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Among the Illinois Amish

Along I-57 to Chicago, old-fashioned living and quality roadside attractions.

by Paul Gerald

he Amish world looks at our world with a shrug, then goes back to work. They don’t seem to mind our presence at all, even though we outnumber them by the thousands to one. Like the caught-cheating husband with his story, this is their life, and they’re sticking to it.

Up in east-central Illinois, around a town called Arthur, live some 3,000 Amish folk. Driving through their realm feels like driving through a theme park, but those people really do ride in buggies and live without electricity and phones and store-bought clothes. They don’t rap with you much, and they don’t want their pictures taken, but they do sell a lot of cool things. If only to look and shop and wonder while you’re driving through, Amish country is worth visiting.

Yes, it’s a house made from Fresca bottles. Doghouse, too.
The Amish came to America in 1740 and have settled in the Midwest, New York, and Pennsylvania. The first families to come to Illinois, in 1865, were named Yoder, Otto, and Beachy. Those names are still on more than half the signs on fenceposts.

Amish farmhouses are easy to spot. They’re flanked by buggies and Clydesdale-sized Belgian horses; no electrical wires lead to them; and since the whole family lives together, the all-white houses have generally been added onto many times, including a “grandpa house” attached by a breezeway.

But land in this part of the world is too expensive for younger Amish to buy farms, so to make ends meet they have opened about 40 stores on their properties around Arthur: groceries, fantastic bakeries, health food, fresh produce, shoes, woodworking, meat, lamps, candy, crafts, and quilts. One store I went to had more sewing-related goods than I could have imagined existed. It was run by two virtually wordless young ladies in white bonnets.

Good times to visit might be in August for a two-day Amish Relief Sale or Labor Day Weekend when, the folks in town swear, Arthur’s Cheese Festival draws 50,000 people.

Truth is, though, you can jump off an expressway just about anywhere and run into something interesting, and east-central Illinois offers evidence aplenty.

Lake Shelbyville, at a glance half the size of Pickwick, is surrounded by campsites and marinas, and Eagle Creek State Park is actually a resort, with a nice golf course, tennis courts, trails, and a lodge on the lake. Shelbyville has Victorian homes and a famously beautiful Town Hall and is close to Springfield, a pairing which has to spark the imagination of Simpsons fans.

Near Charleston there’s a re-creation of the log cabin Abe Lincoln’s parents once lived in. They’ve got the whole 1850s scene going, with people in costume living out the roles. In nearby Sullivan, where Lincoln once debated Douglas, the summer-stock Little Theater on the Square has been there for 40 years. It even has a “Sidewalk of the Stars” who have performed there, two of whom are Betty Grable and June Lockhart.

The Illinois Masonic Home is a 1908 red brick building out on the prairie east of Sullivan. Go in there and have somebody open up the free museum for you. It’s at the far end of the entrance hall. They have, for reasons that are not clear, 10,000 seashells in there, as well as enough trinkets and oddities to keep you there for far too long. Downstairs there’s an old-timey ice cream parlor.

Then there’s the skyscrapper. The skyscrapper is a two-story outhouse in a village called Gays. It’s out of commission now, so I can’t comment on how the plumbing worked. Somebody else in Gays put a rusty old bike in a park and labeled it “Adolf Hitler’s Bike, 1932.” It may be art.

Up the road in Arcola sits what has to be the world’s only combination bowling alley and French restaurant. It’s called the French Embassy Bowling Restaurant. You can get sauteed lamb with garlic/white wine sauce while trying to pick up spares. Arcola also happens to be the hometown of Johnny Gruelle, who gave to the world Raggedy Ann and Andy. I seem to remember that souvenirs are available.

The must-see up there is Rockome Gardens. It would be tough to come up with something cooler than, say, buildings made of Fresca or 7-Up bottles. It seems that about 50 years back the Martin family decided to create all these over-scaled things out of concrete and rocks and whatnot. They made fences, baskets, arches, huge hearts with arrows through them. I’d like to think Mr. Martin sprung those on Mrs. Martin.

Twenty-five years ago a Yoder bought it, and now it really is an Amish Land theme park, more or less. All the gardens are still there – blooms are abundant – and now there’s a little Amish village, with shops and livestock and a place where the kids can ride a pony who turns a gear that drives a saw that cuts a disc of wood, onto which the blacksmith will carve your name. It’s that sort of thing, plus lots of woodwork and candy and ice cream.

Like the whole area, it’s clearly worth it on a drive-through. A night in Eagle Creek would be nice, but you can see everything in this column in a day of country-road driving.

Arthur, Illinois, is located about 85 miles northeast of St. Louis just off Interstate 57. For an extensive catalog, call 217-268-4959.

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