Looking for something tasty and unique to serve for Easter? Coaxing your children to try eating different foods? Consider making an Amish haystack meal like the one the Hershberger family fixed for me recently in the heart of Holmes County, Ohio.
A haystack meal is something the Amish community created to serve lots of people at large gatherings. Similar to a taco salad, a haystack dinner features layers of crushed saltines, rice, lettuce, seasoned ground beef, black beans, diced tomatoes, diced green peppers, diced onions, sliced mushrooms, diced hard-boiled eggs and grated cheddar cheese, all smothered in a thick layer of Velveeta cheese sauce and topped with crushed Doritos.
To prepare a dinner haystack, guests step up to a buffet table lined with serving dishes, each filled with a separate ingredient. They begin by putting a helping of crushed crackers on their plate, move down the line picking what they like, and end by topping their towering haystack with crushed Doritos. I finished my meal with a piece of homemade chocolate cake filled with a layer of marshmallow topping and a dip of Mudd Valley vanilla custard ice cream.
For a breakfast haystack, substitute bite-sized pieces of biscuits for the crushed saltines and top them with fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, fried and crumbled bacon, diced ham, diced tomatoes, diced green peppers, diced onions, sliced mushrooms and shredded cheese. Smother it with sausage gravy and a thick layer of Velveeta cheese sauce.
The haystack dinner was one of many highlights of my evening with Ernest and Barbara Hershberger and their family. The Hershbergers own Homestead Furniture in Mount Hope, Ohio.
Mr. Hershberger, a fourth-generation woodworker who specialized in crafting kitchen cabinets, started a retail furniture business 25 years ago. Setting up shop in a converted chicken house behind Lone Star Quilt Shop and Mount Hope Harness & Shoe, local businesses owned by Mrs. Hershberger’s parents, he first sold popular brands, but began meeting a growing demand for building custom pieces for his customers.
Ten years later, he moved out of the chicken coop and into a horse barn located up State Route 241. In 1999, he built Dutch Design, a manufacturing facility, across the road. In 2001, Homestead Furniture built and moved into a 27,000-square-foot, three-floor retail showroom next door to the horse barn. Today, Mr. Hershberger leads over 65 employees and on-the-road sales representatives, with customers in every state as well as in eight countries. Whether purchased from its retail store or its wholesale line, Abner Henry, this solid hardwood furniture company demonstrates that there isn’t anything you can dream that the Hershberger team can’t create. They’ve even rebuilt the ash and ribbon mahogany body of a 1941 Buick Woody automobile for a customer.
Before I fixed my haystack, LaVern Hershberger, Mr. and Mrs. Hershberger’s oldest son of their seven children, showed me around the facility where my custom-designed wardrobe is being built.
Like his fellow Amish, LaVern ended his schooling after the eighth grade and went to work, beginning with cleaning the restrooms at the manufacturing facility. He progressed to spending seven years in the shop’s finishing room, designing the area for maximum efficiency. He’s also become an expert color specialist, developing some of the 1,600 different stain colors available, as well as coming up with unique finishes resembling pearl and leather that are popular with Millennial customers.
Also like his fellow Amish, he drives his wife, Kari, around in a horse and buggy, but often bicycles to work, where he and his coworkers rely on diesel generators to power the factory.
Every job begins its progress through the factory by receiving a number and a name. Rough sketches turn into drawings and specifications that guide craftsmen as they create the order.
But not everything is made at the Hershberger factory. Many components of pieces — such as dowel rods, crown moldings, drawer boxes, chair seats and doors — are made to the Hershbergers’ specifications by craftsmen at other local woodworking shops, an admirable practice that supports other craftsmen in the community.
Once all of the pieces for a job are ready, they’re loaded onto a cart, along with the specifications needed to complete the job.
Then, the scheduler puts the job into a production line when everything is received for it. It takes about eight days for the job to progress through the shop floor, following this assembly line known as cellular construction. It’s ready to ship to the customer in three to four weeks, after it passes a rigorous process of verifying and checking.
First, the cart arrives at one of six preparation stations, each measuring 12’ by 12’ and outfitted with everything the craftsman needs to work. Denray downdraft tables vacuum- filter dust out of the environment, while bright spotlights highlight any flaws in the wood.
Every day, each worker receives a color-coded schedule. If he finishes early, he helps any coworkers lagging behind. On Fridays, they perform a massive cleanup of the work area.
Next, the cart is wheeled over to the prep area, where each piece is hand-sanded so that stain can penetrate it evenly and produce a quality sheen. Some pieces might be distressed using tools fashioned from drill bits and stones to create a unique textured finish.
Most pieces normally go through a four-step finishing process that includes a color coat, a sealer coat, sanding, and a top coat. Some special colors take up to 20 steps, relying on dyes, spatters, glazes and dry brushes to create the finished effect. Some orders follow current design trends favoring grays and earth tones, while other pieces are accented with a popular silver or gold tipping. In this contained environment, the air is changed every three minutes so that it is not harmful to workers.
After the piece is stained, it goes to a drying facility, where it rests in a 105-degree room for 30 to 40 minutes. When it emerges, it moves to a double-checking station to make sure it has been built to its exact specifications. Finally, it’s given another quality-control check by a Homestead employee before it is shipped to its new owner.
During my tour, I saw jobs in progress like dozens of silver-leaf benches for Victoria’s Secret, 300 nightstands for a hotel in Hawaii, and tables, armoires, desks, chairs and entertainment centers being created for individual customers like me.
In the Homestead showroom, Mr. Hershberger pointed out unique tables made from the reclaimed wood of an old red barn that used to stand on the property.
He also showed us several live edge slabs from the Gateway Tree, a massive 250-year-old Missouri walnut tree that measured 14 feet around, six feet wide, and 50 feet tall, with marbled lumber and equal branches and burl. Every species of hardwood lumber will have different characteristics depending on the region in which it grows, so woodworkers learn which regions produce wood with the most desirable characteristics. When Mr. Hershberger heard that this 7,000-pound beauty was available, he and a team of helpers traveled to Missouri and brought the felled tree home to Ohio. The main stump was slabbed by hand, producing nine pieces out of the center. Each slab is numbered and labeled as part of the Gateway Tree.
The tree is so special that Mr. Hershberger has created a family tree of customers who buy a piece of that tree. They receive a plaque, and their names are entered into a special book to commemorate their purchase.
Running this business is hard work for the Hershbergers, but they also know how to have fun. In 2012, they invited interested employees to participate in a pine car derby that was held in the manufacturing facility. Each contestant bought a pine car kit, built his or her racer to the required specifications, and then let them loose on a steep-sloped track as their families feasted on hot dogs and homemade snacks. LaVern won.
When an Amish girl gets married, the celebration usually takes place at home, so most families build a place in which to hold it. After the Hershbergers’ eldest daughter got married a few years ago, they decided to open the building they built for her wedding and rent it out for weddings and other corporate and social events. That’s where our haystack dinner was served…after we played a clever game.
Usually when a party game is introduced, I’ll make a run for the restroom and wait there until the coast is clear. But the Hershbergers knew just the thing to entertain their guests — a furniture-based play on words. I scored 100 percent, and LaVern gave me a $10 gift card to spend on Guardsman furniture polish and treated cotton dusting cloths for sale in the Homestead store.
The Gardens at Homestead includes an arboretum that the Hershbergers are designing to show the different species of trees they harvest for their products. Eventually, the trees will be marked so that customers can see what the wood they choose looks like in its natural state.
On February 11, Mr. Hershberger won the Miss Rumphius Award at Young Authors’ Day for the Gardens at Homestead. The award, inspired by Miss Rumphius, the award-winning children’s book by Barbara Cooney, was presented to Hershberger and his landscaper for making the world a more beautiful place. Students in the fourth through sixth grades assembled at the local community center for the presentation, and children’s author David FitzSimmons talked to them about his current projects.
While the haystack dinner was held just for Homestead customers who had recently placed a custom furniture order, the Hershbergers extend an annual invitation to the public to join them for strawberry pie in the spring and apple crisp in the fall.
If you’d like to visit Homestead and Mount Hope, spend some time in nearby Walnut Creek. If you’ve experienced a meal or a treat from Der Dutchman Restaurant and Bakery there, you know all about the comforting power of the generous portions of Amish kitchen cooking that it serves. But you might not have had the opportunity to spend a night at its neighboring Carlisle Inn, a comfortable place overlooking the tranquil pastoral setting of the Goose Bottom Valley.
After my haystack dinner, I went back to my room — appropriately called “A Quiet Place” — then feasted on a bedtime snack of complimentary just-popped popcorn, plus fresh-baked snickerdoodles and caramel-iced sugar cookies from the Der Dutchman bakery. The next morning, I joined dozens of other inn guests in a breakfast-time feeding frenzy of dozens of choices, but the star attraction was the tray of cinnamon rolls still warm from the bakery oven next door.
Back at home, I reserved a copy of Susan Trollinger’s Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia. Trollinger, an associate professor at the University of Dayton, developed expertise on the Amish during the 15 years she spent researching and writing her book. On March 5, she talked about Amish who leave their roots and move off their farms during a public program at the Ohio History Connection’s Zoar Village.