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'Amish Mafia' tour aims to dispel fiction

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Bradley Igou, outside a barn at Silverstone Inn & Suites, is president of The Amish Experience. The barn was used for filming the reality TV program “Amish Mafia.” Igou's company will conduct tours starting in May aimed at debunking many of the claims made on the show. Photo/Tim Stuhldreher
Bradley Igou, outside a barn at Silverstone Inn & Suites, is president of The Amish Experience. The barn was used for filming the reality TV program “Amish Mafia.” Igou's company will conduct tours starting in May aimed at debunking many of the claims made on the show. Photo/Tim Stuhldreher

By now, most people have probably heard of “Amish Mafia,” the high-concept TV series about Plain sect enforcers meting out rough justice with baseball bats and shotguns.

The Discovery Channel reality show premiered in December and became a hit, with upward of 3 million people tuning in on peak weeks to watch the antics of lead character Lebanon Levi and his posse.

Increasingly, visitors to Lancaster County are asking about the show, said Bradley Igou, president of The Amish Experience. Worried customers have asked group tour operators if the county is safe, he said.

Starting in May, The Amish Experience will offer the Amish Mafia Tour, designed "to dispel the blatant untruths and separate fact from fiction" in the show, according to the tour's mission statement.

"From a business point of view, if you have millions of people watching a show about the Amish, and you're in Lancaster's Amish country, that's kind of a no-brainer," Igou said.

"There's going to be interest generated," he continued, "and that's what our business is about — to provide people education in an entertaining way that is still respectful and factual."

The Amish Experience is based in Leacock Township, between Bird-In-Hand and Intercourse. The complex on Old Philadelphia Pike includes the Plain and Fancy Farm and the F/X Theater among its Amish-themed attractions.

The firm, founded as Dutchland Tours in 1959, also runs a wide variety of tours.

The Amish Mafia Tour will include an overview of the show and fact-checking of its claims. The centerpiece will be a visit to the Silverstone Inn & Suites, a farmstead where many of the scenes in "Amish Mafia" were filmed. Seven sets for the show were built on the property, by The Amish Experience's reckoning.

Inside a large barn by a pond, one can find Lebanon Levi's office, a homely, low-ceilinged room with hay bales in the corners and an old tractor parked by one wall. Attached to the barn is a silo where the "Mafia" confined a character as punishment in one episode.

The show's set designers arranged other parts of the barn to look like the interiors of characters' houses, Igou said. They kept costumes and props upstairs in the barn's main section, he said.

Interest in the Amish has driven Lancaster tourism for decades. It remains the county's No. 1 draw, said Kathleen Frankford, president of the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau.

About 10 million people visit Lancaster County each year, contributing to a tourism economy of nearly $1.9 billion, according to the visitors bureau. Visits and revenue were up about 4 percent in 2012, Frankford said.

Frankford called the Amish Experience's planned tour "a very creative idea." The visitors bureau is not aware of any other efforts along those lines, she said.

"Amish Mafia" is produced by Hot Snakes Media, a company that "focuses on the creation and development of highly irreverent and unique alternative television concepts," according to its website.

The Discovery Channel has maintained the show is real, albeit with certain scenes re-enacted for the cameras.

That is nonsense, according to locals with knowledge of the Amish, including Elizabethtown College professor Donald Kraybill, considered one of the world's foremost experts on Anabaptist sects.

"There never was an organization like this," he said of the show's "mafia." "Not just in name. … There is no phenomenon that functions like this."

Hot Snakes was behind "Breaking Amish," a similarly controversial show on TLC, formerly The Learning Channel, a Discovery Channel affiliate. That show purported to follow young Amish as they traded in their rural lives for the lure of New York City.

Given Hot Snakes' stated "irreverence," The Amish Experience felt justified in taking a somewhat irreverent attitude toward "Amish Mafia," Igou said.

Reaction to tour plans has been extremely positive, Igou said. The Amish Experience vetted its proposed script with several Amish, and they were happy with it, he said.

The company already had secured 15 group tour bookings as of early March, which is "very good" for a new initiative, Igou said.

Pop culture has had an enduring fascination with the Amish, Igou said. In 1955, a musical called "Plain and Fancy" played on Broadway. High schools still revive it, Igou said.

A high-water mark came with the 1985 movie "Witness," starring Harrison Ford as a police investigator who goes undercover among the Amish to protect a boy who witnessed a murder.

It became an international hit. A few years ago, The Amish Experience began running a "Witness" tour that includes the farm where several key scenes were filmed.

In recent years, Amish-themed romance novels have been popular, Igou said.

The fascination with Plain sect people isn't hard to understand. Their pious culture and horse-and-buggy way of life stand in stark contrast to the hyper-secular, hyper-technological world in which most of us live.

Yet in dealing with any culture or group, it's important not to stereotype, Igou said. Amish life encompasses considerable diversity of outlook and opinion, not cookie-cutter uniformity, he said.

The Amish Experience's tours often include a visit to an Amish home. Talking with Amish people one-on-one enables outsiders to move beyond preconceptions, he said.

"The Amish are just people," Igou said.

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