Authentic Amish Country


Today’s discerning visitor seeks authenticity. An authentic destination is a preferred destination — just ask someone on vacation.

Heritage tourism touts the importance of authentic goods and authentic experiences for the traveler. So what is authenticity? Authenticity refers to goods and experiences that seem real or genuine. What makes offering an authentic experience hard to achieve is that every person has a different opinion of what “authentic” is to them.

Besides “horse and buggy curiosity,” is it authentic enough to drive the Amish Country Byway and observe the serene, peaceful landscapes of farm fields with perfectly kept fence rows? Is it authentic enough to taste and purchase Swiss cheese made from the milk produced from cows grazing on the sweet grasses of our hillsides or taste melt-in-your-mouth wheat rolls with real butter?

To enhance the authenticity of an experience and the appreciation of genuine goods produced by the people of a destination, it is important to stage the information and education to which the visitor is exposed. Public relations communication is important for a traveler to understand the cultural uniqueness of the people living in a tourist destination as well as the businesses. Our Ohio's Amish Country magazines, brochures, museums and visitor centers are all important for this reason.

Authentic goods and experiences increase the value of a destination. Some reasons that people seek authenticity are that people:

1) are generally unsatisfied with their daily life, and they are seeking something real; 2) are seeking unspoiled areas, either cultural, spiritual or natural; and 3) are seeking an understanding of the world, and having an authentic experience satisfies that desire.

In “Authenticity: What consumers really want,” published by the Harvard Business School Press, Pine and Gilmore offer axioms to guide those that are creating staged authenticity for the visitor.

1) If you are authentic, then you don’t have to say you are authentic.

2) If you say you are authentic, then you had better be authentic.

3) It’s easier to be authentic if you don’t say you are authentic.

In Amish Country, this is most true when it comes to hardwood furniture made by our Amish neighbors and entrepreneurs. The Amish business owners and retailers that make and sell hardwood furniture made in the region do not advertise that their furniture is “made by Amish.” In a few instances you will see marketing that states the furniture was made in Amish Country, but even this is rare. In contrast, the English business owners retailing furniture made in our area often will state in their marketing materials that the furniture they are selling was made by Amish.

The Amish themselves follow the first axiom: “If you are authentic, then you don’t have to say you are authentic.”

Where else can visitors find authenticity in Ohio’s Amish Country, specifically Holmes County? I recommend that visitors find authenticity at our local businesses. Our local businesses are frequented by both Amish and English customers. With a local county population of 40 percent Amish, you can go to most public places to interact with Amish people. Whether you are shopping for fine hardwood furniture, building materials at local wood shops, local foods or need to stop at the Wal-Mart south of Millersburg, you will find Amish and English interested in some of the same products.

Visitors can also find staged authenticity at our local museums and visitor centers, especially at the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center just north of Berlin. The museum offers guided tours led by local Amish and Mennonites. The bookstore at the center offers a plethora of books to learn more about the lifestyle and history of the culture of our region. Other museums offering insights to our culture include the German Culture Museum in Walnut Creek, the Holmes County Historical Society’s Victorian House Museum in Millersburg and the Millersburg Glass Museum.

Many guided bus tours offer opportunities to experience staged authenticity. Also, you can observe the local signs at the end of a farm lane that invite you to visit a local farm to purchase eggs, produce or even a locally handmade quilt. I recommend this authentic experience for visitors to our area. If you are interested in seeing the workmanship of a locally made hickory rocker and want to meet the family that sells this local product, venture up the farm lane that advertises the sale of a hickory rocker. Better yet, travel up several lanes and compare the quality of their products.

While our visitors experience backdoor authenticity along our scenic roads, the local Amish and English interact at public places and local businesses. Recently I had lunch with an Amish couple while sharing a meal with my father at a local nursing care facility. The four of us shared our favorite travel experiences: Alaska, California, Colorado, etc. A few weeks ago at the local hospital, I had conversations about our local doctors and the customer service with several Amish neighbors. There are many places where the Amish and English interact daily. Both volunteer at the local thrift shops and at the hospital. The Amish and English work side by side at local retail businesses, on certain construction projects and at the local auction barns. This is where our local community members experience the authenticity of the local people and culture.

Authentic goods and experiences in Ohio’s Amish Country? You bet! A person would be hard pressed not to find authenticity along our scenic roads and in our picturesque villages. Although authenticity is a personal experience, it is easy to find some form of authenticity to satisfy you along the Amish Country Byway.

Sharon Strouse is a member of the National Scenic Byway Foundation Board, currently serving as the president-elect. Strouse volunteers for several local and state nonprofit organizations and has made several national presentations on the topic of authentic experiences.