Questions of preservation

Heritage: Members of an Amish community in Southern Maryland worry about nearby development and its effect on their way of life, their children and their future.

January 13, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

MECHANICSVILLE - Uria Yoder hunches over a notepad on a table in his kerosene-lit farmhouse and draws a circle representing Southern Maryland's Amish community. Next, the retired tobacco farmer scrawls a series of disjointed lines around the perimeter to illustrate the rest of the world.

From Yoder's perspective, the circle remains symbolically unbroken - an enclave of 100 to 150 Old Order Amish families seemingly frozen in time, eschewing cars, electricity and e-mail, but managing to coexist with the faster-moving world encircling it.

But he fears that new development may soon disrupt the fragile balance between cultures and push a number of Amish to leave the area.

Tangible evidence of the threat: A non-Amish neighbor is planning a 21-home subdivision on 85 partially wooded acres just beyond Yoder's porch and red tobacco barns here in St. Mary's County, in the midst of the circle.

"It doesn't belong in there," Yoder says, slowly sweeping his hand across a map of his 40 acres and its surrounding land - an area in which turkey buzzards fly overhead and dirt buggy trails still connect farms owned by Amish with names such as Stoltzfus, Hertzler and Zimmerman.

The proposed development, and rumors of more to come, are causing anxiety among Amish farmers, craftsmen and retirees living near what would soon become the construction zone, in an area of the county called Thompson Corner. But their fears have almost entirely been without public voice.

The Amish have their concerns, Yoder says, but "we're not going to fight it with the lawyers or anything like that. We don't do that. We have our own ideas about how to live, but we never say or believe that other people are wrong."

Unlike Yoder, most of his Amish neighbors refuse to be interviewed on the subject by name. Yoder, 70, says he consented because of the threat to his community, and because he's old and has grown accustomed to dealing with outsiders.

The first Amish arrived here from Lancaster County, Pa., in 1940, settling in the countryside straddling the line between St. Mary's and Charles counties. Since then, their settlement, whose residents often speak a German-English dialect among themselves, has forged an accommodation with locals. The Amish put up with ever-increasing traffic and prying questions from those curious about their customs and appearance - the women's bonnets and long dresses, the men's beards, dark attire and wide hats. The non-Amish tolerate the settlement's horse-drawn buggies that can compel cars to creep along behind, waiting for a safe moment to pass.

The relationship works partly because of mutual need. The Amish rely on others to buy their tobacco, produce, furniture, quilts, birdhouses and baked goods. The counties benefit, too, by using the merchandise - and the Amish themselves - to entice tourists and new residents.

"Any visitor to St. Mary's County will be enchanted to see the horse-drawn buggies and traditional dress of the members of the resident Amish community," begins a promotional Internet message from a local office of the real estate company Long and Foster.

Non-Amish residents often boast about Amish craftsmanship, on display in area shops and at a twice-weekly farmers' market in nearby Hughesville, where black or gray buggies sit next to sport utility vehicles in the parking lot.

James Blass, a retired air traffic controller, says his house - across the road from Yoder's - was built by the Amish. Last summer, Yoder volunteered to help paint Blass' barn roof.

"They keep to themselves, but they treat you right," says Ben Wood, a Mechanicsville retiree who has lived here his whole life and frequently buys Amish goods. "You have bad luck with your crops or someone dies, they'll jump in and help you out."

In recent years, the Amish settlement has been slowly declining in population - a result of development and the related matters of rising land prices and government fees.

In the past few years, St. Mary's County has raised its impact fee, assessed for each house built, from $2,000 per unit to $4,500. The county's population increased 13.5 percent during the 1990s, to more than 86,000 residents.

As the county's population has grown, some Amish families have fled to southern Virginia, Ohio or upstate New York in search of cheaper and more abundant farmland.

"When I was 5 years old, my cousins all lived in the area, but far from it now," says the black-bearded owner of Hertzler's Furniture.

Like many in the area, the home is identifiable as Amish because clothes hang on an outside line (the Amish don't use electric dryers). Amish neighborhoods are also often marked by phone booths that seem out of place near fields or beside country roads - the Amish don't allow the devices in their homes.

Unlike more modern Amish, these Old Order Amish adhere to an essentially 19th-century lifestyle.

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