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Snowbirds at a slower pace

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Two women in traditional plain clothes chat on the street as a teenage girl approaches while sending text messages on her cell phone.


PINECRAFT,  FL — The July day was clear and bright with a sky so impossibly blue that it seeped into my soul and convinced me that anything was possible. This was a day for adventures, a day to launch ships and take the first steps towards dreams. The tachometer of my motorcycle was steady at just over 3,000 rpm as I cruised down the two-lane farm road. On my helmet was a communicator that allowed me to speak to my wife who was riding her own motorcycle a quarter of a mile or so behind me. The bike was equipped with satellite radio and satellite navigation. It was at 3,000 rpm that I blew by the first horse and buggy. To the rider inside the buggy, my helmet obscured my face, but I raised a gloved hand in greeting. I smiled in the realization that few people in America were as prepared to deal with a fuel crisis or a societal meltdown than the Amish population along that road outside of Bloomfield, Iowa. In my mirror, I saw the stern-looking bearded man wave back.

I never gave that man another thought until I arrived in the Pinecraft neighborhood of Sarasota. Once a distinct community well away from the city, it has long-since been engulfed by Sarasota. It is a snowbird and retirement community different from any in Florida. It is a place where bicycles outnumber the cars on the narrow streets and where women walk to the nearby market wearing long dresses and white bonnets. Pinecraft is a community for Amish snowbirds. Amish snowbirds?

A young woman in traditional dress and flip flops, along with a young boy, pedals down a street in the Amish community of Pinecraft in Sarasota.
Pinecraft isn’t restricted to the Amish, of course. Mennonites also call it home, as do, no doubt, a few people of no faith whatsoever. In the winter months, the population swells to an estimated three to five thousand people, living primarily in small homes tucked in along a grid of very narrow streets with names like Yoder and Kaufman avenues.

The community is a mishmash of orders and lifestyles among the Plain Clothes faiths. With a closer look, it is easy to see some of those differences in the clothing, or in the handful of young people in traditional dress while speaking on cell phones. Pinecraft is unusual from most Amish communities in that horse-drawn buggies are not practical or permitted, thus necessitating the use of three-wheeled bicycles.

Perhaps it is the bicycles or, perhaps it is the Florida sunshine, but the stern-looking man who waved to me as I passed him on that Iowa road would not be found in Pinecraft.  At a minimum, I would certainly not recognize him. On street corners around the small community, people gathered to chat, smiling and waving as strangers passed. In the sunshine of the 70-degree winter day, the Gentle People, as described by Dr. Joe Wittmer, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Counseling at The University of Florida, in a book of the same name, appeared truly to be living the stress-free life as described by the former Amish man turned university professor.

Economists often say dining out is among the first things people cut back on in an economic downturn. If that is true, the economy is booming at Yoder’s Amish Restaurant near Pinecraft. Lines stretched out around the building as people waited to lunch from a menu of hearty, traditional foods. Mrs. Yoder’s homemade pies were also a big draw. Yoder’s pies are nearly as well known as the Amish themselves, with many customers leaving with bags containing a peanut butter and chocolate or banana cream pie, standing several inches thick and weighing several pounds.

A mural at Yoder’s Market depicts Amish life in rural Ohio or Pennsylvania. For the Old Order Amish, the present remains much as it did in the past.
There is little in Pinecraft to suggest that the Amish are constrained by lives of stern austerity, as is most often portrayed in television and movies. Dr. Wittmer suggests that the avoidance of technology and other trappings of modern life gives them a joyful and stress-free existence that few outside of their orders could understand. While newer orders and Mennonites have adopted certain technologies as necessary, the Old Order Amish have retained their traditions, eschewing everything from automobiles to purchasing insurance or even accepting social security assistance from the government. The latter is so infused into the Old Order society that the IRS formally recognizes it and exempts such Amish orders from paying social security taxes.

In comparison to busy Bahia Vista Road bordering the community, there are no traffic problems on Kruppa or Yoder avenues. Several homes do have cars parked outside, but the preferred mode of transportation is by foot or bicycle. The neighborhood bicycle shop appears to be something of a community hangout, but then so do most street corners. People here are enjoying their lives and are including their neighbors in that enjoyment as they stand astride their bicycles chatting and sharing a beautiful Florida winter’s afternoon.

That their plain dress and lives appear austere in comparison to those of us “of the world”, that does not mean the Amish do not enjoy life. Quite the contrary. On the beaches off Sarasota, it is commonplace to see entire Amish families in full traditional dress walking through the sand to the water’s edge. Travel and vacations are as much a part of their lives as it is for those “of the world”, the non-Amish. While some newer orders have accepted air travel, most Amish reach Pinecraft and other tourist destinations by hiring an “Amish taxi” — usually a large van shared among families with a non-Amish driver.

The bicycles have taken up the parking lot normally reserved for cars at Pinecraft Park, with a huge crowd gathered on this beautiful Saturday afternoon to play or simply watch games of shuffleboard and lawn bowling. Women in traditional dress talked on the street while a teenage girl walked by sending text messages on her cell phone. One man, dressed in black pants and a white long sleeved shirt, certainly appeared joyful and stress-free as he napped in the sunshine from a lawn chair outside of his small home. At Yoder’s the line hadn’t abated, despite that the traditional lunch hour had long since passed.

touristchurchWhile their numbers are relatively small, the Amish are among the fastest growing populations in the world with an average of 6.8 children per family. There are an estimated 250,000 Amish in the United States, spread across 27 states, with 165,000 of those considered Old Order Amish. Pinecraft is largely considered a vacation spot, as most in this community are merely winter snowbirds. Although it is possible for someone not born into the faith to become Amish, the transformation is rare. While the Amish life is peaceful and generally stress-free, few people “of the world” are successfully able to turn their backs on the world of technology and the conveniences that are all too easy to take for granted. But that, of course, doesn’t stop people from trying — such people are known as “seekers” in the Amish community. Given the fast-paced world in which we live, seeking a quieter life is understandable.

Pinecraft isn’t a side-show or a museum. It is a winter home for people of faith, a place to escape the harsh winters of their northern homes, just like any other snowbirds flocking to the Sunshine State. If you go, be respectful to those living there as they will be to you. But do go hungry, as the Amish restaurants bordering the community will make certain you leave satiated. And don’t forget to leave room for the pie. The pie is heavenly.

Yoder’s Market, bordering Pinecraft, is a source of fresh produce and a heavenly selection of baked goods for both Amish and non-Amish visitors alike.
For the Old Order Amish, the Pinecraft Post Office serves as a community bulletin board in absence of the Internet.

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