Child Hoods End
Enter the Forest
Roots of Halloween
TOURING THE AMISH COUNTRYSIDE
WITH WILD FOOD MAN PETER GAIL
by Christopher Nyerges
It was a grey winter day driving eastbound on US 422 in northeast Ohio with
Peter Gail. The clouds made it difficult to see very far into the rural countryside.
The sound of the windshield wipers provided a steady background tempo to
The temperature was in the high 30s, and it was about the same temperature
inside Peter's van. I was tense from the cold, hunched a bit, trying to stay
warm. I'm from California. Peter was relaxed, smiling, pointing out each feature
as we drove along. He's a Cleveland resident and used to the cold. Today he
was my tourguide to the Amish countryside of Ohio.
Peter Gail's most famous business associate was Euell Gibbons, who authored
Stalking the Wild Asparagus and starred in Grape Nuts cereal commercials in
the 1970s, and was consequently the butt of comedians jokes about eating everything
from old tires to freeway overpasses.
That was a long time ago. During those years, Gail edited Gibbons' articles
for Boys Life magazine, and worked with him and others to develop the National
Wilderness Survival Training Camp for the Boy Scouts. Together they developed
and taught a foraging course at Rutgers University in New Jersey. When Gibbons'
had become nationally famous from the commercials and Johnny Carson's jokes,
and was overbooked, Gail occasionally substituted for him on the lecture circuit.
Gibbons died way back in 1975 -- no, not from eating a poisonous plant! --
and Peter Gail has tirelessly carried the torch for wild food enthusiasts.
Though Gail has made no cereal commercials, he has appeared on such national
TV shows as Good Morning America, Lifetime TV's "Our Home Show",
Food TV Networks "Extreme Cuisine,@ has authored numerous books on the
subject of wild foods and related topics, and he continues to lecture about
the virtues of the ubiquitous wild plants and those people who still use them
as a part of daily life.
While Gail is best known on the national circuit for his ADinner Underfoot
and Healing with Weeds@ lectures and workshops, locally he is even better known
for his work among the Northeastern Ohio Amish community, the 4th largest in
the world. As a Ph.D. ethnobotanist and anthropologist, he has studied the
Amish for the last 28 years to discover the lessons their simple life style
has to teach us. He now interprets that in books, articles, and his tours for
those interested in learning more about these people who seem firmly rooted
in the technology of a century ago.
Perhaps Gail's most popular book is his Dandelion Celebration, a book which
tells you everything you'd ever want to know about dandelions. He's also authored
the Delightful Delicious Daylily, Violets in Your Kitchen, The Messy Mulberry
and What to do with it, and the Volunteer Vegetable Sampler, which profiles
the culinary and medicinal values of 41 of the most common backyard weeds.
The least known of Gail's pursuits outside of Northern Ohio is the
educational field experiences her provides for people curious about
the Amish and what they have to teach us. Several times a month in
spring, summer and fall, he loads up a bus or van, and takes these
people into the heart of the Northeastern Ohio Amish community. These
are day-long affairs, where his people are treated to a lunch at an
Amish home, are told the history and beliefs of the Amish, and are
taken to their stores to look at and buy Amish goods.
Today it's just me and Peter.
We have turned off the main freeway about 15 minutes ago, and it is still drizzling.
We are on a secondary road, and occasionally I spot an Amish farm house --
painted white, neat, orderly, and even though it is drizzling and December,
nearly every farmhouse has a long outside clothes line full of clothes blowing
in the breeze.
If you are unfamiliar with the Amish, they use no electricity and shun most
modern so-called conveniences. This means no electric lights, no electric refrigerators,
no television, no CDs, very few of the modern devices that most folks take
for granted. They have managed to live their lives, and produce most of their
needed items, by simple old-fashioned ingenuity. Wood stoves, oil lamps, use
of ice, horse-drawn tractors, building houses in such a way to take advantage
of the heat of summer, and be protected from the cold of winter, large windows
near the work areas, hand tools, and the use of diesel and small gasoline engines
to generate power.
The light rain has let up just a bit, and we turn eastward on a smaller road.
We're in a completely rural area, where the roads are lined by shallow ditches,
where the houses have enough space between them to put an average city block,
and no traffic lights, no street lights, no offensive neon.
"Have you ever had really good, natural beef jerky?" asked Peter.
"I'm sure I have," I responded.
"I mean, really good, really natural?"
"Well, just what I purchased at the market."
"Wait til you try what they sell here," smiled Peter. "There's
nothing like this."
Before we get to market, we note a farm house with lots of junk and rusty tools
and cars piled about.
"That's not Amish," Peter said matter-of-factly, nodding towards the
rust and the tallish weeds that nearly obscure them.
"One of the major contrasts between the neat, clean Amish places and the
'Yankees,' as they call us in this region -- is that the Yankees live in that
kind of trash -- old rusty cars, junk all around their houses. You won't see
that around the Amish homes. We, by the way, are called 'English' in most other
We arrived at the market, a small white store set back just a bit
from the road. It's very low-key setting. We get out of the van, put
on our coats, and enter the small store. It is a meat market, and it
smells really good. In the deli counter, I see varieties of cheeses,
lots of cuts of meats. Peter talks with the bearded Amish man wearing
a white, blood-stained apron, as if they have known each other for
years. (I later learn that they have known each other for 20 years)
They exchange a bit of news, who's gotten married, who died, how's
business. I stand there quietly, listening, taking it all in, considering
how out-of-place this simple conversation would be in any of today's
jam-packed modern supermarkets. But it is all very simple, very natural,
the way people were meant to interact.
"It's over there," instructs Peter, towards me. "The beef jerky."
David Kurtz, the Amish butcher, pulls out the container of jerky from the cooler
and puts it up on the far end of the deli counter. Peter rummages through the
container, picking out several choice pieces and fills a bag for himself, and
I do the same. A lady behind the counter weighs it, prices it. We pay for it
and and begin eating. It's fresh, succulent, not rock-hard, and contains an
"It's really good," I tell Peter. In fact, it's great, but I'm cold,
I'm the outsider, I'm just the observer and I don't want to act overly enthusiastic
for fear of seeming silly.
"Yes, quite good," I repeat, with a mouth full of the jerky. It turns
out that this lady behind the counter was one of Peter's former Atourists," who
became so fascinated with the community that she ultimately moved out there,
and got a job working with the Amish. They then engaged in another conversation,
discussing her experiences over the years since they have seen each other, while
I look around at the wall decorations, the products I'd not seen in years, such
as the blocks of laundry soap, balm for cows' udders, and candies I hadn't seen
I was still chewing on a bit of the jerky as we headed up another rural road,
encountering not a single other car the entire way.
"That farm over there belongs to Nora Miller," explains Peter, "who
runs a wonderful bakery out of her home."
I'd already begun to hear some of the same names repeated and so I asked Peter
"There are some 1600 Amish families in this community. Of them, some 600
are Millers, some 300 are Yoders and some 150 are Bylers. Almost 2/3 of the families
have one of those three surnames. It makes it really difficult for the mailman!!"
"Are they all related?" I ask.
"Many are, but not necessarily very closely," he replied. "These
names go way back, and a name like Miller originally was a description of an
occupation. A guy with that name ran a flour mill or a saw mill or whatever,
so people can have such names and not have any blood relationship at all. This
settlement was started by a Miller back in 1886, and back in the 50's, one of
the local Miller's made the Guinness Book of World Records by having 489 living
descendats. That spawned a bunch of new Miller families in this area! For that
matter, "Beil" in German means axe or hatchet, so a "Beiler" could
have been a logger, or firewood supplier, one who went to the woods with his
axe and made lumber. In this area they have Anglicized the name to Byler."
There is a light wind, and the rain has stopped. It's still cold and
foggy. I enjoy looking at the countryside, and anywhere you look in
any direction would make a beautiful postcard. It's that sort of place.
"This cabinet shop is really going to blow you away," Peter warns me,
as we pull into a long driveway up to a white farm house. There is a little sign
that says "Custom Wood products." Peter leads the way, not knocking,
but entering the shop. He explained that he would never enter a home without
knocking but that this was a business entrance. It all looked the same to me.
We entered the public front for the wood business and no one is about.
Peter shows me the various wood works around the room -- intricate
wall carvings, toys, benches and chairs, bowls, book shelves, and beautiful
inlaid stools. All the work is beautiful, artful, with an attention
to the finest detail.
After about 15 minutes of looking about, Peter leads the way to the cabinet
"Remember, they make all this without electricity," he says. "This
is really going to blow you away."
We enter the large airy woodshop with plenty of windows. It seems empty at
first. There are no lights on, no radio blaring, no TV in the corner. It's
quiet. But there is a lone white-haired man off to one side working on an inlaid
stool, one of those which we had just seen in the finished state. The man was
polite, and deliberate as he spoke to Peter. I highly admired his stool, but
he said nothing. Among other things, you'll discover that the Amish eschew
self-importance, and to indulge in my admiring words would be regarded as prideful.
He chose silent acknowledgment and then Peter and he talked amiably (casually)
about community activities, dogs, and the upcoming tour schedule. And then
Though I was born in California, and lived most of my life there, I did live
in Chardon, Ohio when I graduated from high school in 1973. One of my jobs
was working as a pressman's helper and printer in Middlefield, Ohio, and so
I worked among the Amish. However, I never really entered any of their homes
or places of work in all those months I lived there. Now I was able to enter
into this other-world of the Amish, via my guide Peter Gail. I was visiting
Peter as a friend and colleague. Peter wasn't "on," performing as
it were, as he might for a regular tour bus. It was just he and I, and so he
had the chance to talk with his Amish friends while I listened in and looked
around. I found it fascinating and instructive to look at the tools, the devices,
the techniques of the Amish as we traveled about.
Here was a people, self-reliant, not relying as much on "the machine" as
we do, and they were living well. It took just a bit for an outsider to penetrate
into their lives and to see that their lives were not dark and dreary, but
bright and cheery and full.
We drove on to another wood shop where we met one of Peter's Amish friends
who works with a scroll saw, making fine Victorian fret and scrollwork decorative
clocks, puzzles, wall plaques, intricate shelves and wooden candy dish/ trivet
combinations. A small nearby gasoline engine powers the scroll saw. The man,
Harvey Byler, stopped his work and chatted with Peter. How's business, who's
moved, who's started another line of work, who got married, who died. The man
showed some of the work that his 10 year old son, who works with him in the
shop, has done, beautiful Indian feather designs.
Of course these craftsmen would like Peter -- he brings customers to them.
But as I look around the Amish wood shop and listen to their conversation,
it's clear there is a mutual respect here, two men from wholly different cultures,
finding the best in each other, realizing that they are each valuable links
to the other culture. They chat and laugh and Peter discusses a wood carving
he wants to buy. Peter realized that the lighthouse would be great with a lamp
in it. Harvey didn't know what to say at first. After all, he doesn't live
his life with electric light bulbs, so putting a bulb into the lighthouse would
not be easy, would be something different, and I could see by the expression
on his face that he was not inclined to do such.
Peter changed the subject.
"Harvey, you should come with me to the Columbus Gift Mart in May, and show
off your work. You'd really enjoy spending the day there."
Harvey is silent momentarily, and responds that he might not enjoy
spending the day with crowds of people, and he says it with a smile
in a way that I assume Peter should already know this. Perhaps Peter
has already heard this, but persists in trying to get him to go anyway.
We all bid adieu, and Peter and I head down the road towards Mesopotamia to
the shop of Eli Miller. This shop has a more obvious sign, and it is clearly
a store front, even though it is just as clearly located right next to his
home. No neon, no obnoxious billboards, just a modest sign reading "Eli
Miller Leather Shop and Country Store."
We enter the store that seems dark and empty at first. Remember, this is December
indoors. Walking into the store is like passing through a time machine. My
eyes see oil lamps, butter churns, farms tools, cow bells, wood stoves, cast
iron utensils -- all that is needed for self-sufficient living apart from the
grip of the utility companies. My eyes are still adjusting to the relative
darkness, and exploring row upon row of "old fashioned" tools, while
Peter is yelling to the back, "Anyone home?"
Way back in the rear, back beyond all the leather goods such as belts and saddles
and footwear, there's an answer. Peter motions me to follow him and we meet
Eli working on a leather saddle. Eli is a more progressive Amishman -- one
who doesn't mind if his picture is taken, and who is very involved in community
activities. He, for example, organizes an Annual Oxroast each July 4 weekend,
and, even though the Amish eschew violence against persons, he is one of the
organizers of a Civil War encampment and re-enactment which they host each
year in Mesopotamia. Eli Miller is also one of the most respected leather crafters
in the United States, with saddle and tack on mounted police units all the
way from Dade County, Florida to Portland, Oregon.
They chat a bit. Who died, who changed professions, who got married, who moved
-- the usual stuff, and then Eli starts discussing and showing some of the
leathers he works with, and some of the special requests he gets. Hanging behind
him is a set of three leather belts crafted from English bridle leather which
he has just custom-made for a fellow from Cleveland who had been on one of
Peter's tours this fall. His work is awesome to my eyes.
"Do you have a custom belt for my friend from California?" Peter asks
on my behalf. I'd told Peter earlier that I could use a good belt, but I silently
wonder how much a "custom" belt may cost. Eli simply responds that
there are many good ones on the rack that he just finished making recently. I
look and find a good black one that fits me, and I pay Eli the ten dollars asking
Eli then showed us a new stamp he just received. It's a makers stamp for marking
leather, and he'd not yet used it.
"Where do you think I should put my mark on the belts?" he inquired
of Peter. We looked at belts, considering front side or back side, buckle end
or leather end.
"Put it where you can see it," responded Peter. Eli clearly did not
want to be prideful, and wasn't certain. I took off my new black belt and asked
him to stamp it right on the front, just beyond the buckle, which he did.
After more conversation, and more looking around, Peter and I depart, and investigate
an old pioneer cemetery back behind Eli's shop. It was built up atop a hill
as the last resting place for one of the families who settled Mesopotamia back
in the late 1700's. The most recent gravestone is dated 1868, 18 years before
the first Amish settler set horses hoof on Geauga County's clay till soils.
The rain seems to have completely stopped, but I keep my coat on.
The last we checked, the temperature was 38 degrees, and rising. We
traveled down a two-lane highway, where trees lined the road in places
and where the rolling fields showed that the work of the summer was
over. Some fields were green, some were brown, some were specked with
the common tall weeds of this part of the country, such as curly dock,
or teasel, or milkweeds.
It was not uncommon for us to drive through a small, postage-stamp sized "forest," since
trees grow up quickly where the fields are not kept cleared.
As we drove to our next stop, the Amish farm houses always caught my attention.
In nearly all cases, there were clothes out on the line. Often the clothes
lines were attached by a pulley wheel to a room at the back of the house, and
would run all the way out to a barn.
There were also gourds suspended in an array like a television antennae, which
serve as birdhouses for Purple Martins, which are birds that like to live in
colonies and consume tons of mosquitos each season. The Amish are a people
of utility and practicalness. The decks of larger porches had benches built
into them, something I especially liked.
Now we were turning onto a paved primary road and quickly turned into the parking
lot of a modern building. This was the Middlefield cheese factory. I purchased
some fresh cheeses, which were delicous, and looked through the large window
in the storefront down on the workers making and processing the cheese. It
was quite a sight. The factory and the milk are owned by the Amish but since
they can't have electricity, they have contracted with a cheese company in
Wisconsin to bring in the electric equipment and make the cheese, and they
hire Amish people to work for them. It is an interesting accomodation which
seems to work very nicely.
We then drove through Middlefield where I once worked at Shetler printing way
back when. Middlefield was no longer just a sleepy hamlet, and it wasn't just
Amish. The town had been invaded by MacDonalds, Wendy's,. Arby's, Dairy Queen,
Subway -- one each at least of every fast food restaurant -- as well as one
each of the CVS and RiteAid Pharmacies which now blight the landscape throughout
Middlefield is no more immune to development that the rest of the country,
I reasoned to myself. But still, the amount of development I saw in Middlefield
after 25+ years is what I have seen in California cities in under 5 years.
In other words, to me, Middlefield still maintained its small town character.
There were still places at the hardware stores for the Amish to park their
buggies, and it retained that small town Americana that seems to be disappearing
On our circuit, we passed by a covered bridge, and visited Peter's raw property
which he hopes to one day develop into the Goosefoot Acres Research facility.
This is a 18.6 acre wild area, complete with a small lake. It's wooded, full
of wild herbs and foods, and totally wild. Gail looks around as we explore
the thickets, and I can tell he's looking to the future.
"Over there will be classrooms," he explains, pointing to the north
end of the lake where the lake rises just a bit. "Students will come from
all over the world to study and research, and that's where they'll stay."
"And we'll build our home over there," pointing eastward where there
is a clearing near the top of a hill. We nibble on rose hips, and I collect some
milkweed seeds to take back to California, look around some more, and finally
move on. It's getting late.
Though Gail now resides in Cleveland, we're both originally from Southern
California. Peter explains that he got interested in wild foods at
an early age in San Gabriel, California after his father died and he
collected Agoosefoot, to help feed the family. This is the common lamb's
quarter weed -- really a wild spinach and arguably one of the most
nutritious greens in the world.
My interest began with hiking the trails of the Angeles National Forest, and
wanting to know how the Native Americans found their food in the old days.
I was already well-versed in wild edible during high school, and decided to
move to my grandfather's farm in Chardon, Ohio after I graduated. Seven months
in Ohio was a wonderful experience, and during that time I tasted as many of
the wild plants and mushrooms of Ohio that I could find. Since so much of my
early training occurred there in Ohio, when I returned to California I at first
believed that California had no wild foods, compared to Ohio. I was wrong,
of course. The flora of both states is different. And though Ohio is greener,
you can generally collect food from the wild in California 12 months out of
the year, something not as easily done in snow territory.
I began leading wild food outings in early 1974, and wrote several books about
wild food identification, which is how Peter found me. His mother, who lived
in Sierra Madre, California, had sent him columns I'd written for the Pasadena
Star News, and he'd obtained copies of my now out-of-print Wild Greens and
Salads cookbook. He made a point of looking me up one winter while visiting
his mother. He twisted my arm to look though my dandelion file for recipes
for his book, though I don't think I had anything he hadn't already seen.
Peter Gail and I have not only Ohio in common, but also our interests in wild
foods and herbs, and the cultures that use those plants. In his case, he learns
from various ethnic cultures including the Amish, and I learn from the Native
Americans, and others.
We were heading north now, out of Amish territory, towards Chardon. We've had
a long day, and the sun is low in the sky. I'd very much wanted to visit the
old farm house where I once lived.
As we drove, I told Peter that we'd all benefit by learning some of the skills
of the Amish. Peter has noted an increased interest in the Amish skills especially
when times are hard, just like back in the oil embargo days of the early 1970s,
when gas lines were common at the gas stations. Back then, there was an increased
interest in the way the Amish live, though it was arguably a superficial interest,
just enough interest, just in case, but not enough by most of the "Yankees" to
actually live that way.
We were finally in Chardon, and heading up the old road to my grandfather's
farm. I knew there'd be no farm house or barn -- I'd been told that they had
been bulldozed several years earlier by the new owner, but having come this
far, I just had to see it all for myself.
Peter slowed a bit, and when we found the driveway with the hickory tree along
side it -- now dead -- he turned left into the property. It was both sad and
exhilarating to see the old farm property. It took me awhile to take it all
in, to recall what it had looked like, and to mentally superimpose my past
memories over the current landscape. A lot was the same, but a lot had changed
as well. Where there once stood the farmhouse was now just a small barren plot.
I was amazed how small the area seemed now that the house was gone and the
cellar filled in. The deodar that had been by the front porch grew so big that
it overwhelmed the entire area, and where there once was a massive old barn
was now just a rocky slope in the outer field. Peter was tired after our day-long
tour -- he's getting old and decrepit (he likes to say that), and needs his
rest -- so he let me explore for awhile while he napped.
I walked out into the fields which were wet with mud. I looked for
the familiar -- the staghorn sumac, the highbush cranberry, the rose
hips, the burdock, the milkweed, the curly dock, the old overgrown
It was winter now, so I didn't see any of the strawberry that I recalled covered
the entire ground, or the chamomille that I recalled carpeted the area from
the garage to the farmhouse. In fact, not a trace of the garage remained. It
was now just the wild land, reverting, as it were, to the way it was before
people "improved" it. I just wanted to be here, in the land of my
grandfather, in the stomping ground of Peter Gail, in the place of longago
memories, all tied up as it was with the stories my mother told me when I was
growing up. It was too much like going into the past and finding there was
nothing here for me anymore. The farm had long ago been sold, and I was just
an undiscovered trespasser, looking and exploring. I wanted to feel the feelings,
to just be here.
I had long wanted to look again at the old mound just west of the abandoned
orchard, and determine if it really could be one of the Indian mounds that
dots the Ohio valley. It was a beautiful sight, a graceful and round symmetrical
rise from the flatlands. This time I felt more certain than ever that this
was not a natural feature of the landscape. I walked to the top, and felt the
now light rain in my face, and enjoyed the bracing breeze. I felt electric,
as if the millions of negative ions in the air were inside me, and there seemed
something other-worldly special about just standing atop a mound, a grass-covered
slight rise in an otherwise flat farm and woodland. The view was spectacular.
All around me in the distances were the forests that line the edges of farmland,
moving in the cool breeze, and the orange house lights in the distance were
I looked, and thought, and remembered. Back in 1973, after filling myself with
all the writings of Euell Gibbons, I would often sit on this very mound and
meditate and think and read. I recall something Gibbons wrote about Pliny the
naturalist smoking coltsfoot leaves, and so I smoked some in my own pipe atop
the mound. It was getting late, so I bid adieu to the mound, and walked back
through the muddy fields to Peter Gail, asleep in the van.
He asked me how long I'd been gone, and I told him "two hours." It
had only been about 25 minutes. It took him a few moments to realize that,
and then we both laughed as we drove off in the darkness.