A few weeks ago I drove to nearby Kalona to take copies of a Quilt County magazine article I’d written to a few of the people mentioned in the piece. Until I moved to Iowa, I thought the Amish lived only in Pennsylvania. But on a summertime drive to Kalona, about 20 miles south of Iowa City, it’s not unusual to pass a farmstead with a large garden, where Amish women walk the rows of beans and squash in bonnets, plain dresses, and bare feet. Hand-lettered signs posted by white houses and red barns advertise fresh eggs, rhubarb, and grass-fed pork. Black buggies pulled by horses wearing blinders dot the roadsides in all kinds of weather.
If you stray off the main highway you encounter Amish businesses, including a general store lit only by gas lamps that sells black shoes in all sizes, and the Stringtown Grocery, where horses and buggies are tied up outside while Amish and Mennonite families shop.Years ago, when I worked on the pediatrics ward of the hospital, we’d occasionally get Amish children and the little ones spoke no English, only a kind of German that one of my friends from Germany couldn’t understand.
The good citizens of Kalona have learned to capitalize on Amish rubberneckers like me. Antique stores line the main streets and a fall festival each autumn and quilt festival each spring bring even more tourists. Over the years we’ve made friends with Ken and Brenda who own the Kalona Antiques Company and a furniture repair and refinishing shop. I took Ken some chairs for repair and while I was there I wandered among the dusty wooden furniture he had for sale—dressers, side tables, and an enormous Mission-style sideboard all held my attention. And then I saw the treadle sewing machine.
I actually did a lot of my early sewing on a treadle machine my mom and I bought for $10 at a yard sale when I was in junior high (and no, I’m not so old that I was a pre-teen in the days before electricity). My mom had a fancy Necchi machine that she worried about me messing up, so when we saw the treadle she told me it could be all mine and I loved the idea. I stitched up skirts and shifts, but eventually my sewing slowed and my mom took the machine out and antiqued the base a light blue and installed the Necchi in—no one remembers what happened to the machine.
There was a rush of nostalgia when I saw that dusty relic and the price wasn’t bad, so I told Ken I’d take it. I’m not sure how much I’ll use it and it is taking up valuable real estate, but the machine was so lovely I simply couldn’t resist. It’s much fancier than my first treadle…I can’t get over the filigreed metal bits and the ornate transfers that are still intact on the machine.
Probably one of the funniest moments came as I was leaving the shop. The machine didn’t have the drive belt, that attaches the flywheel to the treadle, and I wondered where I’d get one. Brenda suggested I check out the Stitch and Sew Cottage next to the Kalona Antique Company. Not only did they have the name of someone who services treadle machines, they actually had drive belts in stock for $8.00. Only in a town where a portion of the population is forbidden to use electricity would there be a treadle sewing machine technician. Kalona may be only 20 miles down the road, but it’s truly a world away.