It started in Wal-Mart about ten years ago – Amish men stepping to the cash register with their checkbooks, after all the items had been scanned. Before that, all such purchases would have been done with cash. And an Amish father might typically carry several hundred dollars in cash to town, enough at least to cover all of the stops the family wanted to make. You’d see the fathers and grandfathers clustered just inside the doors, or outside on the Wal-Mart parking lot, passing the time of day, while the women shopped for food, or shoes, whatever. Maybe they’d buy enough staples to fill up what room there was in the back of the buggy after all the kids were loaded for the trip home.
So that was the new thing I spotted, the checkbooks. There just had been too many robberies of the Plain People. Everyone knew. An Amish farmer on a trip into town with his family might have $1500 cash in his pocket. I’ve heard of greater sums, as astonishing as that may seem. But not anymore. Where a bishop allows it, the men and many of the women now have checking accounts, and we see them writing checks in Wal-Mart all the time. It is not even remarkable, unless you remember the day when such a thing never would have happened.
Then the next change happened about two years ago. We see it in Wooster quite a lot now, since Amish families have to travel so far to get to Wal-Mart. They come ten to fifteen at a time, whole families, or two families together – as many as can fit in an extended-length window van driven by some enterprising English fellow, who makes a living driving these long fifteen-passenger “Amish Haulers” into town. And if you count the little kids sitting on Mom or Dad’s lap, it can be upwards of twenty Amish souls packed into one of those big vans.
But that is not all. Now the vans are showing up with cargo trailers hitched to the back, and the women and children will spend several hours in Wal-Mart, carting out load after load of groceries and goods to pack into the trailer. And they fill them up! The littlest children don’t help. They sit on father’s lap in the van and wait for the rest of the family to finish shopping. Sometimes the fathers get out for a smoke. Sometimes they wander inside to look around. But the women have the checkbooks these days, and that seems to suit the men well enough.
So that’s the change I’ve seen at the Wal-Mart here in Wooster. Amish-hauler window vans with English drivers pulling cargo trailers. Women with the older children, shopping for everything from sunglasses to snow shovels. Men who wait. And the checkbooks. That’s quite a change for people who think that the Bible teaches that God would have us all live on a farm.
If I extrapolate into the future, I have to predict that we’ll see credit cards one day. It is not likely, but when it happens – seems inevitable, doesn’t it – I’ll have all the evidence I’ll need to write an Ohio Amish Mystery in which some unsuspecting Amish man is swindled out of the entire credit limit on the card. It’s progress, you see. It has been coming on for over thirty years. The Amish people of Holmes County, Ohio, constitute the most urbane collection of plain-living Anabaptists anywhere in the world, and such a swindle, as bad as it would be, probably wouldn’t be any worse than getting robbed of your $1500 in cash that used to travel in your pants pocket.
Maybe the Schwartzentrubers have it right, after all. They’d say that if you really are living Amish the right way, you just don’t need to go into town at all.