By Nancy Brewer
Damp tourists still stood in line for a 90-minute wagon ride that featured stops at three Amish farms, even though it was a slow day. On sunny, summer weekends, Diann has four wagons constantly on the road, full of one group of visitors after another.
Diann Pollock knows more than most about the 250 Old Order Amish families that live in northern Lawrence County. She can even tell about the one-day house raising “frolic” Amish neighbors held for her grandfather, namesake for the nearby Brooks Hughes Road.
She has worked in businesses catering to Amish country visitors more than 20 years, first at a restaurant that served family-style meals to as many as 200 at lunchtime. Today she rents space to vendors, sells Amish-made goods on consignment and is the step-on guide for charter bus tour companies that schedule visits in the fall.
Dozens of small businesses serve the tourists that visit northern Lawrence County, including restaurants and vendors that offer merchandise on both sides of Highway 43. Many Amish families sell directly to visitors, who can get free maps showing where to find fresh produce, handmade furniture and baskets, canned and baked goods, even tack and livestock.
“If the Amish have a sign up they’re open for business,” Diann tells a woman from Alabaster, Alabama who is accompanied by her parents, visiting from Vietnam. “They stop selling at dark.”
She often sees international visitors. “They say when they come to Tennessee, they want to see the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Graceland in Memphis and the Amish in Ethridge.” She recently answered questions from a group of young American and Australian polocrosse players taking a break from tournament play in Harvest, Alabama.
“If you live in this area you know about the Amish,” says a woman on a return visit from Ardmore, Alabama. Another couple from Arkansas drove four hours one way on a “day trip” to Amish country. An unofficial audit of license plates on this rainy day also shows visitors from Mississippi, Texas, Florida, Michigan and eight Tennessee counties.
Many have questions about the religious customs of the families they’ve come to see. They are Swartzentruber and Miller Amish, Diann says, the latter slightly less conservative than the former, but none use electricity, telephones or motorized vehicles.
“I can’t imagine living that way, but oh, what a simple life they lead…not like us,” said one Independence Day visitor from Corinth, Mississippi.
Whether they were seeking inspiration or fresh produce, about 40,000 tourists came to Ethridge last year, and Heritage Campground & RV Park owner Carlos Wilhite hopes for 50,000 in 2015.
“Tourism in this area is only going to grow,” he says. “As people get older, they long to get back to a simpler way of life, and seeing this takes them back to those days.” Wilhite recently opened Amish Heritage Farm, which features an Amish home furnished according to the advice of its former inhabitants.
“It’s not a tour, it’s an experience,” he says. Now, visitors can get a closer look at how the Amish really live, a wish that many of them have, according to Beth Keaton of the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce.
“We get thousands of calls a year about the Amish, and many of them want to go into an Amish home to see how they live and even eat a meal with them,” Mrs. Keaton commented.
Mr. Wilhite can’t offer that experience at Amish Heritage Farm, but visitors can take photos – something the Amish do not allow – and enjoy their tour in air-conditioned comfort.
Nancy Brewer is a Lawrence County native and graduate of the University of North Alabama, where she earned a B.S. in Journalism and English. She worked as an editor and writer for the Lawrence County Advocate for many years, and continues to write.