The Arcola, Illinois highway exit said, “theme park,” but the only “rides” are in buggies, there is no junk food except cheese, and who in their right mind waits in line to churn butter? 80 years of American roadtrippers, it turns out, and hundreds of them hit ye olde gift shop to snatch up the park’s coolest souvenir: a pencil with a horse and buggy on it and a vintage Amish saying, “We Grow Too Soon Oldt And Too Late Schmardt.”
Picture it: you’re riding in the back of the Family Roadster, the seafoam green one with the wood panel sides, staring out the back window watching stripes painted on the asphalt whiz by and aggressively playing license plate bingo with your sibling that won’t stay on their side of the seat. The car turns off Interstate 57 and a short time later comes to a stop. Everyone piles out of the car to go to Rockome Gardens, one of the world’s only Amish theme parks.
Signs such as “you must be *this tall* to raise a barn” and “wait to churn butter is 45 minutes from this point” may or may not have greeted Rockome Gardens visitors. But we do know that from 1937 to 2015, you could fill a whole day grabbing a snack of curds from the cheese shop before watching chickens play tic-tac-toe or piano (!), cutting a log at the horse-powered saw mill, or ill-advisedly gawking at actual Amish people in the model town, Colonial Williamsburg style.
After a long day of walking around, a buggy ride across the park would deposit you at the gift shop, where the co-owner Irene Yoder would sell you a pencils like this one, probably cash only, you know, since the whole “no electricity” thing. Irene ran the gift shop at least until she was 87 in 2005, when her son joked, "We've had to cut her down to a six-day workweek."
Our pencil harkens back to the mid 80s, about 40 years after the Mennonite Church had taken over from the original owners to build a retirement home for missionaries there. Apparently they were both oldt and schmardt, but not as schmardt as Amish/Mennonite farmers Elvan and Irene Yoder who bought Rockome Gardens in the 60s, stuck some Amish attractions on it, and officially opened it to the public. We have them to thank for this pencil.
Sadly, in 2015, Rockome Gardens was shuttered and turned into a “wildlife adventure” park. No word on what happened to the tic-tac-toe playing chickens, but this simple stick of graphite, paint, wood, aluminum and rubber will always remind us that central Illinois was once home to an oddly beloved Amish theme park.