Skip to comments.Amish find refuge in Wisconsin (after all, farming will survive!!!)
Posted on 03/26/2004 9:47:13 PM PST by El Conservador
Levi Fisher's ancestors farmed the fertile land of eastern Pennsylvania for more than 275 years while living a quiet, traditional Amish lifestyle.
But squeezed in recent years by encroaching suburbia, rising land prices and increasing tourism, Fisher sought a place that reminded him how things used to be. He found it in the rolling pastures of southwest Wisconsin.
Fisher moved here in 1999 with a dozen children. Soon after, his brother Henry and family followed.
Now the Fisher clan is building a cinder-block house on its 118 acres for a third brother, Gideon, who moved this month with his wife and six children from Pennsylvania.
"We don't like the rat race out east," Gideon Fisher, 38, said while installing a window in his new home.
This rural corner of Wisconsin is a popular destination for Amish fleeing creeping congestion and secular prosperity in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
"Wisconsin is very hot right now for the Amish," said Donald Kraybill, an academic and author from Pennsylvania who is a leading analyst of Amish migration.
Drawn by low farm prices, fertile land, a longtime dairy industry and a state with generally liberal attitudes, Amish are gobbling up huge swaths of real estate in and around Grant County.
The movement is so strong that there is a weekly shuttle service between here and Pennsylvania to transport Amish and their belongings on the 850-mile trek.
In the past four years, more than 300 Amish have moved onto farms around Fennimore, according to local estimates and statistics compiled by national researchers. Amish residents have bought more than three dozen farms, and brokers are scouring the countryside for more land.
Farm prices have skyrocketed more than 50 percent to roughly $1,800 per acre. But that still is a bargain when compared with the $10,000 to $15,000 per acre in their former homelands such as Lancaster County, Pa., west of Philadelphia, and the area south of Cleveland.
No strangers to state
"I have buyers for more than 50 farms if I could find suitable land and people willing to sell," said Curtiss Freymiller, a real estate agent here who specializes in selling property to the Amish.
Amish clans are not strangers to Wisconsin. The first influx came in the 1960s. The state and the Amish clashed in the '70s over the Amish right to decide the schooling of their children.
That led to a famous Supreme Court decision, Wisconsin vs. Yoder, that ruled compulsory state attendance laws could not apply to the Amish whose religious beliefs halt their children's education at the 8th grade.
Amish traditionally do not send their children to local schools, leading to grumbling from cash-poor education districts across America whose state funds are calculated by enrollment. With roughly 12,000 Amish people, Wisconsin now has the fourth-largest Amish population, behind Ohio with 54,000, Pennsylvania with 50,000 and Indiana with 36,000, according to researchers.
But the Amish surge in recent years toward this part of Wisconsin underscores an intensifying clash of urban versus rural that cuts directly to the Amish lifestyle.
Known for their trademark beards for men and black bonnets for women, the Old Order Amish have long eschewed modern comforts. Unlike slightly more socially integrated groups like Mennonites, they do not drive motorized vehicles, make do without electricity and phones and mostly live off the land and crafts trades.
In search of seclusion, Amish people have fanned out to 28 states, including Illinois, as settlements in historic Amish areas have run out of room or are being squeezed by modern civilization.
Wisconsin now ranks second in Amish settlements with 42, behind Pennsylvania with 48, Kraybill said. And more settlements are on the horizon for Wisconsin.
Hollywood has portrayed the Amish as shy, reclusive and backward people. In reality, the Amish are proving to be sharp business folks.
"There is a certain tipping point for [the Amish], and when outsiders get too close, they move," said Richard Dawley, a writer who has chronicled the Amish in Wisconsin and conducts seminars around the state to teach residents about them.
"They are generally experts at buying low and selling high," Dawley said. "There is a calculated method to their moving. It's rather well thought out."
Before considering a region to move into, they send advance teams to scout out the properties, evaluate the quality of the soil, gauge the receptiveness of the locals and calculate land prices.
"We liked what we saw," said Levi Fisher, 44, who first arrived on a scouting mission in southwestern Wisconsin in 1998 and put down less than $400,000 for his 218 acres a year later.
Since then, migrating Amish have bought farms on the edge of Fennimore and have persistently tried to persuade nearby farmers to sell. With large families, Amish are expected to seek farms for years to come.
The emergence of the Amish has led to some grumbling among the "English," as non-Amish folks are referred to by the Amish.
Jane Napp says her family resisted selling 160 acres that had been in her family for more than century.
"We raised the price three times, thinking they would just go away, but they kept coming back," said Napp, who along with her husband is in her 60s and has raised five children in the dairy industry. "We hated to sell, but we finally gave in."
They `don't mix with us'
In Fennimore's lone supermarket, people in the town of approximately 2,300 complain about the body odor of the Amish, who tend to bathe infrequently. In the bars they curse about the horse droppings in the street from the buggy animals. On the roads they honk at the buggy drivers, who tend to take up quite a bit of the road while moving slowly.
"We have nothing against them, but they just don't mix with us," Napp said. "It's not like you see them at church or school or at barbecues or anything."
Sometimes animosity spills over into hate crimes, such as in northern Wisconsin, where police in three counties have been investigating several incidents since last fall of people shooting at Amish neighbors.
Harvey Jacobs, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says despite negative perceptions, the Amish contribute far more than they receive.
"On the positive side, they take little," Jacobs said. "They take no welfare, no social services or [farm] assistance from county extension. ... The communities are mainly taking from them."
One recent chilly morning, the Fisher clan was out in force stacking concrete blocks for a third house on their property, which already has a dairy operation and a vegetable farm.
Gideon Fisher, who left behind a carpentry trade in Pennsylvania to join his brothers, will run the vegetable stand this spring, selling the family's farm products along the main road.
The Fishers are especially happy that the route will not be full of gawkers on tourist buses, as often was the case in Pennsylvania. Their main worry is that well-to-do people from Chicago will push up land prices by buying vacation property.
But if he traveled just 60 miles north to Cashton, Wis., Fisher would see a glimpse of his past and likely the future.
A small Amish community remains vibrant there as the families have branched out into commercial tourism because dairy farming is not lucrative enough. Several families weave baskets, make wooden bowls and produce candies and sweets.
Lifelong Cashton resident Kathy Kuderer, who befriended the Amish, allowed them to build replicas of Amish housing--including an outhouse--on her land, where she in turns sells their wares.
Kuderer also runs a tour business, charging $40 per carload to thousands of visitors a year who stop to learn about Amish life.
Make no mistake though, Kuderer says, Wisconsin is no Pennsylvania.
"We don't have tour buses," she said. "We're not here to disturb the Amish but to work with them. As our friends and neighbors, we are very protective of their interests."
Why does this statement bother me?
They gave them a price, raised it three times and then finally sold. But, they didn't want to sell. In a pigs eye.
If you don't want to sell, you say no, you don't give a price and then jack it up three times.