Match made in Cecil County

Land: Amish families fleeing rising costs in Lancaster County, Pa., find welcome in a county trying to save its farms.

June 27, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CECILTON -- Longtime residents -- "English," as the Amish call anyone who is not of their faith -- have grown fond of the clip-clop sound of horse and buggy as the plain folk make their way on errands around this town of 500.

County road crews have installed yellow caution signs painted with the silhouettes of Amish carriages, and merchants grouse a little about horse droppings, but most have nothing but good things to say about their new neighbors.

"Sometimes, late at night on my front porch, you can hear the horses' hooves as they go home after visiting another family," says Vada Purner who has worked for 26 years at Mackie's Home Center and lives across the street. Her Amish customers are a shopkeeper's dream, she says -- they pay cash for everything or if they run a tab, it is paid the day it is due.

"One Amish man came to the annual dinner we have for contractors," she recalled. "He brought all nine of his children. They're such nice people, and the kids are wonderfully well-behaved."

Amish families are beginning to make their mark in southern Cecil County, fleeing their homes in Lancaster County, Pa., where disappearing farmland, rising prices and taxes are threatening their way of life.

The newcomers -- nine families so far -- are buying small farms and boosting efforts to preserve agricultural land in an area attractive to burgeoning commercial and residential development fueled by commuters to Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia.

Despite their strict religious code of dress and conduct that deliberately sets them apart -- including a prohibition against having their photographs taken -- the Amish have charmed their neighbors in the rolling countryside along the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay and fit well in the conservative community.

"You have to remember, we're pretty old-fashioned, too," says Margaret Schrader, 72, who, with her husband, Fred, farms 350 acres near several Amish properties. "They're always willing to share what they have -- pies, sticky buns, all the good things. And we help them out whenever we can."

County officials, as well as land preservationists who promote Cecil County's goal of preserving 55,000 acres of farmland, say there is a waiting list of Amish families looking for land in Maryland's northeast corner -- where fields and pastures are as fertile as those they left.

"They're long term; I guess that's the real positive aspect of having the Amish coming here," says William Kilby, a dairy farmer who heads the Cecil County Land Trust, a nonprofit farmland preservation group that helped broker several land deals.

"When an Amish family buys a farm, they're looking to the future for their children to be able to stay on the land," says Kilby. "Back in the late '80s, we had something like 28 dairy farmers in the county, where we have 42 now."

The trust, Kilby says, is working on a deal for a 400-acre tract that would be subdivided into 60- to 80-acre farms that suit the low-technology Amish approach. Already, he says, three Amish farmers have expressed interest.

A similar arrangement orchestrated two years ago by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy preserved a 322-acre farm that was about to be converted into 42 housing lots. Instead, the farm was divided into parcels of from 66 to 92 acres that are now occupied by Amish families.

John Esh, 24, rents 89 acres of the property, running a 46-cow dairy and living in a two-story farmhouse with his wife, Anna, 23, and their three boys, who range from 3 years old to 2 months. He says the arrangement has been ideal, allowing the family to be near relatives who also moved to farms just outside Cecilton.

"We hope more people move here, but even if they don't, I'm satisfied," says Esh, who runs the dairy with his 19-year-old brother Sam.

The younger man travels to Lancaster on weekends to socialize with other unmarried young people. Since their religion does not permit them to own or drive cars, he and others hire 12-passenger taxi vans to make the one-hour, 45-minute trip to or from Cecil.

In another modest concession to the intrusions of the modern world, several farmers have telephones -- not in their houses, but in homemade wooden "phone booths" halfway down long dirt driveways. That way, they can call for a taxi or to talk about deliveries or other issues with the milk cooperative that sells their milk without having to suffer calls from the outside.

Amish farmers say development sprawl in Lancaster County has pushed land prices there to more than twice the $3,000 to $4,000 an acre they have paid for farmland in Cecil. And that is when there is agricultural land to be had. Others, they say, work as carpenters or metal workers or make crafts.

"I would guess that 75 percent of the Amish in Lancaster aren't farming anymore," says Melvin King, a 41-year-old farmer who with his wife and six children farms a 140-acre spread near the tiny town of Earleville. "Here, we can pay half the price or even better for land. This is a good place for us."

The nine Amish families who arrived over the past four years have formed a spiritual community, says King, who also serves as their minister.

A farm building has been converted as a temporary one-room classroom for a dozen students. Next year, 14 children will enroll, and when more families come, King says, "we will build a real school."

For many of the new arrivals, there is relief to be away from the relentless scrutiny of tourists who make life in Lancaster something of a fishbowl existence, he says.

"Up in Pennsylvania, maybe there are too many Amish," King says. "Maybe the English don't appreciate us the way they do here. The English people here, so it seems, want to keep the farmland."

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