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The Disappearing Amish

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Photograph © by Pat Crowe

 

 

Faced with the inevitable pressures of modern life and land development, Kent County’s Amish are selling out. When a unique subculture is lost, what price do the rest of us pay?

Lyndon Byler laughs as he recounts a fracas between two Amish men after a buggy accident outside his Byler’s Country Store in Dover. The first man complained that a traffic signal was needed. The other responded, “The day we need a traffic light at

Rose Valley School Road

is the day I move out.”

“That’s the mentality,” Byler says. “They don’t like the expansion.”

Roving west through the unincorporated farming environs of Dover, it’s easy to see how suburban sprawl is changing the area. There are reminders of Dover’s rural Amish society: soybean fields, Byler’s Country Store and the enduring horse-drawn buggy.

Yoder Road

is bare of pavement and telephone polls. But there are also a few modern landmarks nearby: a Dairy Queen, a Blockbuster video store and a Valero station.

The two cultures—Amish and “English”—have coexisted for the better part of a century. But in recent months, as developers have bought Amish-owned land at exorbitant prices, residents have been squeezed out or cashed out. Either way, they are leaving the Dover area.

“It’s getting to the point now where a horse and buggy on the road is getting more and more hazardous with all the growth. And it is stressful,” says Daniel Beachy, who lives on

Hartly Road

. “It’s making it hard for us to raise families in the manner we like. People and their children are moving all over the country, and it’s splitting up families, putting a lot of distance between them.”

The so-called “plain people” have been on the move for the better part of 40 years, but now their numbers—believed to be 300 families around Dover—are starting to dwindle. “The situation is getting worse,” says an Amish resident, who, for cultural reasons, wished to remain anonymous. “There may be 10 or 15 more families moving out. It’s going to worsen.”

The Amish like to live and raise their families in privacy. They prefer not to have links to the corruptions of the dominant society. But some Amish families have lived in Dover for generations, thus have developed the same strong ties to the area anyone else would. For many households, the modern crunch has taken an emotional toll.

“It makes it harder for us to raise our family,” says Daniel Beachy’s daughter-in-law, Betty Beachy. She lives at Pearson’s Corner, about two miles outside Dover. “At the same time, I would have trouble leaving Dover. I was raised here and I love the community. It’s really a tough situation for people who have lived here their whole lives.”

The Amish live an Anabaptist lifestyle committed to peace, discipleship and holy living, separate from modern bonds. They view cars and electricity as connections to the outside world. They typically shun bright colors. The men wear black hats, which indicate the orthodoxy of the group and individual wearer. Men also keep beards because of their depiction in the Bible, but shun mustaches because of their association with the military.

Amish families first landed in Kent County in 1915, after a country-wide search for affordable, fertile farmland and a long growing season. Ever since, development has continued steadily. In the past 18 months, however, there has been a veritable land rush among developers. Now, according to Dee Hake DeMolen, a Dover real estate agent, lots are selling for $10,000 to $30,000 an acre.

“Costs are so high because big developers have built out everything else around us,” she says. “Up in New Castle County, Maryland, Pennsylvania, there’s just no land left. One gentleman I know, he doesn’t want to leave. This is the only life he’s known. He doesn’t know where he’s going to go. They don’t like the growth, they don’t like the traffic and they don’t like the impact it’s had on their lives. So I don’t think they have any problem leaving. A lot of them, they can’t afford to farm their land when they can make 100 times more by selling it.”

Residential developers such as Ryan Homes, Gemcraft and Stover Homes are taking the biggest bites out of rural land, DeMolen says.

“I’ve seen as much development in the past 18 months as I have the previous 16 years,” she says. “We’ve had a big influx of people moving in from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York because of tax reasons, so that’s been a big part of our growth. There’s just so much that is attractive about living here.”

The anonymous Amish landowner found this out firsthand. He’s received offers from private developers ranging from $2 million to $3 million for his 80-acre farm.

“The dollar amount is what’s really staggering,” he says. “That hasn’t been the main reason for the move, but I can go buy 10 farms somewhere else versus what I can get here.”

He hoped to have left Dover by summertime. He’d planned to move near family members in upstate New York, Seymour, Iowa, or a burgeoning Amish community in South Boston, Virginia.

More development naturally leads to more traffic, another source of ire for the Amish, who travel in carriages.

“There was a time when I drove my horse and buggy into Dover every weekend,” says the anonymous Amish resident. “I haven’t done that for at least four years. With present-day traffic, even if it were to stop right now, it might stay in the Amish favor. But it’s going to worsen, and that will phase the Amish out.”

Byler says migration is a common practice among Amish families. Because of their typically large size and limited land, Amish people tend to branch out and strengthen communities elsewhere. The difference in Dover is that Amish farms are being sold to developers instead of other Amish families.

Change, as Byler puts it, is going to happen. There’s nothing he can do to stop it. “But it would be a sad day for me to see Delaware lose its Amish community. These are my family and my friends.”

So does anyone else in Kent County care?

As farmland disappeared or became too expensive in places like Lancaster County, Amish families have survived by forming cottage industries. While many have moved away, less than half of the Amish in Lancaster are still farmers.

“Cottage industries like furniture making and gazebos, many of which are sold wholesale or retail to tourists, have allowed the Amish to stay and grow,” says Brad Igou, editor of the Amish Country News in Lancaster. “Some Amish businesses here gross millions of dollars a year.”

And it appears Kent County is making it possible for Amish industries to flourish as well.

“We’ve made accommodations in our zoning code in our agricultural district for a variety of businesses that the Amish have traditionally been involved in,” says Mike Petit de Mange, director for Kent County’s department of planning. “Things like blacksmith shops, furniture shops, sawmills and cabinet shops are all provided for as business uses in the agricultural district.

“We do everything we can to enable the Amish to remain in Kent County. They have been here for generations, and some of the best-built homes in the area are Amish built. I think it would be a loss to lose that segment of the population. I don’t think anyone in Kent County wants to see that happen.”

With subdivisions going up near Amish land, Petit de Mange says, planners have tried to direct growth into areas that are better suited for it. Still, development in areas such as Wild Quail and Rockland West, which are very close to the Amish community, has put irreversible pressure on the roads, which is the main reason for the Amish exodus, according to Petit de Mange.

Betty Beachy, whose husband runs a woodcraft shop, says Dover residents would notice if the Amish weren’t around. “There are so many Amish framers and contractors that the city would have to feel the loss,” she says.

Dover would miss the Amish without a doubt, because of the skilled labor,” says Raymond Miller, an Amish resident and owner of Shady Maple Woodcrafts. “That’s about 75 percent of the framework of the Amish.”

All things being equal, the one untouchable economic reality is what people are offering for land. It’s a huge enticement to anybody who owns land in Kent County, regardless of religious affiliation.

When the Amish took root in Kent County in 1915, fetching $10 million for land wasn’t an option. Nine years later, when the

Du Pont Highway

officially opened, bustling traffic wasn’t an issue.

Stretches of land similar to

Yoder Road

, without telephone wires or electric transformers were the rule, not the exception. “In this area,” Byler says, “I look at that stretch of road and think it’d be a shame to lose that.”

DT

 

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