Travelers drawn to quilts, charm and craftsmanship

Amish country grows into tourism hot spot
Lodging, restaurants, gift shops pop up in communities

BERLIN - The Helping Hand Quilt Shop is so busy that customers have to wait 12 to 14 months for a custom-made quilt -- and then pay up to $2,000 for the privilege.

"I keep thinking, how long is this market going to be open?'' Manager Iva Marie Yoder said. "Everyone's going to already own a quilt. But they keep coming.''

Here in the Amish country heartland of Berlin, warm weather brings hordes of tourists to sample anything Amish.

So huge is tourism that new and expanded businesses are springing up right and left -- lodging, restaurants, gift shops, tours and the like. Some say this year promises to be an unusually spectacular year -- while folks may be wary of airports and big cities, there's little fear of terrorism in the Amish country of Wayne, Stark, Holmes, Coshocton and Tuscarawas counties.

"The last quarter of last year was one of our best quarters ever,'' said lifelong Berlin resident Jo Ann Hershberger, who has run Schrock's Amish Farm since 1988. "Amish country still provides safety.''

Every year, at least 4 million people come to Amish country. After the Lake Erie islands, it is Ohio's No. 2 rural attraction, state officials say. The north central Ohio counties are home to a third of the world's Amish.

While the area took a drumming right after Sept. 11, many merchants say it has rebounded splendidly. The area is drivable by car, is close to many visitors' homes and family-friendly, said Pat Brown, head of the Holmes County Chamber and Tourism Bureau, quoting a state survey of qualities that tourists sought after the attacks.

While the area doesn't offer the slash-and-burn travel packages that other places did last fall, there was a reason for that -- it didn't have to. Since tourists began to discover the area in the late 1980s, its popularity has been on a meteoric rise.

"When I look at it from my vantage point, it's the most phenomenal thing I've ever seen,'' Brown said.

For example, sales to tourists in Wayne County rose 21 percent to $115 million in 2000, the last year for which figures are available, the Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism said. Similar sales in neighboring counties rose 8 percent to 10 percent. In Holmes County, sales tax rose from $2.9 million in 1999 to about $3.6 million in 2000 and 2001.

And this year alone, Berlin -- the center of the Amish community -- will see tremendous growth. Opening or under construction are a 72-unit condominium complex, a 350-seat restaurant, two new hotels, plus more retail shops in a renovated feed mill and a building now under construction.

The hotel rooms alone will push the number of hotel, motel and bed-and-breakfast rooms in Holmes County to 1,200, a 20 percent increase over last year and perhaps 10 times the number of a decade ago, Brown estimates.

And the English -- that's what the Amish call those of other faiths -- are tapping the rich vein of tourist dollars, too, even though their draws have nothing to do with the Amish.

Next month, Cats Meow Village in Wooster will begin showcasing its wooden architectural miniatures -- each containing wooden cats -- and hopes to attract more than 100,000 tourists yearly, President Darcy Pajak said. That's a sharp increase from the 3,000 or so tourists who visited before the expansion.

And Dalton's P. Graham Dunn Co. built a 22,500-square-foot plant that engraves boxes, pictures and the like with a Christian theme. Harry Wilkins, director of retail development, said the plant has brought in a couple of bus tours every week since it opened last fall and expects more to show up this fall.

Meanwhile, the Amish are building sales by marketing their goods through other distributors across the country.

Atlee Raber said that his Berlin Gardens and Gazebos does just 15 percent of its sales through walk-in tourist trade.

A decade ago, he and other craftsmen found a market for their goods among far-flung consumers in other states for whom Amish country was a trek and who couldn't lug a gazebo in their car or on the plane even if they did get there. Yet they wanted an Amish-made porch swing or dining room set.

"A retail shop has its limitations,'' Raber said, "but manufacturing and shipping it out is limitless.''

Craftsmanship has become the backbone of a community once dedicated to farming, he said. Yoder of the Helping Hands Quilt Shop agrees. Success has been huge since the nonprofit shop, which aids a variety of charities, opened 28 years ago. Now Helping Hands includes two buildings and a museum. Employment has quadrupled to 13.

On any given day, as many as 30 volunteers may be pitching in to help make 300 quilts a year, 200 off-the-rack quilts, plus innumerable table runners, toaster covers and the like, all stitched by hand.

Some customers are surprised at the long lead time they need to order a quilt.

"That's all the women power I've got,'' Yoder said. "This is all of the work that I can provide.''