Just like their “English” counterparts, newlywed Amish couples often have their getaway vehicles festooned with “Just Married” signs, streamers, and balloons. The obvious difference is, however, that it’s a horse-drawn buggy that is decorated instead of a car, limo, or pickup truck.
Most Old Order Amish weddings are held on Thursdays in the spring and summer after the planting is completed. Fall weddings usually occur after the harvest season. However, with so many young couples in the community wanting to marry, there just aren’t enough Thursdays to go around. Alternatives are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and even Saturdays, which is the day for most New Order weddings.
Weddings are considered worship services by the Amish. They usually last three hours, followed by a full course meal attended by hundreds of guests and family members. Some churches continue the tradition of also hosting an evening meal for those attending the wedding.
I was out taking shots of the changing leaves when these Amish buggies caught my eye. I liked the randomness of how they were parked, creating marvelous angles that nicely contrasted with the striations of the barn’s siding and roof.
Amish buggies in Ohio’s Amish Country may be all black, but they definitely aren’t all the same. The nondescript, unobtrusive color merely keeps them uniform and modest.
Even if they all are black, a closer look reveals that there are many differences in buggies. These variances are especially true for buggies owned by younger Amish men. Particular attention is paid to the kind of accessories included on their buggies. After all, a buggy can last for 30 years if it is well maintained.
At least two-dozen buggy shops are sprinkled around the Greater Holmes County area. That way the Amish do not have to travel far to order a buggy or have one repaired. That concept is maintained in all aspects of the Amish lifestyle.
Demand for new buggies is high. Most buggy shops reported a year’s wait for a new buggy. Depending on the size of the shop and the kind of buggies being built, buggies are produced at the rate of no greater than one per week. Buggy repairs are worked in accordingly. Should a buggy be damaged in an accident or lose a wheel, for example, it would receive priority status.
Most buggy shops are family operations. A father and his son or sons may run the shop, assisted by an apprentice or even wives and daughters. This way the trade can be passed from generation to generation.
Because each buggy is custom-built one at a time, assembling a buggy is a prolonged process, taking as long as a year to complete. To build a sturdy, useful buggy, shop owners and workers need a variety of skills. They must be a carpenter, welder, upholsterer, painter and mechanic all in one.
According to Menno Schlabach, owner and operator of M & S Coach near Berlin, buggies start with a wooden base. Reinforced with metal braces, a wood framed structure is attached. The sides and tops are covered with a grained, vinyl coated black cloth.
“With 150 church districts in the area, customization of each buggy varies a great deal,” Schlabach said.
Indeed, it is the customization that allows the customer to put personal preferences into the new buggy to give it character. That process also slows the construction. With all the various options, Schlabach said it takes an average of 150 hours to build a new buggy.
Some buggies have curtain doors that roll up, while others have sliding doors on the side and a hinged door in the back for easier access. Other buggy accessories include shelves for storage, switches, battery compartments, mirrors, window sizes and shapes including the choice of glass or Plexiglas or no glass at all, shapes and cushioning of seats, manually operated windshield wipers, brakes, upholstery and a variety of lighting options. Even the materials of the wheels and shafts vary.
Dashboards seem to be the telling tale of the owners’ preferences. Some are intricately made using inlaid or exotic wood. The dashboards are mounted on the inside of the front piece of the buggy. They generally house switches for exterior and interior lights and turn signals.
Even the exterior lighting is customized. Just like cars, buggies have headlights and taillights. Most also have amber warning lights on the top rear of the buggy. Running lights along the sides of the buggies help drivers see at night. Marker lights positioned on the front and sides of buggies are other accessories that give the buggy its individual distinction. Only buggies owned by Swartzentruber Amish, the lowest Amish order, still use kerosene lanterns for visibility.
The style of buggy is determined by its purpose. A two-wheeled cart is the simplest of all buggy types and is used for quick, local trips. The hack is the Amish equivalent to a pick up truck. Sometimes called buckboards, a hack is a four-wheel buggy that is designed for hauling livestock and other bulk items. Some driver compartments of hacks are covered, while others are open.
The most common buggy type is the surrey. They are built with a bench seat and a storage area in the back that also has an option for two small flat seats along the insides. The side seats can be removed to increase storage. Usually children use those rear seats.
Surreys come covered or open. Covered buggies are called top buggies. The family version of a surrey has two bench seats and four openings for access, plus some storage space in the rear with a door or curtain that rolls up.
The newest buggy version is the mini-surrey, which can actually hold more passengers than a regular top buggy. Affectionately called a minivan by some Amish, the mini-surrey serves the same purpose. The side seats behind the front bench comfortably hold two adults or several children on each side.
The cost of new buggies varies depending on the type and size of the buggy and the kind and amount of accessories included. A new cart could cost $1,500 while a new, well-equipped mini-surrey could run up to $7,000.
With a horse for an engine, the buggy’s driver steers with a set of reins instead of a steering wheel. Still, the purpose of a buggy is the same as a motorized vehicle. It transports its passengers from one place to the other, just at a much slower speed.
Buggies may be black. But they are an important element that helps keep the Amish culture moving in every way.
It’s no accident that buggies, pedestrians and bicyclists are easier to see when traveling the hilly and curvy roads of the area.
The Amish Safety Committee, made up of three Amish men, has been working for 18 years to educate their constituency on road safety. The most recent focus has been on improving visibility.
Drivers who frequent the Amish areas of Holmes, Wayne and Tuscarawas counties can literally see the impact the committee has made. Recognizing the importance of being seen, lighting has been the biggest improvement. In addition to the required slow moving vehicle orange triangle on the rear of the buggy or cart, most horse-drawn vehicles are now well lighted.
“The biggest factor in most car/buggy accidents is speed,” said Wayne Hochstetler, of rural Millersburg, and a member of the safety committee. “Drivers just can’t judge how fast they come upon a dark colored buggy.” Church rules stipulate that buggies be black in Ohio.
“The biggest help has been the blinking amber light,” Hochstetler said. The light is usually centered at the top of the back of the buggy. It operates on batteries, and some models even provide varying blinking patterns.
“The blinking light tells the driver that a buggy is ahead sooner than the triangle does,” Hochstetler said. The committee has suggested other lighting for buggies as well.
“We encourage people to use taillights and running lights for both the front and back,” Hochstetler said. Rear lights are imbedded in the body of the buggy, while running lights are on both sides of the buggy.
The rear lights are red, just as they would be on a motorized vehicle. The running lights serve as a form of headlight, although, according to Hochstetler, they are used more to be seen than afford light for the buggy operator to see.
In addition, smaller lights are often used on the top front of the buggies, too. These are white, amber or sometimes blue, though law enforcement discourages the latter. Most of the new lighting is LED lamps, which create a brighter, easier to see light. Most buggies also have white reflective tape that outlines the back of the buggy.
The illumination improvements haven’t been confined to horse-drawn vehicles either. Many pedestrians and bicyclists now wear reflective and lighted vests for easier visibility. Like the buggy lights, the lighted vests blink at night. Some walkers use LED lamps attached to their hats in order to be seen by oncoming traffic.
Bicycles also use red blinking taillights and bright white headlights. Reflective straps are also used around horses’ ankles and on the shafts of the buggies to which they are hitched. This permits reflectivity from traffic approaching from the side.
Hochstetler said that the grassroots efforts of the committee have been so well embraced by the Amish in Holmes, Tuscarawas and Wayne counties that they have been invited to help form other safety committees in other Ohio Amish communities.
“We have even been asked to share in other states like Indiana, Michigan and New York,” Hochstetler said.
Mullet said that even the Swartzentruber Amish, the lowest order of the sect, are now using two lighted lanterns with front and rear lens. They formerly used only one.
Mullet said that he spends several days a year visiting Amish parochial schools to teach the students practical safety measures. They include the proper way to walk and ride bikes to and from school, and encouraging wearing the day glow vests.
Mullet said he often tells personal stories to make it more meaningful for the students. Mullet also has an advantage in keeping the students’ attention since he can speak Pennsylvania Dutch with the students.
In addition to being proactive on safety, the Amish for several years have paid a self-imposed donation to the Ohio Department of Transportation to help improve area roadways. Hochstetler said each church district has a person designated to annually collect donations for each horse-drawn road vehicle owned by the household.
ODOT shares the money with county and township officials for local road improvement in areas where Amish live. The money is intended to be a monetary substitution for road improvements in lieu of paying gasoline taxes, which owners of motorized vehicles pay each time they buy fuel.