Amish turn to wood, leather work
ST. CHARLES — Amish children dressed in nearly identical outfits laughed as they walked down the gravel road.
An Amish man rides a horse down the road and others guide horses to cut hay or plow. Because it's a rare warm sunny day, shirts, pants, skirts, quilts and socks wave on clothes lines.
The scene was quintessential Amish - simplicity mixed with grace, smiling, warm people in basic clothing of black, tan or blue.
But it was what you didn't immediately see that was most fascinating.
Inside Daniel Gingerich's long building was 10,000 Lakes Furniture, a furniture-making operation with at least seven modern saws, planers and drills. Nearby, he runs a 9,000-hen egg-laying barn where eggs slowly roll into a central conveyor belt to be gathered instead of having children get pecked and harassed by hens.
Several miles away, on the north side of Interstate 90, was M&L Greenhouse, where a barefoot Lydia Yoder watered some of the last of the spring's flowers and new vegetable plants.
Across the street from Gingerich was Sunset View Harness Shop run by his son, Ray Gingerich, He makes or repairs bridles, collars and even saddles, though he finds saddles a headache because they're hard to take apart to sew.
Less reliance on farming
What came out that was another side of the Amish south of St. Charles. That was a sense of necessity at changing from relying so heavily on farming because they can't afford to by land when prices are so high to reaching out more with their skills as craftsmen and farmers to sell more to the non-Amish (English).
And there was pride. It wasn't boastful, that's not the Amish way. It was pride in what they have done, what they're doing, how they have adapted their ways to the modern ways to make a living but retain their Amish heritage.
There was pride in their work ethic. When Daniel Gingerich was talking about making chairs, millwork and dressers, he said "I guess if you like it, it's not that much work."
Ray Gingerich explained the duality of pride — needing it but not being a slave to it. "You have to be proud of something, what you do or you won't do a good job," he said. "I try to do a good job; stand behind (my work)."
Fourth generation of furniture makers
Melvin Gingerich, one of Daniel Gingerich's sons and the fourth generation to make furniture, was the first to step into the 10,000 Lakes shop and eagerly showed off what they're making now — pet urns.
He got a chuckle out of that. But there's a demand; they are business people, they fill the demand.
The family specializes in furniture and millwork for window and door trim or baseboard. "We can do a whole house," he said. Again, that pride.
What really got him excited, however, was how they run their large machines because they don't believe in using electricity. What they do is use motors running on gasoline or diesel, power shafts and belts.
The machines are in a row. Beneath the floor is a 1.5-inch line shaft that goes from the engine and powers all the machines. For the millwork machine, his dad adapted it to run on a similar engine.
It wasn't easy, said Daniel Gingerich. "I sat on a pail and started to scratch my head and figured out how to get the same speeds" as if it was powered by the original electric motor.
He's teaching his sons, just like his grandpa taught him. When he was growing up, "I snuck away and helped grandpa (Jake Schmucker) when I should have been helping dad," he said. He just liked the wood and the work.
Furniture-making is a great job for the long winters, he said.
Things have changed between the Amish and English, as Amish here call those outside of their culture, he said. In his dad's days, people from the two cultures would help each other in threshing and other labor-intensive chores. Now, with English owning big machines, that day is gone, he said.
"We kind of live at a slower pace, simpler, a lot more laid back, I guess," he said. "We just didn't change like the English did."
They are comfortable around the English, smile, and are willing to talk about their lives. Many of the English admire how they live — to a point.
"Most of them say they could live our lifestyle except for the refrigerator and freezer," he said.
Amish use ice boxes cooled with ice harvested in winter. "If you're not used to modernism, you don't miss it," Gingerich said.
A young family starts out
The initials in M&L Greenhouse stands for Menno and Lydia Yoder.
In the greenhouse, Lydia was watering green peppers, along with the final flowers of the year. Watching were her children Orla, 4, and Gertie, 3. "They mostly play around out where while we work," she said.
Their playground is the farmyard and greenhouse. They're too young to go to school. She also has a 7-month-old daughter, Miriam.
She grew up in the area as Lydia Yoder and has seen good years and bad years. This is a bad year, she said, with weird, unpredictable weather. "It kind of averages out," she said. "We have warm weather, things will go better."
When she's not working in the greenhouse, she might be out in the field. "I guess there really is not much difference," she said as she moved on to geraniums. Much of what she learned, she learned from experience, working with other Amish, seeing what worked, she said.
In winter, she catches up with her sewing. As with the other Amish, hard work isn't hard work if you enjoy it. "It's a busy life," she said.
Her husband and two of his brothers were about a mile away, planting potatoes at their parent's farm. The machine was horse-pulled but they have a device that holds chunks of potatoes that will be the seeds; when it's moved along, it automatically opens a small trench in the ground, drops in one chunk and covers it.
He mostly runs the greenhouse, however. "I enjoy it, something to do, make some money," he said.
They have 40 acres certified organic and they also raise some cash crops like corn, hay and soybeans, said Yoder, who is the son-in-law of David Yoder who helped start the Country Fresh Produce Auction.
Stays close to home
At the harness shop, Daniel Yoder said he learned from his father-in-law, Daniel Yoder. About half his business is with Amish, half with English.
He was a carpenter, working on jobs across the region; leather work doesn't pay as much. But wanted to stay closer to his home and community so much that he changed jobs. As he talked, he could hear his baby cry inside the house.
"I just started close to two years ago," he said. "I kind of like to do the work. I like to do a good job so people come back."