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TN's rural areas provide fertile ground for the Amish

7:55 AM, Oct 11, 2012   |    comments
John Partipilo / The Tennessean
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By Bob Smietana, The Tennessean

Diann Pollack isn't exactly sure when the Amish first came to Ethridge.

Some locals say it 1942. Others say 1944.

"When I give a tour, I just say it was in the mid-1940s," said Pollack, manager of the Amish Welcome Center along Highway 43 in Ethridge.

About 1,500 Swartzentruber Amish live in Ethridge, which is about 75 miles southwest of Nashville, making it the largest Amish settlement in the South and one of the top 20 in the nation.  so many Amish in Ethridge that they're running out of room. Local Amish families have bought up most of the available farms in town and flooded the tourist market with products such as handmade baskets, food and furniture for sale.

"It's getting harder and harder to find land and get a good start," said a local Amish leader, who declined to give his name for religious reasons.

The population boom in Ethridge is part of a national trend. In 1989, there were about 100,000 Amish living in 179 settlements in the United States and Canada. By 2010, that number climbed to about 251,000 Amish in 456 settlements. A new settlement starts every 3½ months on average.

The growth is driven primarily by birth rates. Amish couples have lots of kids and most of those kids stay in the faith where they grow up. If the trend continues, researchers say, the Amish population could reach a million by 2050.

For the Amish in Ethridge, that means spreading out. Three years ago they sent 100 members of their community to Stantonville, about 75 miles away, to start a new settlement. It's one of three founded in the past 12 years.

Stantonville fits the profile that Amish look for in a new community, said Joe Donnermeyer, professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University and director of the Amish census.

There's plenty of farmland available and it is close enough for a buggy ride into nearby Adamsville.

"They like to be close enough to find a grocery store," he said.

Donnermeyer said that as their population grows, many Amish have become wary of living in larger settlements and want to get back to living in small communities. So they are looking for small towns where they can buy land and still live near each other.

"Everyone has to live within a reasonable buggy ride from each other," he said.

Good neighbors

Adamsville Mayor David Leckner said he's glad to have the Amish as neighbors.

The only issue to come up was what to do with the manure from horse and buggy traffic. Leckner said that he and Amish worked out a deal for the Amish buggy drivers to pick up the manure whenever they come to town.

If some manure gets left behind, that's no problem, the mayor said.

"We have an enormous set of flower beds in our downtown that need fertilizer," he said.

Leckner said that many of the nearby Amish now produce and sell other goods from their homes. He's hoping to build a farmers market in town for Amish growers to sell their produce as well.

He said he never thought that Amish horse buggies would become a regular sight in Adamsville

"It really is one of those 'you've got to see this' moments," he said.

Things haven't always worked out as smoothly in other communities, especially for highly traditional Amish groups such as the Swartzentrubers.

They don't use electricity, indoor plumping or telephones. Their buggies are all black and don't have windshields or the reflective orange triangles often used to warn drivers about slow-moving vehicles.

Nine Swartzentruber men living in Kentucky were arrested in January for not having the state-required orange triangles on their buggies. Eight men had been jailed in 2011 on similar charges. That lead to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state law and prompted the legislature to pass a law giving the Amish a religious exemption to the traffic safety law.

Farming pays bills

As their population grows in Ethridge, local Amish families have found ways to preserve their way of life while working closely with their non-Amish neighbors, who they refer to as the English.

A group of Amish farmers helped fund the Ploughboy Produce Auction, an Amish-friendly open-air auction barn with drive-through lanes for horse-drawn wagons.

The auctions run from April to October and are open to the public.

"Today we have pumpkin, gourds, peanuts, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes and radishes," Lynn Ward, the auction house manager, said on Wednesday. "We even had a few bushels of blueberries."

Ward said that she works with a board of five Amish farmers to run the auction barn. She said that board members hope it will help ensure that local farming industry remains profitable in the future.

"The reason that the barn was built was for the generations to come," she said.

Despite their difference in culture, Ward said she's got a good working rapport with the Amish board members.

"We work together, elbow to elbow, on whatever needs to get done," she said.

Local farmers also grow tobacco and sugar cane for molasses.

Goods for sale

On a recent weekday, a young Amish man, dressed in blue shirt, dark pants and straw hat, was cutting the last of the sugar cane in a field as a horse-drawn wagon carrying tourists rode by. He waved before going back to work.

Across the street, smoke rose from the chimney of a small building where molasses was being cooked.

Almost every Amish house had a sign out front, offering goods for sale from jars of kosher pickles, okra and apple butter, to baskets, bookshelves and lawn furniture. Most houses had a small display of goods for sale, with a small slot to drop cash in if no one was at home.

"They work on the honor system," said Joey Martin, a local tour guide and wagon driver.

Martin, who is 27, said he started giving tours with his dad when he was 10.

He drove a homemade covered wagon that he and his dad built, drawn by a half Percheron, half racking horse mare named Claire.

When he was growing up, Martin said, his dad would sometimes drop him off at an Amish house and pick him up on the next go-round.

"I grew up playing with Amish kids," he said.

Martin, like other locals, is protective of his neighbors. No cameras are allowed on the tours. The Amish say their religious beliefs don't allow them to pose for photos.

"I think we need to respect everyone's religion," he said.

Martin's tour included a stop at three local farms.

At one, an older Amish man named Danny talked with tourists and reminisced about growing up in Ethridge. He and his family moved there in the 1940s, when there were only a handful of Amish residents in town.

Now he and his life live in what's known as a dawdy house -- or grandfather's house -- next to the farm house that he sold to his daughter and son-in-law. Danny, who has dozens of grandchildren, said he hoped most would keep the faith and remain Amish.

"But we can't know the future," he said.

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