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I well remember the sensory experience of riding in the buggy as a young boy. There was the smell of the horse as it clopped down the road, and I would sit on my mother's lap covered by a heavy robe to keep the winter chill at bay as my father kept a tight grip on the reins. The occasional car would whoosh by on the smaller country roads we most often traveled. Sometimes we went to the church service where our buggy was not much different in color and shape than the 20-30 other buggies. Other times we went to the local villages, where on summer afternoons we would purchase ice cream cones and lick the melting ice cream as we traveled home.
Why use the horse and buggy when we would have had the means to purchase a perfectly good car? Why feed the horse its oats and hay if one could "fill the tank" with gasoline in the local village? While various Mennonite groups have adopted the use and ownership of the modern automobile, the Amish have maintained the use of the horse and buggy. They have done so with the belief, not that the car is sinful, but rather that automobile ownership would significantly change the close-knit structure of family, church and the community. This structure and connection is more important than modern conveniences and therefore the Amish continue to use this mode of transportation.
Buggies differ significantly from one group to another. The more conservative groups have less amenities and creature comforts and their buggies are more plain than some other groups. The Old Order, New Order and the more advanced groups of Amish have modern lights, and safety features that make them much more visible on the roads. Stephen Scott, who has studied Amish buggies, has suggested that there are at least 90 different varieties of the horse drawn carriage in use among the various different Amish, Mennonite and Brethren groups in North America (1). They range in color and shape, which may help identify the different groups they belong to.
Like people everywhere, the buggies within a specific group may also differ depending on need and age of the owner. Like teenagers the world over, the Amish child's first buggy is a fact to be celebrated and much attention is paid to polishing, preening, and details. Families may use two-seaters, often called surreys, similar to the minivans of the modern family. From the harness to the emblem on the back of the buggy, the differences are often visible from those within the community and they are able to identify the owners age, social status and church affiliation from the shape and design of the carriage.
While buggies and automobile traffic can be a dangerous mix, common courtesies may often be extended on both parts to make the mix safer. When driving in Amish Country make sure you are aware that there may be buggies just over the next hill. Pass when safely possible rather than allowing traffic to build up behind, making both driver and horse nervous. Please don't stop to take pictures of the buggy unless it is safe to pull over and do so.
Many of the Amish groups are also aware that the shoes of the horses can cause unique wear to the asphalt. Roads with trough-like grooves are often those most used by the Amish. In the past several years the old order and new order Amish have taken a voluntary buggy tax, since they do not buy license plates. This amounts to nearly the same cost per buggy that residents pay for license plates for their automobile. The only request the Amish have is that the monies, which are voluntarily given to the local entities, be used to fund road construction and repair in the local area. In this way they recognize that giving back is an important part of being responsible citizens of our world today.
If you wish to learn more about Amish buggies, or their place in history, or would like to buy Stephen Scott's book, you can plan a visit to the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. The Center offers guided tours of "Behalt" - a 10 ft. x 265 ft. cyclorama oil-on-canvas painting that illustrates the heritage of the Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist beginnings in Zurich, Switzerland, to the present day. Behalt means "to keep" or "remember." The center is open Mon-Sat 9:00-5:00 and is located near Berlin, OH at 5798 County Road 77, Millersburg, OH 44654. Please call (330) 893-3192 for more information or to schedule a group tour.
1 Stephen Scott, Plain Buggies (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1998).
Marcus Yoder was born to an Amish family in the heart of Amish Country. His family later moved to the Mennonite church where Marcus takes an active role in preaching, teaching, and writing. He is the Executive Director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. In his thirties he decided to return to school and has a BA in history from The Ohio State University and a MA from Yale. He enjoys reading and writing and spending time with his wife, Norita.