It’s not a secret to regular readers of Sacred Wanderings that I (Cate) am a Mennonite. Though I’m not a Plain or buggy-driving Mennonite, I have lots of connections to the Amish and love visiting Amish communities. You might not know that I grew up in Wisconsin, and often visited Wisconsin Amish with my family. There are some wonderful Amish communities in Wisconsin!
Growing up in Wisconsin, we most frequently drove the 2 hours from Madison to visit the Cashton Amish – a rapidly growing Amish community in Wisconsin and one that has just the right amount of tourism infrastructure to make it easy and enjoyable to visit, but none of the fake or overblown Amish tourism kitchz that some of the more popular Amish tourism destinations are beset with.
That’s why, out of all the places to visit the Amish, I think visiting the Wisconsin Amish is the most authentic way to get to know what Amish life is like!
April 2021 Update: While many of us cannot travel right now due to the ongoing situation, enjoy this post for inspiration and to help you plan a safe and wonderful trip in the future.
About the Amish and Mennonites
The Amish / Mennonite faith spans a wide gamut from highly traditional (re: buggies and no electricity) to quite progressive. To sum up a lot of history: the Amish broke off from the Mennonites a while ago – but technically are still “Mennonite”, while not all Mennonites are Amish.
One of the reasons I love being Mennonite is that we do consider each other family, even when our ways of living out our faith are quite different. I attend Mennonite Central Committee auctions every year and there’s a hilarious mix of RVs, Priuses, and Buggies in the parking lot (and an even better mix of handpies, whole pies, and whoopie pies in the food hall – yes, all Mennonites really like pies).
Within the diversity, there are some core unifying principles of the Amish and Mennonite faith – including what you might expect from most orthodox Christian groups. Some of the distinct theological teachings include a strong belief that to be a Mennonite Christian is also to be pacifist, non-violent, and not participate in war or the military. Mennonites and the Amish also value simplicity (even us Macbook-using, Toyota Prius-driving Mennonites) and the importance of the close-knit community that practices mutual aid (it’s what it sounds like: helping on another).
The Amish tend to take all of this to a stronger level than other Mennonite groups: driving buggies so that it’s much harder to kill someone in an accident, mostly never moving outside of the community one is born into, and not buying health insurance in order to help each other in the community pay the bills. Even modern Mennonites tend to move only to places with a strong Mennonite church, drive simple and efficient cars, register as conscientious objectors, and bank through Mennonite financial organizations.
An Honest View of Amish Tourism from a Mennonite
People ask me a lot about Amish tourism: how do I feel about it? Is it voyeuristic? Is it ok to gawk at someone else’s faith practices?
Amish tourism can be voyeuristic, and any time we visit any place of worship or religious community just to gawk and comment on how “different” it is isn’t respectful.
However, one of the things I know from Amish friends is that Amish populations are actually growing very rapidly in the USA, and with that comes the difficulty of passing on the farm-based agrarian life we associate with the Amish.
Amish families might have 8+ children (though not all Amish families are large!) and only one farm to pass on – so that farm either gets cut into small farms that aren’t able to fully support a family, or 7 children are left to find a new profession. Tourism, Duck Farming (at least in Indiana near Culver Duck!), and Electrical work have become some of the hallmarks of how Amish communities are able to stay afloat.
I do get frustrated when I visit big tourist compounds that aren’t really Amish, restaurants where English (non-Amish) girls don bonnets designed after Litttle House on the Prairie and call them Amish. I am annoyed because the owners are profiting off the Amish without necessarily putting money back into the community.
I absolutely think it’s possible to visit the Amish while maintaining true, open curiosity about their faith without “othering” them or gawking.
I do find myself frustrated when people’s main takeaway is “they are strict” or the “women are repressed” – there is so much more to learn and know of the Amish than these stereotypes! English (non-Amish people) also seem fascinated also with the idea of Rumspringa — the year when Amish youth are allowed to break the Ordnung, or rule. It isn’t nearly as wild and dramatic as TV makes it out and it’s a very beautiful symbol of how the Amish faith is voluntary. The Amish do not baptize their children (nor do we Mennonites) because it is important that children freely and voluntarily choose the faith for themselves.
So is it strict? It can be. Are women repressed? In some marriages and families, just like they are in some English marriages and families.
If you can visit the Amish while holding respect and nuance and openmindedness – then by all means, enjoy! And don’t forget to try a Whoopie Pie!
Getting to Cashton, Wisconsin: The Best Amish Community in Wisconsin
Cashton, Wisconsin is in the far west of Wisconsin, near the border with Iowa and Minnesota. It takes about 2 hours to drive there from Madison, which is the best airport to fly into for visiting the Amish in Wisconsin. You can rent a car at the airport and drive directly there quite easily. The highway drive is lovely and passes lots of beautiful countryside.
It’s also possible to drive there from Minneapolis, or from Iowa – though a bit longer if you are flying in. Milwaukee is another possible Wisconsin airport, and the total drive from Chicago would be about 5 hours.
The Wisconsin Amish are quite spread out around Cashton. In fact, it might not even be accurate to say you are going to Cashton, WI. You are going to the general area – but expect to put some miles on your car during this trip as you drive to various Amish farms around the area.
What to do when visiting the Wisconsin Amish
I don’t even like shopping, but it’s really the thing to do in Cashton. Many of the Amish farms in Wisconsin have small shops out of their homes that sell everything from quilts to expired (but still edible!) groceries to incredible homemade candy.
This is a chance to see part of an Amish home or farm up close, and buy some amazing things!
How do you find Amish shops in Cashton, Wisconsin? The directory!
There are a few directories out there – and fair warning – Amish businesses may be closed pretty randomly depending on a family’s needs. Also sometimes you walk in and there’s no one there! Wait a bit – likely someone will see you and come in, or come to the door and let you in!
Also note: Amish businesses are essentially always closed on Sundays. I often suggest a Thursday – Saturday visit to the Amish in Wisconsin for this reason!
The best online directory of Wisconsin Amish businesses is on the Amish in America webiste here.
Cashton, Wisconsin also keeps its own online list of businesses here.
A few of my personal favorites:
Don’t miss Maple View Bakery. If you leave without enough insanely inexpensive and gorgeous baked goods for at least 7 teenage boys for a month – well, then you have a lot more self-control than I do!
Scenic View Bulk Foods has wonderful baking supplies. I always stock up on various flours, and, well, gelatin. Yep – gelatin in bulk in every flavor possible. [Mennonites have a thing for Jello salad, or at least my church has a “retro” themed potluck regularly so it’s still a staple item here!]
Any of the greenhouses are great. There was a time when we got caught in a greenhouse during a tornado in Cashton – and some random sheep took shelter with us. But that’s a story for another time!
Miller’s Dented Discounts is fabulous for stocking up on scratch-and-dent groceries, and skin care products, and a lot of other things I bet you didn’t associate with the Amish (like branded and holiday themed breakfast cereals). My mom will drive the entire way to Cashton just to visit this store and come back in one day!
Where to Stay to Visit Amish Communities in Wisconsin
Growing up, every year or so my family would head to Cashton either for a day or, more often, for a tech-free weekend away. As kids we loved it.
Fun Travel Tip: When visiting areas with a large Amish population, bring your binoculars or – better yet – a telescope. Why? Because there is much less ambient light in areas with a lot of Amish and Mennonites and the stars are unbelievably beautiful. At the very least, bring a blanket and take an evening to enjoy the wonder of the night sky!
We always stayed in the same place – a wonderful old Victorian house nestled in the back of a non-Amish farm. There were sheep, hay bales to jump, and the most delicious homemade breakfasts. Today the owners have changed hands. I visited a year ago and it was still magical but not quite what I remembered as a child [they no longer stock the fridge, for instance, with Amish butter and eggs, now it’s little butter packets].
Trillium is still a solid option for families and does have lovely walking trails. There are two houses on the property – a smaller one in the front and a bigger one in the back. Both are really lovely – it mostly matters how many people you have.
There are few proper hotels in Cashton itself, but there are plenty of great vacation rentals on VRBO!
For nearby hotels, though a little further from Cashton itself, you can stay in LaCrosse, Wisconsin – right on the border with Minnesota.
Frequently Asked Questions about Visiting the Amish
How should I dress when I’m visiting an Amish community?
Like you normally would. Unless you normally wear bikinis and shirts that show your midriff and shorts that really ought to be underwear. In that case, you might reconsider. Amish communities that welcome visitors into shops and homes are used to the ways English people (non-Amish) dress. You may find some Amish or Amish children staring at you – don’t worry about it.
Can I take pictures of the Amish?
Yes and No. You cannot take photographs of an Amish person’s face. Some would say you shouldn’t even take a picture of the Amish from behind or afar. I am going to leave that up to you. You might notice the pictures in this post are of buggies and homes and scenery and laundry lines. These are all acceptable things to take photographs of. As always when we take photographs when we visit anywhere it’s important to not gawk or take a picture to make fun of something or treat it as “other”.
Can I visit an Amish church?
This one is no. There may be exceptions in areas with a lot of tourism infrastructure, but for the most part Amish worship services are held in homes and are for the community only. You can visit various types of Mennonite churches and a church called “Beachy Amish”. If you are seriously interested about visiting a Plain church, you can use this form.
Why do I sometimes see some Amish riding in cars or holding a cell phone? I thought they didn’t do that.
While the Amish put significant limits on technology, when technology use is deemed to serve the community, it is allowed after careful consideration. At times the Amish need to ride in cars for medical care. At times an Amish person may require a cell phone in order to do the business that supports his family. If it helps think of the Amish as extremely thoughtful about technology, not shunning technology. Communities are also independent, and different groups have different convictions and orders around things like clothing and technology, even education. I’ve known quite conservative Amish women who were educated through University because the need in their community for trained women’s nurses – in that case it wasn’t breaking their faith to go to College, but a way of serving.
Do the Amish speak English?
For the most part, yes. In some rural places some Amish do not, particularly women who work in the home. Most are raised in a home that speaks Low German (sometimes known as “Pennsylvania Dutch”) and many Amish as such have a distinctive accent. You can assume anyone selling goods or services knows English and speak to them normally.
Visiting the Wisconsin Amish in Cashton is one of the best travel activities in all of Wisconsin and is sure to be a spiritually renewing, wonderfully restful trip! The landscape is beautiful, the pies are top notch, and there is really so much to do in the area! As long as you bring respect and an open mind, the Amish welcome you to visit and experience their unique and lovely lifestyle. It’s bound to be a trip you’ll never forget!
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