LANCASTER — Some people truck chickens down the road or move milk from state to state. Others lug fresh-cut lumber around.
The Cisney family makes a living hauling Amish.
“I already have a morning and afternoon run that day,” driver Lee Allan Cisney, 56, told an Amish man who called for a ride on a recent weekday afternoon. “I have to take a young couple to pick out a wedding gift.”
Think of “haulin’ Amish" as a rural Uber, except trips are confirmed days or weeks ahead of time through landline telephones that sit in “phone shanties,” shared by various Amish families, in the middle of fields.
“It looks like an outhouse,” Cisney said.
In 1975, an Amish man asked Carl Cisney, Lee Allan’s father, to drive him to a welding shop. The Amish traditionally eschew technology and many don’t drive. This man was a neighbor, so Cisney did him a favor. At the welding shop, other Amish men told Cisney, who’d been unemployed, that he could make a living driving the Amish to work, the supermarket, or anywhere else they needed to go.
“That’s traditionally how most of this got started,” said Sarah Jane Cisney, Carl’s wife. “People doing other Amish favors.”
With Amish childbirth rates very high, the Amish population increases steadily decade by decade. That means the Cisneys and other drivers have had plenty of business. In his career of four decades-plus, Carl Cisney, 78, said he made deep friendships with the Amish, often getting invited to weddings, where he and Sarah Jane, who also drove, were the only “English” guests. Some clients have wanted to bring chickens and ducks inside for the ride. He’s always said no. Carl also insists Amish men take off their boots and put them in bags, particularly after a barn raising.
One passenger Carl Cisney picked up in a snowstorm in 1978 was very pregnant, and then, quite suddenly, wasn’t pregnant anymore.
That little girl, born in Cisney’s van, was named Sarah, after Sarah Jane, who came to help. Carl can’t stand the sight of blood.
“I jumped out of the van and said, ‘I’ll see you later,’” he said.
Despite his queasiness, Carl also once transported an Amish man to the hospital after he nailed his foot into a beam in a barn with an air hammer. The nail was so deep, he said. that the man’s co-workers cut the wood and it came to the hospital still attached. After another mishap, Carl was asked to drive two fingers, on ice in a shoe box, to a hospital after an Amish man had an accident at a pallet shop. He was too late.
“I think they just threw them in the trash can," he said, giggling.
Favors are fine, carpooling too, but if a driver wants to transport Amish for a fee, there’s a permitting process handled by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. Drivers like the Cisneys and their son, Lee, are licensed paratransit drivers, with specific permitting to “transport people whose personal convictions prevent them owning or operating motor vehicles,”said PUC spokesperson Nils Hagan-Frederiksen.
Often, those drivers are referred to as “Amish taxis," and Lee Allan said they charge anywhere from 80 cents to $1.30 a mile.
“It’s safe to say that for decades, there’s been demand for this type of transportation,” Hagan-Frederiksen said. “It’s an interesting carve-out that serves a need.”
About 167 people are specifically licensed to drive the Amish, Hagan-Frederiksen said, and 99 of them are in Lancaster County. In the last 12 months, 29 more people filed for applications with the PUC to be Amish drivers.
Sarah Jane, 75, said the job attracts retirees and people between jobs, Many, she said, don’t bother to get the license, but the PUC patrols the area and doles out fines up to $1,000 for individuals caught transporting Amish without a permit.
Benny Perez, a former EMT in New York City, said he used to travel to Lancaster County on vacations with his children. They would go to amusement parks, he said, and also gaze at the Amish way of life. Today, he drives a Chevy van with “God be with you” written across the bug guard.
“I’ve been haulin’ Amish for about three years now," Perez said.
Lee Allan Cisney drove off and on for years for his parents but took over the family business last year, after quitting his longtime job at a titanium foundry in Morgantown.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends,” he said, driving his van down long, farm-lined roads this month. “I’ve hauled people who were kids when my parents hauled them."
Many Amish make the long trip into Philadelphia from Lancaster County each morning in vans to man the stalls at the Reading Terminal Market. Often, their driver is simply another employee who isn’t Amish, which doesn’t require a permit. That’s how Ben Kauffman, who runs Kauffman’s Lancaster County Produce at the market, gets to work.
“I sleep on the way there, but I can’t sleep on the way home,” he said.
The traditional mode of transportation for the Amish is horse and buggy, and Kauffman, 68, said the most distance a horse can handle in a day is a 40-mile round trip.
“All depends on the horse, of course,” he added.
The Amish are generally fairly quiet, the Cisneys said, but they have learned some things about their customers over the years, despite not picking up any Pennsylvania Dutch. If Amish women are speaking fast, it means they’re talking about the driver. Younger Amish like the radio on, Lee Allan said, “country for the most part” but also Christian music.
Some don’t mind talking, which is perfect for Lee Allan.
“I can talk a tin ear off a brass monkey,” he said.
Carl Cisney said he found each new customer wanted to know where the last customer had gone, a bit of Amish gossip if you will. He put up a sign by the dashboard to squash it:
“Don’t ask me where the last person went and I won’t tell the next person where you were going.”