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When it comes to knowledge about the Amish culture and lifestyle, many visitors to this part of Ohio arrive with a firm grasp of the "basics."
They already know the Amish who live in Wayne, Holmes and the surrounding counties share specific beliefs and values. These include the general eschewing of modern or "worldly" amenities (such as automobiles and electricity); education only to the eighth grade; religious services held in homes rather than in church buildings; plain dress; and the use of High German in church services and Low German, or Pennsylvania Dutch in the home.
While the Amish are united by these core values -- in essence, beliefs put into actions -- the Amish community of this region is actually made up of many smaller groups, called orders.
A recent assessment places approximately 34,000 persons in the Wayne/ Holmes Amish community. This makes it the largest Amish settlement in the world, with Lancaster County, Pennsylvania being the second largest. Contrary to popular belief, the Amish population is not shrinking, but growing at a steady rate. Approximately 80 percent of Amish youth choose to remain Amish, and most have large families, causing the population to double about every 20 years.
There are currently 11 separate Amish groups in the Wayne/Holmes community (three of which are very small), but four major groups dominate the numbers. These are the Old Order, the New Order, the Andy Weaver Amish and the Swartzentruber Amish. While all ascribe to the beliefs and lifestyle discussed earlier, each has subtle yet vital distinctions that, to the trained eye, make it possible to spot the differences.
The Old Order Amish are the largest group with 19,000 people. Next are the Swartzentruber Amish, the most conservative and actually an offshoot of the Old Order. There are approximately 6,000 Swartzentruber Amish in this region. The Andy Weaver Amish group has around 3,000 persons and the New Order Amish, who split from the Old Order in the 1960s, also number around 3,000 members.
The implications of one's order are far-reaching. For an Amish person, the order may dictate almost every aspect of one's lifestyle, from dress, to buggy style, to farming techniques, even prescribed length of a man's hair or a woman's skirt.
A good example of how certain order affects life is the variety of buggy style. Amish buggies in this area of Ohio are almost always black, but they will have some variation depending upon the order of the family. For the most part, Swartzentruber buggies will not have windshields or a "slow-moving vehicle" symbol on the back. They also may not have lights for night driving, but may use only a kerosene lantern hung on the buggy, a fact which is important for visitors to note.
Old Order and New Order buggies have windshields, lights, side doors, and all have battery-powered blinker system. They usually hang the orange, triangle- shaped, "slow-moving" symbol on the backs of the buggies as well. While New Order buggies have rubber-rimmed wheels and sliding side-doors, all the Old Order groups have steel-rimmed wheels and roll-up canvas side curtains.
The Amish community of Ohio traces its history back to Jonas Stutzman, believed to be the first Amish settler in the Holmes and Wayne County area. Stutzman -- who came to Ohio from Somerset County, Pennsylvania -- built a cabin near the fertile Walnut Creek valley in 1809; the next year, four Amish families joined him.
After 1810, the region soon to become the Amish Heartland welcomed families bearing the names which are now so familiar in the Amish and Mennonite community -- the Millers, Yoders, Troyers, Masts, Hershbergers, Beachys, Weavers, Schrocks, Zooks, Schlabachs and many others.
This population continued to increase steadily, but around the turn of the twentieth century, a serious rift occurred. A growing group began to dress fashionably, shave their beards and adopt what were considered "liberal" attitudes and lifestyles. This group eventually adopted the Mennonite faith; a large Mennonite population exists alongside the Amish today.
It is important to note that, just as the Amish are made up of many groups with differing lifestyles and levels of conservatism, the Mennonite denomination also has become divided into several factions, all ultimately sharing the same faith, but expressing it in slightly different ways.
Many Mennonite groups could be termed "mainstream Christians" today. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Conservative Mennonites -- sometimes called Old Order Mennonites -- may be mistaken for Amish. Conversely, the more liberal Amish (including the Beachy Amish group) may appear to be Conservative Mennonite.
It must be said with a chuckle that even people who grew up in the Amish Heartland area sometimes find all the groups difficult to distinguish! Indeed, even these divisions have further divisions -- there are more than 140 church districts, each ascribing to the Amish lifestyle in a slightly different way, in Wayne and Holmes alone! But within the Amish Community, the different factions are easily recognizable.
And ultimately, all groups are united by one vital similarity; An unfailing devotion to faith, family and a lifestyle that sets them apart.