Amish perceive development as threat to way of life 'They are not going to tell the rest of society what to do,' one observer says

September 22, 1998|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,COX NEWS SERVICE

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. -- Eli's grandfather reckons that the Amish are like other folks.

"We believe the best environment for the Plain People is the farm," he explained, standing in a well-ordered woodshop near fertile fields that his family has cultivated for six generations. "So just like you will save and bend over backwards to send your children to college, we will save and bend over backwards to help our sons and daughters buy a farm."

The problem for Eli's grandfather - who does not want to be identified further because of church strictures - and the 36,000 other Plain Sect disciples in Lancaster County is that developers are encroaching on farmland they have tended since William Penn welcomed their persecuted forebears nearly three centuries ago.

Fastest-growing county

Lancaster is the fastest-growing county in Pennsylvania as families move in from Philadelphia and other East Coast cities. Instant neighborhoods have sprung up on what were once rolling dairy pastures and carefully plowed fields of produce, corn and tobacco.

Meanwhile, recent years have brought bumper crops of tourists. Motels and theme parks are now as commonplace as barns and silos, and tour buses outnumber Amish buggies on the crowded roads. Land prices have skyrocketed.

Over the past 40 years, the county has lost more than 103,000 acres of farmland to development - an average of about seven acres per day. The loss is especially dramatic considering that the farms are among the most productive in the nation and are typically less than 100 acres in size.

At the urging of local preservationists, the World Monument Fund last year named Lancaster County one of the world's 100 most endangered historic sites, along with the Taj Mahal, the ruins of Pompeii and other threatened global treasures.

With a lifestyle historically rooted in agriculture, the Amish are at a cultural crossroads. Four decades ago, 95 percent of the county's Plain Sect populace worked on farms, compared with about 50 percent nowadays.

The Plain People have adapted economically - finding outside jobs and nurturing their own enterprises - but the changes are threatening their simple and spiritual way of life, warned Randy-Michael Testa, a Dartmouth College professor and author "After the Fire: The Destruction of the Lancaster County Amish."

The question

"The question is: How far can a people bend until something snaps?" asked Testa. Now bearded Amish men in black trousers and straw hats and women in long dresses and white bonnets watch warily as suburban sprawl paves over much of the good earth between Paradise and Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse and other colorfully named villages.

"With more and more commercial development, it creates a conflict, if I may say so, for land use," said Eli's grandfather, who believes it would be sinful to call attention to himself and, like most Amish, does not want to be photographed or publicly identified. "But the commercial developers are able to pay more for the land. That takes it out of agriculture, which doesn't suit me."

When Amish settlers arrived in this valley in the early 1700s, they found a place to heed the biblical words: "Be ye a people set apart."

Of the 130,000 or so Old Order Amish in North America, about 20,000 live in Lancaster County. The county is also home to 16,000 Old Order Mennonites - spiritual cousins who share many of the same beliefs but are less rigorous in their separation.

In the 17th century, the Amish and Mennonites were persecuted in Europe because they were Anabaptists - believers in voluntary adult baptism. The Old Order sects are known as the Plain Folk, averse to ostentation and committed to their faith, family and community.

The Amish are famous for their pacifism, simplicity, plain garb and curiously selective rejection of modern technology. For instance, they will not hook into the local electric utility - maintaining independence from government - but do use generators to produce their own electricity. They won't allow phones in their houses - fearful of the disruption of family time - but do have phones in outside sheds.

They don't buy cars and rely on horse-drawn buggies for getting about the county, but they will ride in cars owned by outsiders, whom the Amish call "English." They farm with horse-drawn plows and harvesters rather than with tractors and combines. Their children can ride scooters, but not bicycles.

Amish children still attend one-room schoolhouses, with their formal educations ending with the eighth grade at age 14. The adults pay income and property taxes but neither contribute to nor collect from Social Security. They don't serve in the military or in public office. They don't participate in federal farm programs. And they don't demonstrate against rezonings of land use or lobby for government protection of agricultural acres.

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