KBIA: Missouri Amish population expanding, moving

By Barbara Maningat, Nick Gass and Krysta Brown (Columbia, MO) | Posted Wednesday, October 13th, 2010 at 3:54pm | UPDATED: October 13, 2010 at 5:15pm

When the Amish decide to start a new settlement, it’s a community decision.  Learn more about the process and one man’s move from Clark to Brashear, Mo. CLICK HERE to view the full story

Audio Intro: In the past 20 years, Missouri has seen a sharp increase in the number of Amish settlements, from 15 in 1991 to 38 this year. As the population moves to traditionally non-Amish areas, businesses, both local and national, have worked to accommodate them. KBIA’s Nick Gass has more.

On a Tuesday afternoon, workers at Countryside Market fill and seal bags of curry seed to go on the shelves.  For the past two years, Nathan Byers and his family have been running a country supply store outside of Kirksville that caters to the farming community in the area. Byers says that he’s seen five or six different Amish groups come into the store, including Amish from the local settlements in Clark and Greentop.

When Clarence Miller and his wife moved from Clark, Mo., to Brashear, Mo., they moved to a place they hoped would allow them to have more farmland and build a better life. Their desires aren’t much different from anyone who chooses to relocate for their employment, but as the founding members of a new Amish settlement, their responsibility is far greater.

Like the westward pioneers before them, these present day Americans have left their home for unfamiliar territory. They’re not merely moving to a new settlement – they’re building it.

For the past 20 years, Amish Americans have been migrating westward and into Missouri, causing an increase in settlements, according to a study by The Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. The study also reports an increase in Amish birth rates over the same time period. The result has been a movement of Amish families from areas where land has become scarce to less-populated areas of the country.

“Families who are seeking to maintain a farming and rural lifestyle are looking for reasonably priced land in more rural and secluded areas where they can continue to make a living with a family style farming,” said Donald Kraybill, a senior fellow at the Young Center at Elizabethtown College. “This enables them to preserve their culture more effectively and ward off some of the unwanted forces of modernization and high-tech living lifestyles.”

For Miller, the search for land meant a move of 75 miles north from an established Amish settlement in Clark, Mo. On a busy morning, he interrupted his work to describe the impact of the move after living in one place for nearly 50 years.

“It was hard to leave old friends and neighbors. Some of them visit and the neighbors we have now are real nice. You do get homesick,” Miller said.

Since 1991, Missouri’s Amish population has tripled to about 9,500 people according to the Elizabethtown study. (The U.S. Census does not collect information based on religious affiliation.) The study also reported Amish have started 23 new settlements in Missouri since 1991 for a total of 38. The only other state with as many new settlements is Wisconsin.

Miller has noticed the increased population, but said it isn’t because of an influx of new families.

“When [the Clark settlement] was established in 1953, there was a lot of land and opportunities, but as time went on, people married and land ran out,” Miller said. “In this day and age, it’s hard to tell when’s the right time [to move]. Opportunities are less than that time because land is so expensive and with the economy the way it is.”

Although Miller has found and developed this land in the past four months, a local business owner said that not every Amish family is able do the same. Sharon Marohl teaches riding lessons and runs a general store at her home in Clark, in the middle of mid-Missouri’s Amish country. For 16 years, she and her family have lived side-by-side with their Amish neighbors.

“I know that [Miller’s settlement] is working on—I’m not sure settling is the right word—reestablishing a settlement that some Amish from Pennsylvania tried to start in the Kirksville area,” Marohl said. “They worked very diligently at it, but Pennsylvania soil is very different than Missouri soil, and for two years in a row they had no crops.”

After the Pennsylvania settlement uprooted, they sold their land in Brashear and returned home. Word spread throughout the Amish communities in mid-Missouri that the land was available, so the overpopulated settlement in Clark took an immediate interest.

The decision to leave his home in Clark was not an easy one, Miller said. Jeff Gingerich, an Amish businessman, said that the elders in Clark met to discuss who would be most capable of establishing a new settlement – but ultimately, it was “a community decision.”

“It’s a hard decision knowing if you’re the right person to do it,” Miller explained. “[It took] a few years. Thoughts would enter my mind that this should be done. The realization didn’t come until I bought land and made efforts to move up here.”

After the move, Miller’s first task was to get his farm started. He owns 238 acres to grow corn and raise cattle. Typically, a settlement will grow as other families also look for land. Miller’s settlement has nine families, with a new family due to arrive from Macomb, Ill., in less than a month.

Marohl said the settlement now has to figure out how to get the supplies they cannot make themselves and who can act as the liaison between the Amish and the non-Amish.

Miller glanced into the distance, surveying his farming property, as he enumerated the work he has yet to do before the seasons change and, in his words, “the snow flies.”

A big priority for Miller is building. He plans on finishing off a workshop where he will make oak rocking chairs for sale. Other projects include finishing a neighbor’s basement, but that’s not the biggest project ahead.

“I feel a lot of pressure,” said Miller, who has the added burden of building a new school for the new settlement.

Miller is unsure about how soon the community will multiply. He said he cannot focus so much on the future; he already feels blessed by the opportunity to start a new home.

“You just thank the good Lord that he’s given you the strength and the health to go on,” Miller said.

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