver who could convey him around eastern Wayne and northern Holmes counties. Clif had always been interested in learning more about his Amish neighbors, so he responded to the ad, intending only to do occasional short trips on Saturdays.
Gradually, as the Amish community became aware of his availability, he received more calls to take passengers to doctor s appointments, shopping trips, auctions, and many other errands.
After his retirement in 1990, he accepted more of these assignments. Twenty years of "Driving the Amish" resulted in a book of that name, published in 1999, as well as numerous articles for area publications. For some time he has also authored a regular column in The Budget, a Sugarcreek newspaper distributed internationally by, about, and for the Amish community.
Intrigued by this writing taxi driver, I asked if I could join him on one of his trips. He and his Amish passenger, Robert Hostetler*, graciously agreed to let me ride along one evening as Robert was traveling to a neighboring school district to consult with a fellow teacher.
* * * * *
I meet Clif at his Spink Street home in Wooster, and we hop into his 1991 Olds Cutlass station wagon, heading out toward East Union Township in eastern Wayne County. On the way to his customers house, Clif plans to run a quick errand of his own: returning a buggy jack he had borrowed from a local buggy shop. He explains to me that, for many years, he has been the proud owner of a folding-top buggy, manufactured by one of the original Gerstenslager brothers. He is working hard at restoring the buggy to drive in Wayne Countys Ohio Bicentennial parade, and had used the simple wooden jack to hoist the axle while he replaced worn-out metal washers with new ones made of leather.
As we travel on toward Robert Hostetlers farm, I seize the opportunity to ask some questions about Clifs taxi service. Clif typically charges 50 cents per mile, and the "meter" (his trip odometer) doesnt start until he collects the passenger. This is lower than the rate charged by most full-time taxi drivers but Clif says, Im not trying to make a living. For me, its a paying hobby. I do this because I like to get out into the country. Clif limits himself primarily to short day trips around the area, although he has taken a family on vacation to Canada and, if no other driver is available, will take Amish passengers to doctors appointments in Akron or Cleveland.
As we drive along on country lanes -- which Clif seems to know like the back of his hand -- he constantly points out the surroundings. Theres where Jonas Stutzman* lives," he comments. "I used to take his mother on shopping trips, when Jonas was a little boy in the back seat. Now hes married and they just had their fourth child." Or, "The woman who lives there was a midwife for many years. She used to keep an empty bedroom in her home where women could stay to have their babies."
We pass a row of lacy white blossoms nodding in the breeze along the road. "Do you know what those are?" he questions, testing my knowledge.
"When I was a girl, our side yard was full of them," I respond. "We called them Queen Annes Lace."
Clif nods and continues the botany lecture. "Theres a dark red spot in the center of each bloom. Do you know what that is?"
This time I am forced to confess my ignorance.
"Its a spot of blood where Queen Anne pricked her finger while making the lace," he says. And Clif pulls the car over to the side and picks a flower to show me, making sure I retain the lesson.
We arrive at Robert Hostetlers farm just as Robert is finishing his evening chores. Two small children wave us down the lane and out to the road.
Clif is my favorite driver," Robert tells me. "He always has time to look around and see things. We dont feel so rushed when we ride with him."
"How do Amish people find taxi drivers?" I ask.
Clif and Robert explain that many full-time drivers post cards in phone booths, or on store bulletin boards. The phone booths scattered through Amish country also have lists posted, to which many Amish add names and phone numbers as they become aware of English who are willing to use their vehicles to "haul" for the Amish. "And," adds Robert with a chuckle, "word gets around."
Tonight Robert is preparing for the upcoming school year by examining textbooks used by a more experienced teacher in another district about 10 miles away. But when we arrive at our destination, it turns out that the other teacher has gone to Kansas for a teachers conference. He has, however, left a stack of books for Robert to borrow.
Lets stop up the road and look at the books," Robert invites us.
Clif pulls into the lane leading to the Woodlyn Coach Co. off Rte 77, south of Mt. Hope, and parks the car under some trees. Driver and passenger eagerly dive into the books and begin to discuss them, while I stroll around the property looking at the many antique carriages, buggies and sleighs that are for sale or undergoing restoration.
Everyones curiosity satisfied, we go on our way to take Robert home, and Clif reminisces about his twenty-odd years of Amish taxi service.
Ive lost count of how many pregnant women I have taken to the midwife or to the birthing center, he muses. He enjoys taking passengers to auctions, where he either does some flea-marketing himself, or peruses the reading material he always keeps handy, such as the latest issue of The Budget. Sometimes, if the day will be long, he drops off his customers and returns in the evening to collect them. Last winters long cold spells resulted in several trips with Amish teens to a farm south of Wooster, where a big pond had frozen over solidly enough for many evenings of ice-skating fun. Clif also enjoys horse auctions, when he and his passengers stroll past the pens together and analyze the merits of the different animals.
As the trip ends back in Wooster, Clif comments that he is preparing for a journey himself. He and his wife will be departing soon for North Carolina, where their daughter is about to give birth to their third grandchild. Clif admits that he has thought of moving to North Carolina permanently, to be near his family, but I would miss the clip-clop of the horses hooves. Driving the Amish has made Clif too much a part of the Amish Heartland to leave it now.
Thanks, Clif, for a great ride. And thank you too, kind reader, for coming with us.
*names changed to protect privacy
"Driving the Amish" was written by Clif Bushnell under the pen name of Jim Butterfield. Published in 1997 by Herald Press of Scottdale, Pennsylvania. ISBN 0-8361-9063-7. It is available at the Wayne County Public Library, the College of Wooster bookstore, The Wooster Book Company, and many gift shops in Wayne and Holmes Counties. September 2003 edition