Forty winters have come and gone since a handful of Amish men and their families migrated to rural Crittenden County.
They initially settled on an 1,800-acre tract of property that had one small clapboard house, then systematically populated a greater portion of the landscape in the northern section of the county.
Today, John Detweiler says that by his count, there are more than 30 Amish homes on that original farm where the Christian group’s settlement began in December 1977.
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“There’s not much farming being done here anymore,” said Detwiler.
These days, many of the working age men are carpenters, loggers, mill operators, cabinet makers, butchers, grocers or producers of fruit, flowers and berries. The days of each household raising a few acres of corn and hay are about gone.
The community has, in some ways, evolved into a cottage economy of retail services and goods that serves the greater Crittenden County area, and it has also blossomed from about a half-dozen families to almost 100.
Faith a constantThrough it all, there’s one thing that has remained constant. Their faith.
The Amish – although they worship in a similar manner as other Christian denominations – do not build brick and mortar churches in which to congregate on Sundays. Instead, their faith is the church, and they meet regularly in the homes of members. Attendance is compulsory unless there’s ample reason for missing Sunday services.
The Amish community in Crittenden County is divided into four church districts and each is served by a bishop, two ministers and one deacon. Every Sunday there are worship services at two different homes, generally, for about three hours, ending around noon.
The host families typically move out all of the furniture and replace it with pew-like benches to accommodate churchgoers. Oftentimes, a family will have a large shed or outbuilding more spacious and suitable for such a gathering. Funerals sometimes attract 500 to 600 people.
Detweiler was bishop for almost 30 years until 2008 when he passed the mantle to a younger man.
Home away from homeSimon Beachy, a minister in one of the districts, was one of the very first men to arrive in Kentucky. He came in the fall of 1977 from Pennsylvania.
“I thought we’d come south, but we got snowed in the first winter,” said the soft-spoken man who describes himself as a farmer.
At age 79, he’s among the last of the earliest men to bring their families here. Elmer and Jonas Yoder were early migrants. They both passed away in the last few months. The two were known far and wide in the broader community. Elmer was a farmer who raised beef cattle, operated a sewing shop and made baskets. Jonas operated an offset printing shop in the community.
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Hertzler and Detweiler came to Kentucky from South America where land, at the time, was even less expensive than Kentucky.
“We purchased some for $2.50 an acre and the rest was $7 an acre,” Detweiler said about Paraguay, a country in central South America below the equator where the climate is very hot. Property became so expensive in Pennsylvania it made expansion of the Amish community there difficult.
He remembers making some inquiries in the 1970s about the type of land available in Kentucky. He wrote a letter to his friend, Elmer Yoder, who was already here. Detweiler said he was told that the land was rolling, but when he got here, he found it a bit more hilly and perhaps more suitable to cattle farming than row cropping.
“I’d still like to be out there on the farm with the horses, churning the dirt,” he said. “Nowadays, about all I can do is look at it.”
Although he walks with two canes to urge along a couple of bad knees, Detweiler still can be found in his harness shop; however, he says there’s a whole lot of competition in the market.
The community has two saddle shops, a second harness shop and many more hand-crafted artisans who have found new ways to make a living beyond farming.
Settling inStretching from U.S. 60 East to Ky. 91 North, the Amish community is 13 miles in diameter and includes almost 500 or more people. There are five schools – Twin Oaks, Daniel’s Ridge, Happy Hollow, Crooked Creek and Meadow Ridge. The teachers are homegrown, and on warm days, you might catch one taking students to a nearby home where they sing a song to brighten someone’s day. They are taught to speak fluent German in their schools.
Most of the families who have settled here have Delaware roots. Beachy grew up there, and he and his wife Sarah moved to Pennsylvania to begin raising their family. After a short period, they decided to head further south in hope of finding a longer growing season.
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“But we enjoyed them because we didn’t have so many chores to do,” said Beachy, who was troubled by a nagging cough last week as he talked about those early days. “We didn’t have any frozen water pipes.”
Before long, their homes had running water, but they’ve never had electricity. They heat with wood and light their homes with kerosene lamps or Naptha lights. They power refrigerators and stoves with kerosene, too. In earlier years, they purchased 100-pound blocks of ice in Morganfield to keep their food cool.
It's a simple lifeThe Amish have come to embrace some power tools that run off compressed air, and they use heavy equipment likes tractors, usually on metal or hard rubber tires. Those types of wheels slow down the vehicles and make them impracticable for any type of general transportation. They move around mostly in horse-drawn buggies, but you see many walking, and the kids ride skates on paved roads.
“It’s a simple life,” said Beachy.
And that’s the way they like it. Tourists and curiosity-seekers bring commerce to the community, but it has its pitfalls. Sometimes, the traffic can be a little vexing.
When they get sick, home and natural remedies are common treatment. However, they do see doctors in town and take prescription medication when warranted. There are no doctors in the Amish community, but there are providers for massage treatments and plenty of places to get herbs and vitamins.
There are three groceries and a farm store in the community. There’s little reason for a family to venture into town, but most do from time to time.
“I’d prefer to take my horse into to town,” said Detweiler, “but I’m getting too old for that stuff. Now we get a ride. We were there yesterday, but it had been six weeks, I guess, since the last time.”
Good neighborsThe broader community has been largely receptive to the Amish. Former county magistrate Helen McConnell, whose late husband was a magistrate before her, has developed strong relationships with her neighbors, the Amish. She lives on the same road as many of them just west of the tiny village of Mattoon. The Amish, she said, have taken many farms that were grown over and out of production and made them into something again.
“They’ve cleaned a lot of these places up and done a whole lot for the countryside,” McConnell said.
She calls the Amish caring neighbors who are quick to lend a hand.
“They dress a little different, but they’re really good people. I have never heard anyone fussing about them.”
“I live in two worlds out here,” she says with a laugh. “I see their world go by my house, then I see my world go by. There’s a big difference,” McConnell said. “Their children are all very well behaved.”
Accepted and respectedTrouble very rarely spills from the Amish community. They tend to take care of behavioral matters either within the family or within the church.
“Their discipline seems to be a little tougher than ours a lot of the times,” said David Travis, who also lives nearby and has served the county in various capacities, including emergency management director. He knows many of the Amish by name, knows where they live and, to a great extent, their family trees.
He and McConnell both say the Amish are among first responders in times of crises. When a tornado ripped through the area about 10 years ago, they provided meals for those cleaning up the debris and helped make repairs to damaged property.
Travis doesn’t think most people in Marion realize the vast number of tourists attracted to the Amish community for cultural tourism and shopping.
“During certain tourists seasons, it’s a solid line of traffic in front of my house,” he said. “They come by the bus loads. A lot of church buses go by.”
Travis was a teenager when the Amish first moved to the area. Over the years, he’s developed strong bonds with some, and so has his son.
“They’re accepted, and they’re respected. And that respect goes both ways. They want a good rapport with the outside world,” Travis said.
There is a good bit of misinformation about the Amish. They pay taxes – including the local school tax – on their property and sales tax on goods sold at their shops. They are not registered to vote in government elections, and their schools are not regulated by the Commonwealth of the Kentucky.
There are indeed many differences in their ways when compared to mainstream culture, and that simplicity of life is arguably as instrumental to their faith as is the church.
“They’re people just like we are, they just live a little differently,” McConnell said.
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