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Reality TV absent when Amish, Mennonites come for spring break

Siesta Key is blanketed with Amish and Mennonites in traditional garb and bikinis during spring break from places like Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. They’re drawn to the familiarity of the Pinecraft community in Sarasota, but many of them let their hair down.
Published Feb. 28, 2013

The woman shuffled from the snack stand at Siesta Key toting cheese fries. She wore a head covering, a green modesty swim dress and the footwear that transcends religion and culture, Crocs.

Here, near Sarasota's Amish and Mennonite community of Pinecraft, things we know and things we think we know are tangled somewhere between a volleyball net and a slice of shoofly pie.

What we know: It's time for spring break, when thousands of college students in stringy swimsuits blanket Florida beaches, hang off balconies and chug alcohol in precarious situations. Lifetime movies have been made as a result.

What we think we know: This does not apply to the Amish and Mennonites, a somewhat mysterious and suddenly trendy population, thanks to the boob tube and odd real-life headlines about beard-cutting hate groups. The first time they meet the modern world, it is on TLC, headlong on a stripper pole greased with baby oil and Jagermeister. Or, according to the new "reality" show, Amish Mafia, they're goodfellas with facial hair.

Amish and Mennonites of all different stripes have long ventured to this town peppered with clotheslines and ice cream shops because like most cold humans, they want to thaw. A tourist church has anchored Pinecraft for decades, drawing buses of visitors who pay $250 round trip. Eateries like the famous Yoder's Restaurant revel in old-style cooking and new-world achievements, touting a visit from the Travel Channel's Man v. Food on a flat-screen TV while you wait for a seat.

It's not technically spring break; many of these visitors start working after eighth grade. But they're there, on break, in the spring, shedding a layer or two. They're a private people, not always eager to talk or be photographed. But you can't help but want to try.

In one mobile home park, a group of Mennonite teens smoking cigarettes directed us to Der Dutchman, a large Amish restaurant down the street where people were chatty. We met a strapping Ohio Amish man named Elex Miller, 22, here for roofing jobs he couldn't get at home in the winter. He promised he wouldn't have time to let loose. It doesn't get too wild anyway, he said, apart from playing cards and having a couple of cold ones.

"It depends on who you are," he said, breakfast toothpick hanging from his mouth.

Daniel Shetler, 23, straddled his bicycle outside Pinecraft Park, where tourists play shuffleboard and lawn bowling and sip homemade iced mochas for a suggested donation of $1. Daniel belongs to the Old Order Amish in Ohio, the more conservative faction. Back home, he rises at 5 a.m. and works 10-hour days doing construction and buying, selling and training horses. For two weeks a year in Pinecraft, he wears black Nikes and watches Cleveland Cavaliers games and sleeps until noon. In a stunning display of Amish capacity for forgiveness, he's still a LeBron James fan. His vacation with friends is actually quieter than life at home, he said. He has 11 siblings.

On Siesta Key, a sheriff's deputy pointed us toward groups of young people with trademark Amish bowl haircuts. They were sipping Miller Lites out of a cooler and definitely did not want to talk about it, or anything. A boom box played country music: I don't have to be me 'til Monday.

I settled in on the sand next to a guy with a shaved head and diamond stud earrings. Freeman Kaufman, 21, left the Amish in Iowa three years ago. He misses his family, he said, but doesn't miss having every worldly magazine or CD he brought home taken or burned. Still, in Iowa he parties with Amish kids down dead-end roads. And while he could go pretty much anywhere for vacation, he comes here.

"It's kind of my people," he said.

He got up to play a round of cornhole with, yep, Elex Miller, the guy from breakfast who swore he was just here to work.

"Didn't I see you at Der Dutchman this morning?" I said. He grinned.

Behind him, a group of guys finished a heated volleyball match, then formed two lines and walked past each other, slapping hands and saying, "Good game" like something out of a family sports film.

Somehow, the brotherly bonhomie after the volleyball game, the honest-to-goodness expressions of "Aw, shucks!" and the quiet sips of pale beer were a lot more interesting to watch than the predictable spring break antics we see from the rest of the world. It might not make for good TV, but it sure makes for fascinating reality.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow her on Twitter @stephhayes.

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