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As you make your way into the heart of Amish country, you suddenly notice a shift in time. The people here seem to be traveling at a slower pace and it feels as if you have transported back in time. They dress differently, their main mode of transportation is horse and buggy and even their field work is done by horse power.
These people speak in a dialect that is unfamiliar to you. Why is it that these people seem to be trapped in a time warp of the 1800s when the rest of the world has moved on to our modern day conveniences? And where can you go to learn more about this fascinating culture?
The Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center, located just off of Country Road 77 on your way into the heart of Amish country, is the perfect place to begin your exploration of this new culture.
"Making [the heritage center] their first stop will give people reasoning behind why the Amish and Mennonite are the way they are and give them insight they wouldn't get otherwise," said an Amish staff member - who wished to remain anonymous - at the heritage center.
Last year the heritage center had visitors from 111 different countries. These visitors ranged in their professions and interests from Washington politicians to Hollywood actors, and visitors from other countries studying different cultural practices to the everyday tourists looking to explore new cultures.
All of these travelers share a common interest. They want to learn about this unfamiliar culture and what makes them so different.
How Behalt came to be:
German born immigrant, Heinz Gaugel came to Holmes County, Ohio in 1962. An artist by trade, he was in search of a glazed brick to complete a mural he had been working on in Canada.
Heinz was unfamiliar with the Amish lifestyle that made up most of Holmes County but he was intrigued by their use of a similar German dialect. He moved to a small farm in 1972 where he could work on various art projects in the area.
Tourism was on the rise in Holmes County and a number of Amish and Mennonite people in the area began to express their frustration with these people who didn't understand their faith. In 1978, an Amish blacksmith shared his frustration with Heinz. "I wish there was some place in the area that people could go and find out why we live the way we do."
Heinz became intrigued and set out to create this place. He had committed himself to developing the centerpiece of this information center by painting a cyclorama (a mural in-the-round) that would depict the history of the Anabaptists - a task that would require painstaking historical research until the mural was complete.
Word of his project spread fast throughout the community and the Amish and Mennonite's grew concerned the information would not be accurate. Other's felt the mural needed to remain in the hands of the Mennonite's and used to tell the story of Anabaptism rather than used for private business.
After much discussion, representatives of the local Mennonite community agreed to open a Mennonite Information Center with the intent of distributing accurate information about the Amish and Mennonite's to the visitors in the area. The center first opened its doors in 1982 in the old Dunkard Church in Bunker Hill - the same building where Heinz had begun his painting months earlier - but was later moved, in 1984, to a building on State Route 39 just east of State Route 62 in Berlin.
With only 100 feet of his mural complete, the Mennonite Information Center purchased the painting from Heinz in 1988. The center agreed to build a special building to house the mural in which Heinz agreed to complete the painting once the building was established. Ground was broken in March of 1989 and the unfinished mural was moved to the mural room in the fall of 1989. Visitors to the center were able to watch Heinz paint the mural until it was completed in October of 1992. He entitled it "Behalt," from the German word "behalten," meaning "to keep" or "to remember." (Background information supplied by the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center.)
Today the mural is still the main attraction at the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center. The completed mural wraps around the mural room at 265 feet wide and 10 feet tall. For a small fee, visitors receive a 30-minute guided tour where they can view the mural and hear the story of the Amish and Mennonite people as they refused to give up their religious convictions despite persecution.
"It's a crash course in Amish and Mennonite history explaining how, when, where, and why they came to be here," said the Amish staff member. A full explanation of the mural, which depicts over 1,200 people, would take 36 hours. The guide also explains how the history relates to the Amish and Mennonite way of life in Holmes County today.
The heritage center also offers the opportunity for visitors to meet local Amish and Mennonite's and ask them questions as the staff and volunteers are of the Amish and Mennonite faith. Visitors can also view a 15 minute video on Amish and Mennonite life in Holmes County.
The Heritage Center is a wealth of Amish and Mennonite information with books on different aspects of the culture, a popular display on head coverings and wardrobes, and even handmade items made by the local Amish and Mennonite community.
Outside, an old one-room school house, built in 1857, is used to demonstrate what the Amish education system is like today compared to the traditional school system non-Amish are accustomed to. The heritage center is lucky enough to have some volunteers who were once Amish teachers lead discussions on Amish education.
The old barn on the property was put up in 2002 with a true Amish barn raising and demonstrates to the public that a barn raising isn't as television shows and movies often make them out to be. Inside the barn is a display of a Conestoga wagon which was used to make several trips in the 1800s as Amish and Mennonites made the journey from Pennsylvania to settle in Holmes County, Ohio. One of the more favored displays are the different buggies used by the Amish in the community. The volunteers and staff at the heritage center have found the people really enjoy sitting in the buggies and getting their pictures taken.
The Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center hopes to expand their collection of buggies to highlight the different communities in Holmes County as well as other States. (Outside tours are closed during the winter months.)
The Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center is the perfect place to begin your journey as you navigate your way through this foreign culture. Even if you are a seasoned traveler to the area, you never know what kind of knowledge may have been waiting for you to discover. The mural itself is a site to behold and often moves visitors beyond words as they obtain a visual knowledge of the Anabaptist people.
The Amish and Mennonite Heritage Centers is located at 5798 County Road 77, Berlin. Hours are Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Hours may vary during the winter months.) For more information call 330-893-3192 or 877-858-4634 or visit www.behalt.com.