My Sunday stroll

A joyful wander through Sarasota's Amish/Mennonite enclave

This week’s “Sunday” stroll through the Pinecraft neighborhood was, by choice and necessity, a Saturday stroll. To capture the full flavor and vibrancy of Sarasota’s Amish/Mennonite community you need to pick a day other than Sunday, when most residents don’t leave their homes except to go to church.

But on Saturday the neighborhood’s center, at the intersection of Beneva Road and Bahia Vista Street, is a buzzing hive of activity, with more bicycles, bonnets and beards than you can count.

My stroll started just north and east of that busy intersection, where construction of the Legacy Trail extension is underway. When complete, this pavement path along Sarasota’s former railroad line will give bicyclists and walkers a direct route downtown, free of vehicle traffic.

But I wonder how much Pinecraft residents will care; they already seem supremely confident wielding their bikes, trikes and golf carts in the midst of faster-moving vehicles. I’ve surmised they must even be comfortable doing this in the dark, given that when I arrive on Lido Beach at dawn, there are always a dozen or more people in Amish dress already there, scouring the shoreline for shells.

A pocket of tidy modular homes reserved for 55-and-older residents was nearly deserted as I made a circular loop through its immaculate streets, each yard tidier than the next, with numbered driveways that looked clean enough to eat from.

Near where a new fitness center was being constructed, I found the shuffleboard courts empty save for three white-bearded men. One said they’d once had more than 80 “regulars,” but the numbers these days had dropped to less than 10. He attributed it to the number of properties in the park now owned by year-round residents, who work full-time.

The rest of the subdivision was so deserted it reminded me of an old Twilight Zone episode about a town with no residents that turned out to be merely a movie set-like facade.

Where Philippi Creek winds around the back of the community, birds were the only ones enjoying the near perfect 70 degree day. But I soon discovered where everybody was.

As I approached Pinecraft’s commercial cluster — the renowned Yoder’s of pie-making fame, Big Olaf’s ice cream shop, the produce market — I frequently had to step off the sidewalk when I heard the warning bells of bicycles chiming behind me. There were bursts of color, conversations in dialects I couldn’t determine and, other than my own, not a face mask in sight.

Women in pinafores and bonnets picked through piles of produce, children worked their tongues overtime as ice cream cones melted in the midday sun and men in suspenders and straw hats gathered in the shade to converse.

This charming gentleman somewhat reluctantly allowed me to take his photo, but the man seated next to him adamantly refused. Yet, when I asked if I would be giving offense to ask a few questions, he was more than happy to oblige.

“No offense, no offense a t’all,” he said.

He was Amish, from Indiana and “not old enough” to spend the entire winter in Sarasota as his friend does. He comes down on the bus, as do most part-time residents and he helped me understand how the Amish reconcile religious rules that discourage the use of technology and vehicle transport with their regular use of buses, cell phones and electric carts.

“It’s not about not using them,” he said, “it’s about not owning them.” Things got a little murkier when I asked about specific items — washing machines are apparently ok, dishwashers are not (“I’m the dishwasher,” he said) — and it appears the rigidity of the rules depends on the setting, circumstance and family dictates.

He said he enjoys his job up north, working in a thrift shop (“There’s something new every day”) and seeing his 49 (that’s right) grandchildren, all of whom have retained their Amish roots and live nearby. The youngest, who is 3, lives next door and one night recently she showed up and said, “Grandpa, I haven’t had any candy today. Don’t you think I should?” He said he thought that wasn’t a good idea just before bedtime. “Well then, how about some cheese?” she said. He pulled all the cheese he had out of the refrigerator and they enjoyed a bedtime snack together, just the two of them.

“I thought that was kind of sweet,” he said.

I thought so too.

Over at Pinecraft Park, several blocks east and south, the bicycle rack was so crowded I was sure a major event must be going on. But an older man with a hearing aid, watching a heated bocce match from the seat of his tricycle, assured me this was a typical Saturday afternoon crowd. Then he spent 15 minutes schooling me on the rules of bocce, as he shouted encouragement to the lone female competitor — a woman he called Maggie, “not because that’s her name, but because she reminds me of a girl I once knew named Maggie.”

A man uses a tape measure to gauge the winning distance in a heated game of bocce; a lone female competitor awakes her turn; and a spectator watches from the seat of his tricycle, as most the onlookers do.

The shuffleboard courts were just as crowded, with a sole female team cheered on by friends in the nearby bleachers. Meanwhile, the sporadic ring of metal against metal attested to the expertise of the men razzing each other in the horse shoe pit. The teen boys clustered on the basketball court while the younger children found the sandy pit meant for volleyball an excellent surface for gymnastics instead.

This is Sam, who for 21 years has spent two hours a day (other than Sundays) washing, scraping and restoring the pucks for the shuffle board players. He is a man of few words.

And this is one of Pinecraft’s newest residents, who was wandering among the throng with her grandmother, who said she began to walk at eight months. I asked the woman if she had as many grandchildren as the gentleman I’d talked to earlier and she said, “Oh heavens no. I only have 29.”

Before embarking on my stroll, I had some inhibitions about engaging with Pinecraft residents. I’d been told they were prickly, didn’t like their pictures taken and weren’t interested in talking to strangers. My previous interactions had been limited to passing them on beach walks, where they rarely returned my “Good morning!” and once writing about their annual pie contest, in which my own “outsider” entry was eliminated in the first round.

The part about the photos may be true, but everyone I spoke to was warm, gracious, voluble and kind. There was a pervasive sense of community and neighborliness everywhere I went, and I admired their engagement in life’s simpler pleasures, free from technology.

I’m sure there are things about being Amish I would find difficult to understand or accept. But I certainly envied their obvious embrace of family, fellowship and wholesome fun. It all reminded me of life in the rural area where I grew up in western Michigan. A place where a neighbor was more than just the person whose house located next to your own and where Saturdays were a time to enjoy games, the great outdoors, and each other.