During the 1960’s I lived in Loogootee, Indiana, a small town in southwestern Indiana known mostly for its successful basketball program. Loogootee sits at the southeast corner of a sizeable Amish community. The Amish value rural life, manual labor, and humility, interpreting these elements as how God intends them to live. Amish communities put a heavy emphasis on church, family, and community relationships. They believe large families are a blessing from God. The Amish did their best to maintain a degree of separation from the “modern” communities, but I never saw them as standoffish or anti-social.
In 1970, photographer George Tice published Fields of Peace, a book of his photographs taken over several years in the Amish community around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The late Millen Brand’s text that accompanies the photos provides a written portrait of these people that is equal to Tice’s images.
Since leaving rural Indiana in the late 1970’s, I had only passed through Amish country a few times. On each occasion, it seemed that the modern world was pushing hard against their cultural walls and I often wondered how much it was adulterating the Amish way of life. When I returned to Indiana in early June, I arrived during haying season and told my cousin, Larry, I would love to get into the Amish settlement and watch the farmers working with their horses, rakes, and balers. He provided a better option. Larry took me to the farm of Elmer Wagler, a farmer and master cabinetmaker he knows from projects they had worked on together for a local manufacturer of high-end watercraft.
As we pulled into the drive at Elmer’s farm, one of the first things I noticed was the neatness of the property. There was a large, well-tended garden on the left and a hitching rail near the aluminum-sided white house. Coming out of the field with his eldest son, Brandon, Elmer looked to be in his late 30’s and was as trim as you would expect someone to be who does a lot of manual labor. He and his wife have seven children ranging in age from 16 to just under 2. Our arrival drew a lot of interest from several of the children and we were soon surrounded by six of the nine family members.
A lot of Amish do not like having their pictures taken and I am very sensitive to that. As much as I wanted the photos of them working, I would never have done that without their permission. Larry explained to Elmer what I hoped to do and he not only agreed to take the horses and equipment back into the field, but said I could take pictures of him working and photos of the family. I felt particularly blessed. Once I got my cameras out of Larry’s truck, I sensed the kids were equally curious and apprehensive. I took a few shots and showed them the results on the camera’s LCD and that seemed to put them at ease. While Elmer and Brandon, hitched the horses to the hay rake, I got a few shots of Elmer’s youngest daughter and one of his middle sons
Just watching Elmer and Brandon work together with the horses was a pleasure. Brandon is a bright young man whose work experience with his father has enabled him to anticipate what should be done next. Just about the time Elmer asked him to do something, Brandon either had it completed or had the project underway. Elmer looked at Larry and me, smiled, and said, “He’s turning into pretty good help.” Once in the field, Elmer led the two horses around the perimeter of the field raking the thick grass into a row. Each of the horses has a different personality and Elmer worked with them accordingly. His hand was steady and never forceful, but the horses knew who held the reins. After a few passes, he turned the job over to Brandon and did a bit of coaching from a spot in the field. His voice was calm and he was quick to let the boy know when he got the desired result. It was obvious that he has been investing in Brandon’s development for a long time and has started to get substantial returns on his efforts.
While Brandon worked the team and hay rake, Elmer and I discussed parenting. I asked him how the Amish community deals with all of the outside influences on their children and he shared that it is very challenging. Elmer said that he and his wife work to ensure that Brandon spends time with other young people in the community who appear to have their lives headed in a positive direction. Elmer looked directly at me and said, “If I meet your friends, I will know what kind of a person you are.” I nod in agreement. In my book, Elmer is a wise man.
By the time we left the field, we had spent nearly four hours with the Wagler family and it had been more than I could have hoped for. I got some great images, but more importantly I saw a close family interacting with each other, young people embracing their responsibilities, and adults who understood the importance of faith and community. With so much violence and cruelty in our “modern world,” it was uplifting to step into a place of peace, if only for a few hours.
George Tice’s Fields of Peace has been re-released with 30 new photographs and it’s available on Amazon. I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves photography and/or wants to learn more about the Amish.