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The Amish Road to Wal-Mart - 2002-11-30

A new road in northern Indiana has been constructed for a special type of traffic; horse-drawn Amish buggies. The Amish are a religious group that believes in separating itself from the rest of society by maintaining a simple life... dressing plainly and living without electricity, telephones or cars. The road that's been built is designed to keep the Amish safe as they travel to a place most people would not associate with that old-fashioned way of life.

If you live in Amish country, the sound of a horse and buggy traveling down a country road is familiar and comforting, a rural scene promising a slower pace of life. But the unexpected sight of an Amish buggy when speeding over a steep hill on a narrow back road or nearing a stoplight on a fast, four-lane highway can bring sudden panic. Most accidents involving cars and horse drawn vehicles occur in just such situations. Amish buggies are often destroyed when they tangle with a motor vehicle and the injuries are often severe.

In Goshen, Indiana, home to one of the nation's largest Amish communities, the solution was to build a special road for Amish traffic. The town has already created special buggy lanes along the edge of many area roads. County engineer Rick Pharis says motor vehicles are prohibited on the new road and drivers who try to use it will be given tickets and expensive fines. Mr. Pharis says special measures were taken to keep cars and trucks out. "We've actually put a curb across the entrance and then cut two slots for the width of the wheels of the buggy," he says. "The horses can step over the curb and the wheels can go through, which is a little different than the wheel path for cars."

Amish travelers turn onto their new thoroughfare from a small country road, trot along behind a few retail businesses, and end up in front of the local Wal-Mart, America's largest retail chain store, which sells everything from clothes to kitchen appliance to horse shampoo. Store manager Brett Greer says this particular store has renovated its parking lot for its Amish customers. "We've helped them by having a horse and buggy barn out there that's actually covered," he says. "It has a roof on it to keep the horses out of the weather a bit and to make it a little more enjoyable for them when they come in to visit."

The Amish refer to everyone else who lives in America as the English. Joyce Bontrager, one of the English who helped make the Amish road a reality says the coexistence of the two cultures in the area makes seeing an Amish family shopping in Wal-Mart just a part of life. "I walked into Wal-Mart the other night and there were two Amish friends there needing the same things that I needed," she says. "Yes, they're going to be shopping, because they don't make everything that they use in their homes."

Kenneth Bontrager is an Amish dairy farmer who shops at Wal-Mart and likes the idea of having a separate road that the Amish can travel on safely. Before it opened, he would hire an English driver to bring him to do his shopping so he wouldn't have to take his chances on the highway. "Sometimes the local people are more anxious than what the tourists are, but I can understand that too because they're used to us and they want to get where they want to go," he says.

The road cost $30,000 to build. The local Amish raised a third of that. County officials want to see how this stretch of pavement works before considering extending it to other businesses. But for now, the Amish families are thrilled to have a safer way to shop for the things they've come to rely on.