Tourism in Holmes County and
the Ministry of Behalt
By Susan Biesecker-Mast
In the spring of 1992, my spouse and I spent a weekend in Lancaster,
Pennsylvania making what was for me my first tour of the area
and its communities. At one point during our visit, we sat down
on the front porch of a snack shop in Intercourse and from there
witnessed what remains for me an unforgettable scene.
A group of adults who looked to be middle class and middle-aged
tourists came out of the shop we'd just been in and walked down
the sidewalk leading from the shop to the main street where their
minivan was parked. At about the moment they reached their minivan,
we could hear an Amish buggy coming down the main street in front
of us. Just then one of the women in that group got an idea to
get a picture of the buggy. But the buggy was moving pretty fast
and by the time the woman had retrieved her camera out of her
purse and set her bags down, the buggy was just passing the minivan.
Not giving up, the woman took off running down the street with
her camera outstretched before her. By her account on return,
she got the shot, however blurred, of the back end of that buggy.
Ever since that day, I have wondered about that woman chasing
after that buggy.
Why would a middle class, middle-aged woman run down a main
street after the back end of an Amish buggy?
This essay is, in part, an attempt to answer that question.
But it also seeks to answer a broader question as well. While
it would be unwise to generalize directly from that woman's behavior
to the behavior of other tourists since most tourists don't run
down main streets after buggies, I'm not sure that the more common
practices of the millions of tourists every year who seek out
the Amish are unrelated to that woman's rather more zealous attempt.
Hence this essay addresses the following question as well: what
is middle America seeking in its trips to "Amish Country"?
In other words, just what is this tourist attraction? Finally,
this essay considers Behalt as a response to that tourist
attraction and argues that Behalt provides three important
ministries each of which gives a powerful Christian witness in
the context of this tourist attraction.
The Amish and Tourism in Eastern Ohio
I suppose I might have forgotten about that woman chasing the
buggy in Lancaster were it not for the fact that that trip to
Amish Country was followed by countless more to Holmes County.
Over the course of those trips I have come to wonder about another
curious phenomenon related to tourism, namely, the difference
between Amish life and the tourist trade.
I have come to understand the Amish to be a people of vigilance
who insist on being of the kingdom of God, rather than of the
kingdom of the world. This insistence becomes evident as they
choose plain dress, refuse electrical power service, continue
the use of Pennsylvania Dutch, keep the telephone out of the
house, submit the will of the individual to the authority of
the body of believers, depend on the use of horse and buggy for
regular transportation, convene church worship services in private
dwellings or barns, and encourage farming as the primary family
occupation. Thus, their collective practices constitute a religious
community that is visible, simple, earthy, local, communalistic,
slow, quiet, and rural. In a word, different -- from middle American
Tourist sites in Holmes and Tuscarawas counties pose a sharp
contrast to the life of the Amish. Whereas Amish farms are relatively
unadorned, modest in size, and highly functional; the shops,
restaurants, and hotels in area tourist towns are often elaborately
decorated, sometimes grandiose, and often themed. Sugarcreek
calls itself "Little Switzerland" and has developed
from the ancestry of some of its inhabitants the look of a Swiss
village nestled in a valley of the Alps. Berlin now features
rustic western style stores that constitute a frontier theme.
Walnut Creek with its Carlisle House Gifts and Carlisle Inn clearly
offers a Victorian setting. Upon entering these impressive establishments,
what we find are grand entrances, luxurious furnishings, and
inviting displays. These inns, restaurants, and stores are built
and decorated with tremendous skill. And the shops are generously
stocked with fine china tea sets, scented candles, delicious
chocolates, Asian rugs, lace dresses, gourmet coffees, and imported
German Christmas ornaments. To sum up the contrast, then, these
popular tourist destinations in Amish Country are decidedly non-Amish.
What are we to make of this sharp contrast? We could conclude
that the primary connection these tourist attractions have to
the Amish is proximity. Or, worse, we could say that these tourist
attractions built on middle American curiosity about the Amish
actually constitute an obstacle to that very curiosity. Donald
Kraybill, sociologist and author of numerous books on Amish culture
and life, argues that tourist sites do function as obstacles
or "buffer zones," but that in doing so they are not
simply problematic. Rather, as buffer zones or barriers to Amish
life, tourist sites restrict the movement of tourists and, thereby,
protect Amish communities from a total infiltration by millions
of tourists who would surely undo Amish life.1
In addition to protecting Amish from tourists, tourist sites
also serve an important function for tourists. According to Kraybill,
by limiting access to Amish, tourist sites preserve the difference
of the Amish and, thereby, the "authenticity" that
the tourists seek. Finally, Kraybill argues, smart tourists do
not fail to recognize this function: "Discerning tourists
realize that they are being duped--that the representations of
Amish life are not authentic, but merely front stage replicas.
Thus the mystique of the backstage lingers."2
If Kraybill is right, then tourism's buffer zone may serve
at least one other function as well. Perhaps by obstructing middle
America's access to the difference or otherness of the Amish,
tourism also reassures middle Americans that it is still possible
to be otherwise in an America in which entirely too many of us
sport the same brand of athletic shoe, thirst for only one of
two different colas, and yearn for a sport utility vehicle. That
is, perhaps tourism's buffer provides material encouragement
for the idea that, after all, to be middle American is still
some kind of choice.
I think Kraybill is right that the tourist industry functions
this way. That is, even as it purports to provide access to the
Amish, one of its primary functions is, in fact, to deny such
access. But I also think that tourists do gain some significant
access to Amish. That this is so seems clear in the disruptions
in Amish life that tourism brings.
To live as an Amish person (or as plain dressing Mennonite)
amidst tourism in Holmes County is to endure persistent surveillance.
It means one is watched, questioned, and photographed. Just two
decades ago such surveillance was a feature of daily life only
during the summer and early fall months. Today it is a part of
life nearly all year round. Further, to live amidst tourism also
means dealing with the marketing and selling of Amish and Mennonite
cultural distinctives in nearly every imaginable form: from raisin
custard pie, to faceless Amish dolls, to buggy refrigerator magnets.
Over the years, as the number of tourists has grown to something
like four million per year, Mennonites and Amish have had to
struggle with the impact of tourism on all facets of their religious/community
All this is to say that while tourism largely denies tourists
access to the object of their attraction, it also allows for
some significant interaction. To be sure, however, even when
tourism allows for or enables some interaction it always mediates
the encounter. In order to specify the significant and perhaps
even positive interaction that is a part of this tourist attraction,
I need first to say a bit about the context out of which these
Consumer/Technology Culture and Tourism
Over the last twenty years an incredible transformation has occurred
in American culture. American culture has become a digital culture
capable of moving information from one side of the globe to the
other in no time. Some of the markers of this digital revolution
include email, voice mail, cable TV, the world wide web, pagers,
cellular phones, electronic trade, compact discs, and, of course,
the personal computer. These are just some of the technologies
that the digital revolution has brought us. But what do these
technologies mean for middle America's daily life? They mean
that at work people spend less time talking to their colleagues
and more time looking into their computer screens. They mean
that people are digitally accessible almost all of the time whether
by email, voice mail, answering machine, cellular phone, or pager.
They mean that we increasingly see people talking on cellular
phones while having dinner at a restaurant or walking through
a park. They mean that most middle Americans choose to entertain
themselves by watching television, playing a video game, or surfing
the web. They mean that we can buy and sell stocks 24 hours a
Obviously there is much we could say about these technologies
and about the habits and practices they make possible. We could
talk about how these new technologies increase the speed of life,
or cause information overload, or suck up our disposable income.
But what I would like to talk about is perhaps the most basic
feature of this digital culture-the fact that it is structured
by mediation. By that I mean that human contact or communication
is more and more mediated, less and less face to face. While
we can talk to one another more often and from more locations,
we must do so through a cellular phone which, by the way, interrupts
the conversation we might have just been having across the table
from our dinner partner. While we can enjoy graphically sophisticated
movies without leaving the house any night of the week, we spend
more time looking at the tube than looking at our children. While
we can listen to classical music with perfect sound quality from
our entertainment centers, we have more difficulty appreciating
why we should venture out to a concert. This digital revolution,
I am arguing, is about the insertion of technology between human
beings. It promises connectivity but delivers instead a profound
disconnect from family, from neighbor, from community, from our
fellow human being.
In addition to this digital revolution, the last twenty years
have also transformed America into a culture that is saturated
by commercial messages. On average, most Americans see 1500 advertisements
a day. Of course, we see these advertisements in the "usual"
places-on television, in magazines, in newspapers, on web pages,
and on billboards. More and more, however, we also see them in
"unusual" places like the floors of supermarkets, much
of our clothing, the back of grocery or ATM receipts, and even
on the sides of school buses. We are a culture drenched in commercial
messages. Although we do not pay attention to all of these messages,
we do still live with their effects. To live every day in an
environment of commercial messages is to become accustomed to
being positioned as a consumer first--as one who needs to buy.
Even more importantly, to live in an environment of commercial
messages is to be ourselves bought and sold throughout the day.
A brief example will make my point more clear. In a radio
news report a day or two prior to last year's Super Bowl game,
a journalist was interviewing an advertiser about the phenomenal
cost of one- minute commercial spots during the game. For the
right just to air the commercial (not to produce it) advertisers
paid one million dollars. When the journalist exclaimed about
that price, the advertiser pointed out that with that one million
dollars, he could reach 15 million pairs of eyeballs. "One
million bucks for 15 million pairs of eyeballs," he said,
"is not a bad price." It is not time the advertisers
are buying or space, it is eyeballs. It is us they are buying.
In sum, then, what I am arguing is that over the last twenty
years our context has changed rather dramatically. As our culture
has become more focused on consumption, the efforts of the advertising
industry have transformed us into the primary commodity that
is bought and sold. From the perspective of that consumer culture,
we are less human beings than market commodities. Further, as
we have moved through the digital revolution, being humanly connected
has been replaced by being "plugged in." Thus we increasingly
give over face-to-face interaction to technologically mediated
That Woman and the Buggy
I want to return to that woman and the buggy and propose an answer
to the question I raised at the outset of this presentation:
namely, why would that woman chase the back end of a buggy down
main street. To answer that question, I turn to an appeal made
by an image of tourism in Holmes County-namely, a sign that used
to hang above a shop called "Amish Collection" in Berlin,
the center of tourism in Holmes County.
The sign was a huge plywood cut-out painted to look like the
back end of a buggy. From the view offered by the sign, you could
see in the background silhouettes of what looked like the backs
of two Amish adults, presumably a mother and father, and in the
foreground full color images of presumably their two Amish children.
The wheels that stuck out of the sign suggested that we should
see the buggy as if it were moving down the street in front of
us. Notably, the children were sitting securely inside the back
of the buggy with their parents in the driver's seat. The children
were painted as watching us and smiling at us.
Thus they were figured by the sign as both well within Amish
culture but also fully capable of expressing pleasure toward
the outer world. In this sense they were both inside and out
of Amish life. Indeed, perhaps like real Amish children who live
in the church but have not joined it, these painted children
were complex for us. They were not simply fully Amish (just as
Amish children are not fully Amish prior to their decision of
membership) and certainly not simply middle American (as they
were clearly being raised Amish). They were somewhere in between.
And, again, they were looking at us. Thus, in an important reversal
of the relationship of the middle American tourist to the Amish
"spectacle," it is the tourist that is being watched.
In an important reversal of the typical relationship in tourism
between "native" and tourist, the tourist is the object
of the "native's" gaze.
How, as we look at this sign, are we constituted by their
gaze? Who are we as they look upon us? In the instance of this
sign and since they are smiling at us, we appear to be the source
of some pleasure. Importantly, I think their pleasure gives us
a certain delight. Indeed, judging from the many tourists I have
seen stop to take a picture of this sign, I think we enjoy their
smile quite a bit. So, what is the nature of our delight in their
apparent pleasure from us?
I have been arguing that our culture constitutes middle Americans
as commodities-as items to be bought or sold-who spend increasing
amounts of time engaged in technologically mediated communication.
I have also suggested that Amish children occupy a unique place
in our culture as persons who are neither fully Amish nor certainly
middle American. As such, I think, they represent for middle
Americans a unique instance of humanity that still has the capacity
for meaningful choice. The Amish child lives in between worlds,
fully expected to choose either to live in "the world,"
a world of intensifying consumption and technological mediation,
or in the Amish church, a community characterized by simplicity
and face-to-face interaction. This is a choice that the middle
American child is trained never to see. Indeed, our commercial
culture is dedicated to making sure that before the middle American
child ever reaches adolescence, he or she will not be able to
imagine life without consumption and technology. Perhaps in this
context, then, we enjoy this sign insofar as we delight in the
pleasure that these as yet un-thoroughly-mediated, un-thoroughly-commodified
human beings seem to take in us. Perhaps when they smile at us
we become de-commodified and re-connected.
Of course, this was only an image of Amish children painted
on plywood. But what if there were a real buggy going down the
street? What if, as is often the case, there were children sitting
in the back of that buggy? Might they look through the small
window or peer out from the open door? If so, might they smile
at us? Or would they seem indifferent?
As I have thought about this sign, I have wondered whether
that woman in Lancaster wasn't so much chasing the back end of
a buggy as she was seeking an answer to questions such as these.
Whatever the case, I don't think tourism simply functions as
a buffer, although it certainly does do that. Indeed, without
that buffer, the Amish child may have already become the middle
American child. I think tourism does hold out the promise, however
small, of a human communicative interaction (even if it is as
brief and small as a child's smile) that has the capacity to
transform the Amish from the object of surveillance to the subject
of the gaze and to transform middle Americans from human commodities
back into human beings. The possibility of these transformations,
I am suggesting, is at the root of the tourist attraction.
The Ministry of Behalt Amidst Tourism
If it is true that this tourist attraction has something to do
with the search for human communicative interaction and a re-constitution
of both Amish and middle Americans as human beings not spectacles
or commodities, then I think that our Mennonite information centers,
in general, and Behalt, in particular, perform three crucial
The first is the ministry of hospitality. By this ministry
tourists are transformed into visitors whose questions, whether
silly or provocative, are received as worthy of response. By
this ministry too, these visitors are invited to enter into one
of our most precious possessions -- our story and our heritage.
Importantly, they are brought to the story through face-to-face
communication -- that is, by storytellers from our communities
who, as they tell the story over and over in all its intricate
detail become authorities in matters of history and faith for
the tourist. Although the visitor does see an introductory video
at Behalt, the story that is at the core of who we are,
the story that makes sense of our convictions and our practices,
is not conveyed by recording device but, rather, is always told
in the here and now and presence of a member of the community.
The second is perhaps easily missed and that is the ministry
of inquiry. Behalt does not offer as do the vast majority
of museums, a gift shop. When you exit the tour you do not enter
a place in which you can purchase all manner of souvenirs. Instead,
you are sent out into the lobby. From there you might exit the
building, which many people do. Or you might visit with one of
the hosts. Or you might, if you are really interested in the
possibility of a purchase, browse the bookstore. There, again,
you will not be bombarded with trinkets but, rather, will come
to shelves and shelves of books on Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites,
etc. Importantly, then, this is not a gift shop that offers you
some memento by which to remember your visit to "Amish Country."
Instead this is a resource room that invites you to pursue your
Finally, third, I think Behalt provides a ministry
of witness toward the possibility of transgressing digital and
consumer culture. When we make the slow trip around the periphery
of the huge octagonal room upon whose walls a mural depicting
the struggle of our heritage is hung, our perspective shifts
so that we glimpse the possibility of becoming otherwise. As
we move around, the storyteller directs our gaze from one image
to the next and tells us a story of the radicals of the reformation,
the martyrs of the faith, the emigrants to religious freedom,
the builders of our institutions, the witnesses to peace, and
ultimately, of the global church. Through all of these images
we cannot help but notice the complexity of our story of faith
and in culture-the theological debates and discipleship struggles
that constitute so much of what it has always meant to live as
Amish or Mennonite.
Importantly, no tourist or local visitor can see the whole
painting in one glance. No one can look upon it as a single thing.
Indeed it is difficult even to see just one image, to hold just
one figure in one's mind, as its image slips into another. In
addition, to see the painting requires moving along the periphery
of the room with one's back to the center and one's gaze turned
outward. Thus, to see the whole painting, is to be put on the
move, to pass through, as it were, the origins and the stories,
the images and the voices that constitute a cacophony of struggles
and triumphs, screams and prayers that are the Anabaptist stories.
And as visitors complete the circle, as they make their way from
Jesus through the martyrs to the immigrants and back again they
are invited to allow their visit to become an experience of transformation.
That is, they are invited to join or recommit themselves to an
Anabaptist vision that is also a global church.
As you may know, "Behalt" means to hold onto
or to remember. But even as this mural and its ministry do oblige
us to remember that story and, in that sense, to hold onto it,
it also only exists and functions insofar as we give it away
in each of its tellings to those who pass through. Thus, I believe,
Behalt is perhaps less a holding onto than it is a remembering
that is done through a telling and that is, therefore, a gift.
But it is not a gift of the sort a tourist might pick up in a
gift shop. Indeed, it cannot be consumed. It is not a gift to
be possessed but instead it can only be embraced if, as the tourist
passes beneath the global church and Jesus' outstretched arms,
they are transformed and, thereby, enter the story themselves.3
Susan Biesecker-Mast teaches communication at Bluffton
College, and is a member at First Mennonite Church, Bluffton,
1. Donald Kraybill, The Riddle
of Amish Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989) 228-229.
2. Kraybill 230.
3. For a more developed version
of this interpretation of the mural as well as a history of Behalt,
see my "Behalt: a Rhetoric of Rememberance and Transformation,"
Mennonite Quarterly Review 73 (1999):601-614
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, January, 2000