August 11, 1996

Amish Going Modern, Sort of, About Skating


INTERCOURSE, Pa. -- Andrew Herschberger's girlfriend lives in Delta, almost 25 miles across the gentle hills of the Susquehanna Valley. But as a member of the Amish community, he may not drive a car, ride a motorcycle or even hop on a bicycle to go there.

He travels using an increasingly popular mode of Amish transportation, in-line skates.

"It's faster than a horse, and it's fun," said Herschberger, 20, who skates the 25 miles in two hours, almost twice as fast as an Amish buggy. "You just feel free."

Herschberger has abundant company on the roads of southeastern Pennsylvania. In the last few years, hundreds of Amish, most of them young, have taken up in-line skating to run errands, play hockey or just zigzag for pleasure.

Among the 150,000 or so Old Order Amish, who live in 230 settlements in 22 states and Canada, in-line skating is justified as an efficient, sensible means of locomotion, another example of how the modern can square with the traditional.

"The Amish always try to see if something new fits in with their way of life, and sometimes there's shady areas," said George R. Smith, national editor of The Budget, an Amish and Mennonite newspaper in Sugarcreek, Ohio. "But when they do change, it's usually very well thought out. The Amish don't go in for any fads."

In some Amish settlements, Rollerblading is impossible, because many of the roads are gravel. But perhaps one-third of the Amish congregations have tacitly approved their use, said Sam Stoltzfus, an Amish historian, writer and gazebo builder in Gordonville.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, a few thousand pairs of skates have been sold to Amish in recent years, said Will Marion, sales manager for the Roller Derby Skate Corp. in Atglen, which distributes to the Intercourse area.

In-line skates are permissible, Stoltzfus said, because they are seen as a newer version of roller skates, a cousin of the ice skate and an improvement over the leg-powered scooter -- all long used by the Amish.

Motorized vehicles and bicycles are prohibited, in part because of concerns that they could take residents too far from the community.

"Rollerblading is a midpoint between walking and bicycling," said Donald B. Kraybill, provost at Messiah College in Grantham and a writer of books on Amish culture. "It's sort of a negotiated cultural compromise."

But some Amish worry that the convenience and speed of skating may, in a small way, dilute their no-frills style of life.

"For some elders," Stoltzfus said, "anything that looks like modern entertainment is a no-no. So there's more of a wait-and-see attitude at some churches."

Such misgivings may reflect a generational gap. Roller Derby in-line skates, which cost up to $180, are especially popular with young people who play hockey or commute to one of more than 100 one-room Amish schoolhouses in Lancaster County.

With 18,000 Amish, Lancaster is second in population only to Holmes County, Ohio, among settlements in the United States.

"Roller skates, I never got into them," said Amos Stoltzfus, 22. "They didn't have enough speed. The Rollerblades are more of a challenge, more smooth and more exercise." Stoltzfus, no relation to Sam Stoltzfus, was running errands on his in-line skates near the new traffic light here, the first in town.

Not as many women use in-line skates, but the number is increasing, said Stephen Scott, a writer and historian at the People's Place, a cultural center in Intercourse.

Priscilla Stoltzfus, no relation to Amos or Sam Stoltzfus, occasionally glides five miles to her job at a commercial kitchen in Intercourse that makes jams and pastries.

Other women skate for fun or visit friends on weekends.

The Amish dress for skating as they would for dinner: trousers without hip pockets or zippers, suspenders, solid-color shirts and the occasional broad-rimmed hat for men. For women, it is bonnets, full skirts of a single color and cape and apron.

Helmets, wristpads and kneepads are considered extraneous and a bit showy. Shinguards are sometimes worn, mainly to keep pants unsoiled.

Herschberger said that he had friends who had been hurt, but that he had avoided injury.

As more Amish are accepting in-line skating, more non-Amish are not. At least 30 municipalities have restricted the areas for in-line skaters.

The communities fret about aggressive skaters who damage property, said Dave Cooper, secretary of the International In-line Skating Association in Kensington, Md.

But the Amish have no such reservations, for now.

"It's like if you go 75 miles an hour," Sam Stoltzfus said, using the example of a car. "If your wife says, 'Are you going over the 65-mile speed limit?' you say, 'Well, yes, dear, I am, but I have to get to the meeting.' She'll then say she doesn't want you to go 75 miles an hour, but she tolerates it."

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company