By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Jan 09, 2004 at 5:15 AM

{image1}You can see them in several rural parts of the state. The men often stand out because of their hats and beards. The women often will be wearing capes and black or green dresses.

Sometimes, you might have to wait behind one of their carriages on a hilly highway. You might see signs for their various shops - selling quilts, hickory bent furniture, candy and baked goods, wooden toys and many other well-made wares.

They are the Amish, a "sub-culture," to use the modern term, which has held on to a unique lifestyle to a degree that is questioned by some and admired by others. This writer falls into the latter category.

I am most familiar with the Amish community in the Kickapoo Valley, near Cashton. In fact, for several years, my wife and I have owned a small barn made by Menno Hershberger, an Amish craftsman.

We have now purchased a home in Westby, Wisconsin, but that barn on a 12-acre rural tract near town will remain my writing studio and a wonderful place to spend an occasional night among nature's creatures.

Most of the Amish in the Kickapoo area can trace their roots back to Germany or other parts of Europe. Their ancestors migrated to the United States. Many settled in Pennsylvania before moving further west.

The Cashton, Wilton, Chaseburg community is the largest Amish settlement in Wisconsin, with around 240 families and nearly 2,000 people. Most live on farms. Some live primarily from what they raise on those farms. Others sell goods and wares from shops and through coops. Some even supply larger mainstream stores.

Most live without electricity or other modern conveniences. They seldom drive cars. Their lives seem difficult, especially during winter, to many of us who have become accustomed to the "finer" things of mainstream life.

By no means is the Kickapoo the only place you can find Amish in Wisconsin. The Kingston, Dalton and Pardeeville area is another. So is the Augusta and Fairchild area. Many live around the Stevens Point area. In fact, there are at least a couple dozen places in the state.

The receptivity of the Amish to the "English" - the term often given to those of us from the mainstream - varies among individuals and communities. Our own contact with Menno and his family turned out to be a wonderful experience. We consider them friends to this day.

I would do designs for the barn on my computer and mail them to Menno. Sometimes, a couple weeks would pass, but I always received a handwritten reply - vial snail mail - with suggestions and any changes. The final result was a structure that will last long after we are gone.

We also were part of a rarity, when the Amish joined the broader Kickapoo community in opposing low-flying military training flights through the valley a few years ago. The Amish have won legal battles to avoid getting deeply involved in mainstream U.S. government and maintain their own schools. But, I believe their involvement in this particular issue served as a key in the military dropping the plans for the flights.

Here are a few tips when touring among the Amish. First, they truly value their privacy, so be courteous. Don't take photos without asking. Many Amish go out of their way to not bring attention to themselves. In fact, Menno likely would be upset with me for mentioning his name.

The Amish also hold their communities and families together through their religion. So, don't expect their shops to be open on Sundays, and if you see a collection of carriages at a farm, drive on. It probably is a church gathering.

Be careful when passing a carriage on the road, and don't be afraid to wave to the people inside.

There are many stereotypes about the Amish, simply because they have chosen to live so differently. Perhaps the best way to break some of those stereotypes and tour Amish country is to contact Richard Dawley, a self-made expert on the Amish.

Dawley spent 31 years as a teacher and counselor for Milwaukee Public Schools. He has taught at Milwaukee Area Technical College and Waukesha County Technical College among other places.

One of his courses is called Amish Insight. It includes three and five hour tours of Amish communities.

Dawley has done extensive research on Anabaptists, who include Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites and Brethren. His book, Amish in Wisconsin, is an excellent account of his relationships with the Amish. He is working on another book, Amish Contentment.

In the preface of his first book, Dawley writes, "To know is to understand, to enlighten, and to gain insight. My observations and experiences being with these 'plain people,' as described in this journal, are designed to inspire you to become an advocate for the Amish, and to help others appreciate their diverse and unique culture."

My hope is that this Beyond Milwaukee will help do what Richard writes about. I encourage you to contact him or tour Amish country yourself. Dawley can be reached at Amish Insight, 2249 Calhoun Rd., New Berlin, Wisconsin 53151, by phone at (262) 797-1858 or via email at

Gregg Hoffmann writes monthly Beyond Milwaukee columns about interesting events, out-of-the-way places, historic sites and quirky characters in "out-state" Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest.

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.