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I was under the impression that the tourist season had finally ended in Fillmore County but on a recent Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when I couldn’t find a parking space in downtown Harmony, I began to wonder.
Who were all these people and why weren’t they at a mall in Rochester or La Crosse? After all, this was the so-called busiest shopping day of the year. What was everybody doing in this laid-back little burg?
My destination was the Harmony House where I was going to meet with Myron Scheevel, owner of Amish Country Tours, and some of his tour guides. "They’ve got stories to tell that I don’t think most of our local people are aware of," Myron had told me, "you’d be surprised who some of our visitors are each year."
Even though it was well past the noon lunch hour, the restaurant was packed and noisy. The back room, which Myron had predicted would be a quiet and an easy place to talk, was just as crowded, though back in the corner there was one small vacant table.
Myron and his crew soon arrived and he introduced me to four of his tour guides: Bill Fishbaugher, Evelyn Hingsberger, Merlin Hoiness and John Young – proud Harmony residents all. During the busy season, Myron said that he employs several other guides as well.I commented on the lively vibrant activity of Harmony and said that a nearby town I had just driven through had only about a half dozen cars parked on its downtown streets.
"That’s too many!" Bill Fishbaugher joked.
Myron provided some background on the Amish tour business. He said that in 1986, the organizers of Harmony’s fall festival placed an ad in the Rochester Post-Bulletin advertising free Amish tours in an effort to attract people to the festival.
"It turned out to be a rainy and nasty day," Myron recalled, "but we still registered 247 cars that wanted to go on an Amish tour."
Myron laughed and continued, "We were prepared for only a dozen cars so we took them out in caravans. But from that experience we learned that there was an interest in the Amish and that maybe something could develop from it."
The following year in 1987, Myron started his business providing individual car tours. "I think we had four charter buses out of Rochester that first year, too," he said.
By 1992, as interest in the Amish continued growing, Myron bought his first passenger van, which had a fourteen person capacity. Since then, he has added two more vans to his fleet and estimates that his company provides around 450 car/van tours and 100 charter bus tours a year.
So who’s coming on these Amish tours? I had to ask.
"I’ve given tours to agricultural groups from Vietnam, Albania, and Ukraine, to name just a few," said Merlin Hoiness. "They’re especially interested in the way the Amish milk by hand and how they store their milk. Can you imagine somebody coming to this country to watch somebody milk by hand?"
"I had a large group from St. Cloud who spent ten days touring Amish communities around the county," John Young said. "They’d been to Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Coming back they stopped in Wisconsin and their last stop was here in Harmony. I think they were pretty Amished out by then."
"I had the crown prince and prime minister of Oman a few years ago," John continued. "The prince ordered a handmade buggy from one of the Amish carpenters. He said he wanted it to be the best buggy the guy could make. ‘Make one like you’d make for your bishop,’ he said."
John went on to say that he’d given a tour to former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt. And then there was the woman of a royal family from a newly rich oil country in the Middle East. "She had a handbag filled with cash and she’d throw twenty dollar bills out the window to Amish kids," John recalled. "She bought a jar of jam at one farm and paid for it with a hundred dollar bill and said, ‘keep the change’."
Without a doubt, the highlight of Evelyn Hingsberger’s tour guiding career came two years ago when King Hussein of Jordan, who was undergoing cancer treatment at the Mayo Clinic, arrived in Harmony for an Amish tour. "Merlin (Hoiness) and I were in the front car with a secret service man and the King was driving behind in his brand new Volkswagen that Queen Noor had given him for his birthday," Evelyn said.
Rounding a bend in the road they suddenly came upon an Amish farmer who was out doing some target practice shooting with his rifle. "There was a bit of commotion for a few minutes," Merlin said. "He had no idea that a king was coming to his farm, of course."
The King and Queen found the baked goods so tasty at one Amish farm that they put in a standing order for three loaves of white bread and three of dark bread to be baked fresh every other day. So, for the next few months, two men from the King’s entourage would drive from Rochester several times a week and pick Evelyn up to go out to the Amish farm to get the baked goods.
"I don’t suppose you want to put in your paper that the King didn’t particularly care for the bread that he was getting at the Kahler," Merlin said.
"My most unusual tour was an Amish couple and their young daughter. I was really surprised that they wanted to see how other Amish lived," Bill Fishbaugher said. "They turned out to be from Ohio where they had an Amish tour business of their own, and they wanted to see how we did it here."
On their two and a half hour tours the guides try to keep talking in between the stops at four or five Amish farms, the Austin Angora Goat Farm and the 1856 Lenora Church.
So, what do you all find to talk about? I asked.
"We tell about the local history and about what attracted the Amish to this area in the first place," John said. "And people are fascinated with sinkholes, too. It’s hard to believe that you can talk for fifteen minutes about a sinkhole, but you can."
"It’s truly amazing how awed people are by the Amish lifestyle," Myron said.
"It’s almost a religious experience for many people," Evelyn agreed. "Of course our people nowadays couldn’t imagine giving up their lifestyle for religion."
"It’s the people you meet that makes this job so great," John said. "I learn something every day."
"It’s a labor of love for these guys," Evelyn said motioning at her colleagues. "They enjoy it so much and no two days are ever the same."
To prove that point John told how he was recently driving a van full of people out of Lenora when he was passed by a speeding Highway Patrol car with its siren on. The patrolman stopped a short distance ahead where a man who had been deerhunting was down, after suffering an apparent heart attack.
"The man sitting next to me in the van said, ‘We’ve got to stop. We’re Mayo Medical people’," John said. "And here he turned out to be a doctor and there were three nurses from the trauma unit along as well."
The doctor only had aspirin with him, which he administered to the victim and the nurses kept tabs on his vital signs until the Mayo One helicopter arrived.
"It isn’t often that the nurses and doctor get to an accident before the emergency personnel," John said in wonder. "In this job you never know who you’re going to meet next."
There are three companies that offer Amish Tours in Fillmore County: R&M Amish Touring, 507-467-2128; Michel Amish Tours, 507-886-5392; Amish Country Tours, 507-886-2303.