When I think of Amish craftspeople, I think of quilters and blacksmiths. I would never think of a leather worker who creates belts and purses from alligator or ostrich. But that is what one Amish craftsman does in a shop we visited during the Blue Gate Amish Tours Up Close and Personal Tour in Shipshewana, Indiana. As part of that tour, we also visited a Mennonite family that creates a special kind of basket, and an Amish bishop’s home.
What is the Up Close and Personal Tour?
On the Up Close and Personal Tour you visit three Amish homes or businesses. You might visit craftspeople, an Amish housewife, or an Amish bishop.
The previous night we had spent the evening chatting with an Amish bishop on the Evening in an Amish Home tour (read about it here). However, Allen, our tour guide and tour coordinator, assured us that today’s visit would be different. We’d most likely cover different topics.
Silver Star Leather
Our first stop was to Silver Star Leather. Loren Yoder talked about the business he owns with his wife Dorcas. Before going into the leather business, Loren worked in the northern Indiana RV industry, as many area Amish do. He bought a harness making business from his uncle, but continued to work his RV job while he made harnesses on the side. He made harnesses for about four years but didn’t particularly care for it. “It was the same thing over and over and over, just different sizes. I mean, from the little minis to the draft horse. It was just the same,” Loren explained.
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Then his wife Dorcas had an idea to make a purse with a piece of leather that he didn’t need. Her uncle saw the purse and advised them to take it to Shipshewana’s fall crafters fair. Loren made 24 purses and sold 20 of them at the fair. He then sold the harness business to his cousin (the son of the uncle he bought it from), and switched to making purses, belts, and wallets. He eventually left the RV business and makes leather goods full time.
Why exotic leathers?
Loren got into using exotic leathers when someone who runs leather goods websites asked him if he’d be interested in making the exotic items. Loren took him up on the offer. Today much of the Silver Start Leather business is wholesale. However, he keeps a small retail shop inside his workshop. Being Amish, Loren doesn’t go onto the internet himself but is thankful for the business it brings him.
During our visit, Loren showed us some of the skins and leathers he uses: Cape buffalo, crocodile, hippo, and ostrich among them. He explained the tanning process, although he purchases the leather already tanned.
He also demonstrated an embosser he uses to create a design in the belts. “Hand tooling is probably…more classic. But the problem is, this is a $34 belt. Hand tooled it would be $130 just because of the time you spend.” If you want your belt hand-stamped, however, and are willing to pay the price, he’ll do it for you.
So how does Loren power his equipment when the Amish don’t use electricity off the grid? One machine is pneumatic and uses air power. He also uses solar power, with a gas generator backup.
Teaberry Wood Products
Our next stop was to Teaberry Wood Products, a Mennonite family-run business owned by LaVern and Rachel Miller. LaVern previously owned a small sawmill business. He turned logs into lumber, which he then sold to hobbyists across the United States.
One day LaVern’s wife Rachel noticed a stack of boards that were too small to sell setting in a corner and got an idea to use a scroll saw to make wooden puzzles.
After successful puzzle sales at a craft shop, the Millers began making Monroe Dutcher style baskets. Today, baskets are the business mainstay, although they still sell puzzles and Nativity sets, as well. “Her business swallowed up mine, and I’m working full time for my wife,” LaVern quipped.
What is a Monroe Dutcher style basket?
Rather than weaving, LaVern cuts basket layers from a scroll saw, each layer a little smaller than the previous. Rachel and daughter-in-law Sara assemble the baskets using wood slats to hold the layers together and which create a woven basket look.
Rachel talked about their experience in perfecting the basket design. “We did about nine of them in 2011, and then we stopped… I would be getting to the corners and just the last few stakes, and we actually worked together, it was that hard to put them together. And they would break. The weavers would snap, and it wasn’t worth going on. But we kept praying about it because we really wanted to do these baskets. And LaVern made a lot of changes to the pattern, and it feels like God worked a miracle because just recently we did basket number 4,000.”
In the past couple of years they began adding quilt patterns using inlaid wood in the bottoms of some of their pieces. The inlaid patterns are created by using different types of wood, including cherry, maple, and Purpleheart. “We try to do a new basket each year,” Rachel explained. “When our customers ask for [a different type of basket], we try to pick and choose…what basket will actually work for us, and that’s always kind of fun [to see] what we can come up with.”
Amish bishop home
Our last stop on the tour was a visit to Bishop Leroy Miller and his wife Elizabeth. Allen was right. While some of the topics we discussed overlapped with the topics we talked about the evening before, most of the conversation was very different.
We were surprised to find out that the Millers have natural gas, since it’s on the grid, connecting them to the outside world. Their refrigerator, stove, furnace and hot water heater all run on natural gas. Yet the Amish aren’t allowed to hook up to the electric grid. They do use some electricity, though, using solar power and sometimes gas generators.
You think of Amish as living on farms, but that’s becoming rare, at least in Shipshewana. Leroy grew up on a farm, but he never farmed for himself. Instead, he has held different jobs throughout the years. He worked in the RV industry, owned a salvage grocery store, and was in a wagon wheel business with a son-in-law.
Technology in the schools
A question came up about Amish children going to a public school. Do the schools require the students to use Chrome books or other technology, as they do in many schools today? The schools do have computers, but they don’t require the students to use them, Leroy told us.
“Our community has always respected the Amish,” Allen explained. “When 40 percent of your population is Amish, the English world in our county works with them.”
Leroy added, “And our school district here is really, really thoughtful.” He did admit, though, that even though the children don’t bring a laptop home, one of his great-grandsons, who was in second grade, “knows more about that thing than I’ll ever know.”
More on Amish practices
When asked why they aren’t allowed to drive a car, Leroy explained that the restrictions they have are not to create a hardship, but to keep themselves humble. “It’s just our way of life and our culture.”
One of the guests said they saw Amish boys wearing winter hats and wondered why they would wear that in September. But it’s the same type of hat that my own grandson was wearing last year—what we would refer to as a stocking hat and the younger kids call a beanie.
Leroy said they might be wearing that type of hat now because the traditional Amish-style hat has gotten expensive. “If you have three, four, five boys, and you buy everyone a $30 hat… the other one [beanie] is a couple dollars. And you know, they lose things. They’re not gonna be too careful with a hat.”
More on the subject of clothing, a guest asked about wearing suspenders instead of a belt. “That’s just the way it’s been, and I wouldn’t [wear a belt], Leroy explained. “In the factory I had a belt I wore. I hated it.”
We talked more about dress. Elizabeth didn’t know why they don’t have buttons on dresses. “It’s always been that way, I guess.” Dress varies among different Amish settlements, as well. Leroy said he noticed when he visited Kentucky that the men’s pant legs were much narrower than what they wear in Indiana. Women’s prayer caps differ from settlement to settlement, as well.
About Blue Gate Amish Tours
I thought I knew a lot about the Amish before I took the Blue Gate Amish tours. However, on the tours we learned so much more. The businesses and homes visited on each tour vary, depending on Amish availability. In 2018, they’ve added a Taste of Amish Country Tour, which I hear is fabulously delicious. Check the Blue Gate Amish tours website for more details or to make a reservation.
During our Shipshewana visit, we stayed at the Blue Gate Garden Inn. Check Blue Gate Garden Inn rates and reviews on TripAdvisor
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