I knock on the door, and Bill answers with Trish and his six children crowded round. Bill has a beard, suspenders, plain blue pants and shirt. Tricia wears a cap, an ankle-length dress. We hug. A self-conscious smile crosses Bill’s face. “Well,” he says, “do you think we’ve gone crazy?”
And one last time travel. Forward to 2009. Bill and Tricia have by now moved farther North, to an Amish community near Cadillac. More broadly, America has entered a troubled time. The Dow has fallen from 14,100 to 7,500, millions of people are losing their homes, debt-fueled consumerism has veered into a very mucky ditch, and some say Americans are taking a new look at what’s really important, about our culture possibly making a long-term change to a simpler lifestyle. I head to Cadillac to talk to the people who have the simplest life I know and ask them to tell me why they rejected today’s American way and crossed over to Amish.
We meet at the end of January, a 12-degree morning when snow covers the ground and a brilliant blue sky opens above. When I pull up, I see 20-foot-high towers of shipping pallets rising from a paved lot near an outbuilding. I’m pondering how they stack the pallets so high without motored equipment when the garage door opens, and one of the couple’s sons drives out on a forklift.
Bill gives me a brief shop tour before we head into the house to talk. The home business that the Mosers do now is building pallets, which they sell to an Amish pallet distributor in McBain. The Amish limit their use of electricity, but not all are opposed to mechanical automation. I watch as Aaron, 18, and Timothy, 20, load the pneumatic pallet-making machine (the air pressure powered by a diesel engine) with wood and then push a button. Bam, bam, bam, bam, out comes a pallet on the other end. Eventually each son will decide on a home business of his own. Aaron is experimenting by selling battery-operated headlamps locally and through mail order.
We head into the house, an old farmhouse that the family renovated and expanded to about 3,000 square feet. Tricia has coffee ready in a stovetop percolator. The cream on the table came from their Jersey cow. Sarah, 14, is home because she graduated from Amish school last year; today she’s sewing something for a wedding gift. The two youngest boys are in school, a short walk down the road. Sunlight washes in through a south window that faces the road, and periodically, horse-drawn carriages and sleighs drive by.
People with even the most basic knowledge of Amish life understand that living Amish involves every aspect of life—religion, family, culture and work—and the Mosers’ tale touches upon each of these things. But religion is foremost, and this is where the couple’s evolution began.
“We were in the routine for 13 years,” Bill says, looking back on their days in Grosse Pointe. “We went to a Protestant church, we worked with the youth group, our children went there,” he says. But after a change in pastors, the church changed. The new pastors seemed overly interested in growing the membership and in defining the way parishioners related to Jesus.
“More and more I questioned, Why don’t we just do what Jesus says?” Bill says. In other words, take the Bible at face value, a plain interpretation that would guide daily life.