Visiting Amish Country – A Few Pictures and a Few Stories

Not bad… I could camp in this… No gas, little maintenance… Easy to park. 

Note:  I am not one for posting a lot of trip diaries but this trip was close to where I spent many summers growing up.  It is a favorite retreat.

I am starting a new job on Tuesday for about 20-30 hours per week.  That means fewer day trips during the last of the summer warmth.  The Iowa weather is transitioning to autumn and in a few short weeks frost will be a regular visitor.  This weekend seemed like a great opportunity to get away from it all.  Where better to vanish from society than in Amish country?

Some day I would like to travel more.  For now, Iowa is still home and as “Dorothy” said in the Wizard of Oz movie, “There’s no place like home.”  Iowa keeps trying to shake it’s backward, folksy image but it is that perception that makes this state so charming.  Sure, it’s cold during the winter and hot and humid during the summer, but few places are as peaceful, safe, and slower paced than the midwest.

I usually don’t post about places visited but did want to share why Iowa might be a good place to visit and hang out for a bit… As Jeff Foxworthy once said (paraphrased), only in Iowa will somebody at the store say hi and offer to help you even if he/she doesn’t work there.  In these small towns, people still smile, wave, and say hi to strangers.  Do you know why that is?  When you are in a small town, nobody is a stranger.  It’s a whole different way of life.  That makes it fun to visit.  The only downside is that you don’t want to linger – it’s hard to be anonymous in a town of 500 people!.

Near the towns of Hazleton, Independence, and Oelwein, Iowa live a large number of old school Amish families.  They are fascinating to watch in action.  Everyone works hard on their farms and multiple generations take care of each other.  They reside in large, white, sprawling farmhouses.  They live a very simple existence and are highly independent.  Much of the food they consume is raised on their farms and in their gardens.  Excess is canned using very old techniques.  Many refrigerate their food using ice stored from the previous winter’s cold weather.  Families are cohesive and hard-working.  These are things that the modern lifestyle seems to be struggling to hold on to.

For a minute I paused and wondered how the Amish have time to do all the things they do. That was silly because my perspective is warped from having lived a hectic life for many years. The Amish do not have so many of the stressors that we do. They don’t commute and wait in dense traffic, work twelve hours a day away from home, or spend forever in front of computers.    Amish don’t rush from place to place; their fastest transporation can be measured at a few miles per hour.  They don’t eat from drive-up windows or drink drive-through mocha lattes.  They get up early, work hard, eat at home, and go to bed early.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  🙂

While the Amish do not have electric lights and still use the horse and buggy transportation, some do have conveniences.  For example, at the bakery, they have a flush toilet.  A rain barrel mounted above the toilet shack is fed from the taller gutter on the bakery.  The barrel has a little trap door activated by a string mounted near the toilet.  When done, you give a jerk of the cord.  Water rushes down a pipe, into the toilet bowl, and washes the waste into the old “one holer” style pit (a hole in the ground with a wooden platform over it).  This is just one of many little contrivances that are simple but work just fine.    I love the creative, industrious approach of the Amish families.  Their ideas don’t come in a box from a Walmart store.

Friday night I arrived in the town of Oelwein, Iowa., just north and east a few miles from the Amish farms.  Oelwien was once a thriving railroad hub.  Now it’s a testimony to what happens to small towns when industry and young people move away.  Oelwein is hanging on, actually doing much better than some towns.  It’s surviving but only through the hard work of those who want to keep the town alive.  Many towns are not as well off.  Some are simply bedroom communities with a convenience store or two.

It didn’t have to be that way in Oelwein.  Many years ago a man named Walter came here wanting to open a factory.  People were skeptical, some downright scoffing and many ridiculed the idea.  The business man left due to a lack of bank financing.  He chose a different location and the town of Oelwein lost the chance to be the headquarters for Walter Chrysler and the car company he built.  I can only imagine what the town would have been like if Chrysler had opened his car plant here.

Once in the neighboring town of Hazleton, I started looking for a place to camp.  A local gas station attendant told me of a where NOT to camp. A year or two ago, there was a problem with a child molester and a van by the town park.  The sheriffs are still a little skiddish and the locals tend to take matters into their own hands if they see anything unusual.  Taking his advice, I found a discreet parking lot with semi trucks, vans, cars in an industrial area.  Due to its location behind multiple business, nobody knows what car belongs to what person and the police don’t bother anyone parking there.

After finding a great to park, it was time to eat.  The Friday night meal was at a new restaurant.  It’s called Las Flores.  After a scrumptions meal of fajitas with chicken, shrimp, chorizo, and beef, I went to bed and slept peacefully.  For a little ma and pa restaurant in an old cafe type setting, the place had outstanding food.  It’s definitely a place to visit when passing through again!  Here is a picture of the fajita showing the the nice, fat shrimp they used… Yum!

The next morning, I made an early pass through the Amish settlement.  The road is actually called Amish Boulevard and the shoulders are paved for horse and buggy travel.  I guess you could say it’s  sort of an Amish expressway if such a thing could exist.

My favorite place to visit is this little bakery west of Hazleton.  They do, after all, have the rain barrel flush toilet system mentioned above.  (When the rain barrel is full)  As I drove down the boulevard, I saw a redbearded Amish man mowing a dense patch of grass and weeds with an old, non-motorized, reel style lawnmower.  A young boy in Amish clothing had a horse by the muzzle sternly speaking to it eye-to-eye.  At the next farm, a small girl with a white bonnet was working in the garden.  I chuckled when I observed a pulley attached to the top of their barn with a string of clothing going to the yard below.  Since it was windy aloft, the clothes were fluttering.  There is nothing that compares with line-dried clothing.  Of course, virtually all of the clothing was dark blue, black, or white.  No Tommy Hilfiger or Victoria’s Secret stuff at that farm!

A few roads ahead is the bakery.  Upon exiting the van, I was immediately overwhelmed with the smell of baking bread and pie crust.  Also present were cinnamon and other heavenly aromas. It was intoxicating and brought back memories of Mom and my grandmothers working for hours in the kitchen making foods that pleased the family.

“Collie Dog” and his buddies eating cat food

I greeted the old collie dog who sleeping next to the entrance.  For years I’ve just called him “Collie Dog”.  One of the Amish kids (barefooted and immune to the rocks in the parking area) informed me the dog’s name is “Jake.” I learned long ago that Jake accepts gratuities and prefers the pumpkin cake rolls with cream cheese frosting.  There is also a handful of cats outside who love cans of Friskies.  I always take some cans along.  Though they are ferel, the cats are smart enough to equate people with food. They don’t often go hungry.

The inside of the bakery is simple.  A long picnic table and a banquet table sit on one side of the bakery.  The chairs at the table are mismatched but functional.  There are bags of breads, cinnamon rolls, turnovers, etc. in various cabinets.  The bakery interior is dark because there are no electric lights – just skylights.  The best value is a large turnover for $1.25.  Yes, that’s right… These are not like the $1.50 ones you get that are full of juice and cornstarch.  This is the good stuff. They are inexpensive, tasty, and homemade.  The crust contains lard and is flaky.  Options include black raspberry, red raspberry, cherry, and apple.  I opted for red raspberry.  If you get their early (like I did) they are still warm from the oven.

What can you buy that is better than this for $1.25?

There are a lot of old duffers that hang out at the bakery.  One is my dad’s cousin Jim.  Jim comes in for coffee and sits at the table discussing relavent social issues, as do most of the older folks.  Jim’s favorite and usual topics are:  illegal immigration, crime, anything Obama, illigetimacy issues, welfare, etc.  The little Amish kids (dark clothes, bowl-cut hair, etc.) sit at the table with eyes sparkling listening to Jim’s coarse language.  The old Amish granddad talks about various topics in an effort to egg Cousin Jim on just a bit.  Then the granddad laughs and strokes his beard as Jim starts each sentence with a cussword or two.  The Amish kids giggle.  No subject is off limits and trust me, Amish kids know some of the same words we do… if only because of the bakery conversations.  On this particular trip, the topics were how (diety reference deleted) expensive it is to camp out in a state campground and the lack of jobs in the area.  He liked the Trekker Van and told me that it would be a good place for a romantic interlude with a girl.  That’s Cousin Jim for you.

So, after a turnover and political discussion, I headed back to Oelwein with plans to visit the local meat locker.  They make the best brats I’ve ever eaten.  Unfortunately, I developed a shimmy in the right front tire.  Upon inspection, it was discovered a flap of tread was coming off on the right front tire… Not good.  A trip to the local Goodyear dealer and two new tires later, the van was back on the road.  It drives a lot better now.

The last major stop was at the small town of Saint Olaf.  Well, Olaf might have been a saint but the rest of the little redneck town fell short.  I visited the Saint Olaf Tap for one of their renowned tenderloin sandwiches.  The sign out front shows that they are not afraid to brag about the size of their… pork tenderloin sandwiches.

Once a tourist destination, this place drew folks in from all over.  Sadly, some years back the bar sold out to a man who probably should not have been in the business.  The sandwiches got thinner and the recipe changed.  Who likes a thin cracker burger?  He was only open when he wanted to be.  Business dwindled and another person bought it out. 

The new owner restored the bar to what it used to be.  The tenderloins are bigger and better than ever.  The breading is back to the old recipe of spices (and maybe parmasean cheese, too?).  I bought one of the 20 ounce sandwiches, drank three diet cokes, and vowed to die happy.  In speaking with the new owner, I told him that sandwich is the best thing for my diabetes.  He looked puzzled.  I told him it’s gonna kill me dead but the diabetes is probably happier than ever.  We both had a good laugh. 

Check out this pork tenderloin.  It tastes even better than it looks.  To cover the surface area, it would take five or six hamburger buns.  It’s also about 1/2 inch thick in most places.

The 20 ounce pork tenderloin sandwich.

Later in the day, I came home rather than staying out a second night.  The tires set me back enough that I decided to go home and cut back on the money spending.  It was a fun trip though.  Next year it is planned to go for a longer excursion, possibly three or four days of trout fishing and a bakery visit or two.  Of course, a tenderloin is mandatory.  For now, it was a fun little trip back to a world I remember close to forty years ago.  Very little has changed.  That’s Iowa for you.

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About VanTrekker

I am a former vandweller in Eastern Iowa who, for several years (off and on), lived in a 2007 Chevy cargo van. I still travel around Iowa with my tortoise shell cat, Jennifer Stefanie. Our favorite place to explore is the Country Heritage Community, the four far northeastern counties of Iowa (Clayton, Winneshiek, Allamakee, and Fayette). Ride along as we fish in pristine trout streams, enjoy fine home cooked camping meals, and meet new people. It's all possible on a shoestring budget. Happy travels always! --- Brad, the "Van Trekker"

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