Thursday, April 14, 2011

Amish keep Davis County growing as other areas shrink

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A horse and buggy travels a roadway west of Drakesville in southeast Iowa's Davis County. It is among only a handful of rural Iowa counties in the 2010 Census to gain population (2.4 percent). Much of that population growth is due to a steadily growing Amish population.

Andy Yoder says he "cheats" by hitching a car ride seven miles from his home to work, saving an hour in a horse-drawn buggy.

"I actually miss those rides," he said of the meditative plop, plop of horse hooves.

But Yoder is a businessman, so time is money. As long as he is not cheating the Amish church, which frowns on driving motorized vehicles himself (because convenience can lead to immoral ways), he figures it's OK
His T-Corner Furniture, owned with partner Kenneth Yoder, is the first stop on this tour of Davis County, a rural, southern Iowa outpost that has bucked the odds. It is among only a handful of rural Iowa counties in the 2010 Census to gain population (2.4 percent) and, of those, the farthest from any of Iowa's largest cities. Part of the reason, local officials say, is the rooted Amish population of growing families, mixed with returning retirees.
The reason the Amish have survived here,
when small-scale farming has become economically infeasible and rural areas wither and die, is because they opened businesses and made them work. Ninety businesses, selling wares from horse collars to bakery rolls, from harnesses to salvage flim-flam of discount stores, dot the gravel roads between tiny Drakesville and the county seat of Bloomfield, nine miles away. Homemade signs advertising greenhouses and country stores stand on the corner with arrows to direct mostly non-Amish to their stores.
Here, nearly half of the 200 Amish families totaling roughly 1,000 people own some kind of business, usually close to their homes.

"If you took all of our businesses out here in the country and put them on a town square it would be full. In a sense, it's working like it did in the early 1900s," Yoder said. "Support your neighbor and money circulates five times in the community, kind of like old towns used to be."

But don't even the Amish shop in town?
If I want to go to Wal-Mart, I pay a driver $40 or $50. Yeah, the prices are higher here but I still save $15-$20," he said.

A matter of priorities

Most Iowans have encountered the Amish. Three large settlements in Kalona, Buchanan County and Davis County are joined by smaller outposts across the state, making Iowa the seventh-largest Amish population. The Kalona settlement started 125 years before the newest here in Davis County in 1971.

One sees Amish in buggies, the women in floor-length dresses and the men in homemade jeans with big beards, sans mustache. How nice and quaint.
But the Amish don't set out to be a tourist attraction, a trip down yesteryear's lane, an idealized notion of a simpler life without motorized travel or electricity.

"People come in here and tell me all the time, I'm better off without a cell phone," Yoder said. "But I see one hanging on their belt. It's a matter of priorities. You can convince yourself you are deprived of a lot of things. But I have no car payments, no insurance, no gas."

The Amish don't pose for photos because it's putting themselves above God.
"The only difference in my business is no computers, no phones, no website, no faxes," Yoder says. "Most people don't think we pay income taxes but we do. I don't pay social security but I don't draw it either."

Yet there are other differences. Lighting is by skylights and low-pressure propane lamps. A generator run by diesel fuel propels power saws. Yoder's showroom is still as bright and modern as any in the city, full of beautiful wood bedroom and dining sets, some running up to $10,000, although the average bedroom set purchased is about $4,000.
The Amish-made furniture he sells is shipped from Indiana. Having craftsman make it here would raise the price. A handful of men in an adjoining workshop make doors and restore woodwork.

Here the Amish faith's humility encounters the hard-nosed ways of business.

"I promote without knocking our competition," Yoder says. "It's a fine line, do you take pride in yourself, or pride in your work?"

It's among many virtues of an Amish business.

"A lot of things in their culture help them do well in business," said Erik Wesner, author of "Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive," published in 2010. "They emphasize relationships. They are people people. They don't have TVs and that helps foster bonds, which translates to the business world as well."
He says they cut costs by having many family members work in the business with the boss pitching in.

"I often heard, when talking to bosses, 'I would never ask anyone to do what I wouldn't do myself.' That ethic permeates their businesses."

Setting up shop

The Amish came here in 1971, said original Amish settler Norman Yutzy, because it was near a county seat (Bloomfield) with a hospital and livestock sale barn, and there was "minimal hassle" from the state.
from the state.
The climate was right, too, said his Midwest Truss partner Titus Wagler, who with father-in-law Yutzy manufacturers building trusses, mainly for farm buildings.

"Further north was too cold, further south was too hot; further east was too crowded and further west was too dry," Wagler said. "So here we are."

They ship their trusses all over the Midwest and have eight employees.

"As far as we know we have no unemployment (in the Amish community)," said Yutzy, 72, who moved to the area with two brothers and his father
The community protects its population by mostly filling positions from within. Businesses picked up the slack as farming became economically difficult.

"We have maybe only a dozen families making a living solely on farming," said Wagler, 52.

Amish businesses have succeeded, he continued, on old-fashioned concepts: "If you don't got it, don't spend it," and "necessity is the mother of invention."

Ten years ago, the Amish invented a low-flow propane lamp, so now instead of lanterns, businesses are piped with propane.
These eccentricities, at first, made locals think the Amish might be an isolated religious community. The Christian followers came to America in the 18 th century from Switzerland, Germany and Holland
and dressed and behaved differently as they spread from in Pennsylvania and Ohio to Wisconsin and Iowa.

"We found that wasn't so," said Dale Taylor, a lifelong resident and chairman of the Davis County Board of Supervisors. "They contribute to the community. Several of them are my friends. They are just people."
And as much as a third of the county's sales tax comes from Amish businesses, he said.

"I know the people well enough to not promote them as a tourist attraction. If they make something and you want to buy it, fine. They are just fine people, not a tourist attraction."

Yet Davis County Tourism's website lists "Meet the Amish" among five featured attractions. A map of Amish businesses is available at tourist locations.
"You can't believe how many come to our visitors center for Amish information in recent years," said Bev Woolard, Davis County Tourism Corp. president.
Plans for a new scenic byway include snaking Drakesville and the surrounding Amish country where interesting proprietors await.

The Amish brand

Moses W. Borntreger calls his stock at rural Farmers Country Market "dent and bent." Borntreger took a few minutes to pace it off - 8,000 square feet of space - filled with dented cans, 20-cent candy bars or other discounted items you might find in a dollar store.

"We bring it in by the semi-load. It comes in banana boxes. A lot of it is from Wal-Mart. Eighty percent of our customers aren't Amish. Wegot things in here we wouldn't use, like over here," he said, marching to a shelf. "This here thing. I don't know what it is. Something for a hairdresser, I guess."
He held up a curling iron.

One might even find bulk foods or locally made items, such as circular tubing fit with clothes pins that he calls a "clothes dryer," pancake syrup, or eggs, which he says "are probably illegal" because they aren't inspected.

But "cheap stuff" has attracted more customers since the recession started.

Gone is the vision of the Amish in tiny outposts peddling mostly homemade goods. For every Hershberger's Bulk Food and Grocery selling bulk garlic powder, soup mixes and flax seed to Amish, is a business one can find in any town.
At the Shady Lane Variety Store, Herman Gingerich went from selling strawberries 20 years ago, to opening a small greenhouse, to adding a variety store six years ago. Now he sells shipped-in housewares and gifts.

"I get lots of people from Des Moines," he says. "People like to come out in the country and shop, I guess."

But tucked just off gravel roads are polar opposites - craftsman working their trades out of their homes, making custom cabinets, horse blankets, leather goods and horseshoes. Mahlon Gingerich, 32, sells cedar birdhouses and gets up to $400 for them.
"I just like birds," he said, standing at the door of his home, between shifts at Amish companies making horse collars and pallets. "I had
70 nesting pairs of purple martins last year."

The Amish may shy from tourists' "zoo treatment," says author Wesner, but are keen on the business advantages.

"They do benefit from the appeal of the Amish brand, the idea that something Amish-made has a lot of positive characteristics - homemade, well-made and crafted."
A strong work ethic

On the last stop of this little tour, the reason for Amish entrepreneur spirit became clearest at Graber's Country Store, where Lavern Graber emerged from stacks of discount work boots, flicked a lighter to the propane lamp for more light, and talked about the success of an Amish business with two words: work ethic.

After the big war, people left farms and worked in the city and their kids lost that work ethic," he said. "But we needed the kids for chores, so they learned responsibility, which later helped them to make businesses grow."
He learned that ethic and the business smarts to sell boots with low overhead - no payroll, lights or computers.

But he still found himself in a familiar pickle. His hog farming business had struggled against corporate agriculture. So in addition to selling Wolverine and Red Wing boots in his store, he decided to buy goats in 2005. The 12 turned into 170. Next door, his children milk them for a high-end cheese company in Wisconsin.

"This way I have chores for my nine children," he said. "I expect to have help for years
It's more than cheap labor, it's the essence of an Amish business. Being nearby, he can help raise the children instead of commuting to town. Having the kids involved on the land keeps them close and responsible.

They even started a huge garden in front of the shop and will sell their produce at another growing Amish business, the Southern Iowa Produce Auction, where restaurants and groceries come to bid on the goods, effectively cutting out the middleman.
Graber's kids trail their mother, wearing a bonnet and long dress, readying the land for planting. They wave, as most seem to do.

In our times, the Amish are a humble "new age" clan. They conserve, not with righteousness, but from a waste-not-want-not ethic. They nurture a local community, long before the term locavore existed.
It's just their way - which may attract people to this countryside as much as what they sell.
A horse and buggy travel a roadway west of Drakesville in southeast Iowa's Davis County, which is is among only a handful of rural Iowa counties in the 2010 Census to gain population (2.4 percent). Much of that population growth is due to a steadily growing Amish population. / Christopher Gannon/The Register

Amish in Iowa

The Amish in Iowa are found in highest numbers in three locations, near the town of Kalona, and in Buchanan and Davis Counties.

About a dozen other small settlements have been founded in the last two decades, and half of those since 2000.

Kalona is the oldest and largest Iowa settlement, founded in 1846, and having nine church districts. The Amish near
Bloomfield are close behind in size with eight church districts. Buchanan County Amish are considered among the most conservative, with very limited use of technology.
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  1. I enjoyed reading this post very much.THanks you for letting me leave my footprints in your blog and allowing me a peak.

    I live just outside a small Amish Community in Kentucky. We enjoy our friendly neighbors very much.

  2. Thanks for stopping by... Never been in Kentucky.. Blessings..