Putting down roots
Amish find a home in rugged Maine
SMYRNA, Maine -- This rugged town of potato farmers and loggers, notable for its fierce winters and solitary general store, is a remote place with little allure for outsiders.
That explains why Amish have made their way here, creating their first settlement in New England, one of dozens of outposts that have cropped up across the country as Amish flee the suburban development and hordes of tourists who have encroached on traditional Amish communities.
Amish now live in 28 states, often in the Midwest and Southeast, regions with climates and topography similar to Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, where Amish first settled in the 18th century. Amish had long bypassed New England because its harsh weather made farming difficult and life off the power grid arduous. But with few undeveloped and affordable stretches of land remaining anywhere else, it was only a matter of time before the Amish made their way to this region.
In vast and sparsely populated Aroostook County, the Amish have found the seclusion they cherish. They have come upon a culture that, in striking similarity to their own, values privacy, self-reliance, and hard work.
''I feel very protected and shielded from worldly things," said Daniel Esch, 20, a member of Smyrna's Amish who breeds horses and builds barns for two of the Amish-owned businesses that have sprung up along Route 2, Smyrna's main road.
The first Amish family moved to Smyrna in 1996. Today the town's Amish community numbers about 100, comprising families from Amish settlements in Tennessee, Maryland, Michigan, and Iowa, places they say had grown too large and had been overrun with outside influences.
''We wanted to be in an uncontaminated community," said Norman Kauffman, a church elder whose family was among the first Amish to settle in Smyrna. ''One less populated with plain people," he added, using the Amish term for themselves.
In some ways, the Amish have become a part of the town's rhythm. They have built greenhouses and a supply shop. They have bought swaths of property along a hilly stretch of Route 2, which now bears a yellow sign warning motorists to look out for horse-drawn buggies. A half dozen Amish enterprises are doing brisk business: a company that builds storage sheds, a shop that produces cedar furniture, a show-horse breeding operation, and an organic farm, among others.
Area business owners offer guarded approval when asked about the Amish, who have revived Smyrna's tax base after years of struggle with the downturn of logging and potato farming.
''They've got their businesses, and they pay taxes like everybody else, and it's helped the valuation," said John Graham, a selectman in town.
Longtime Smyrna residents appear to admire the self-sufficiency and work ethic of the Amish. When a group of Amish men gathered on a recent morning to reconstruct a building that had burned New Year's Day, their handiwork was the talk of town.
''They don't make much conversation," said Wanda Kitchen, a clerk at Russell's Variety store, the lone general store in Smyrna's town center. ''But I think it's pretty cool living off the land."
Apart from business dealings, the Amish retain their customary distance. They do not vote in elections; they do not send their children to local schools. ''Our children must be under godly supervision," said Ervin Hochstetler, owner of Sturdi-Bilt, the company that makes sheds.
In Smyrna, they are largely free of the peering tourist eyes they sought to escape in other places, though visitors are beginning to discover their settlement.
Outsiders who happen upon the Amish of Aroostook find a group that does not adhere to all traditional tenets. The Smyrna Amish use battery-operated calculators, shop at
But they do not drive cars or tractors. They do not use electricity, which means no televisions, radios, or computers. English is a second language: They speak Pennsylvania Dutch, a German dialect, in their homes, and more formal German in church.
Dress is emphatically simple. The women wear gray or slate-blue frocks and black stockings, their heads covered with bonnets; the men wear simple shirts, trousers, and suspenders, with beards, but no mustaches. The women are housekeepers, and the men wage earners. Families are large, often with 10 or more children.
''There are lots of ways that we are dependent on the products of the world," said Hochstetler, explaining how the Smyrna Amish decide which aspects of modernity to embrace. ''Amish look at how these things affect our lives, our children, and church and see if they are detrimental."
The blending of tradition and modern conventions was on display at lunch on a recent Sunday at the Hochstetlers' home, Amish-built, with seven bedrooms and one bathroom, heated with a wood stove, but illuminated with propane lamps. Nine children lined a rectangular table in the kitchen. Ervin Hochstetler sat at the head, their mother, Esther, next to him, cradling her infant daughter, Naomi Joy, born in the house 10 days earlier.
The main course, prepared by the girls, was rice mixed with hamburger from a steer the family had slaughtered. Complementing it were homemade glazed doughnuts, bread, and ketchup. But there were also store-bought sides: canned green beans and sliced peaches. When Ervin Hochstetler announced that the rice needed flavor, a daughter brought a store-bought container of Italian-style seasoning to the table.
As lunch wrapped up, the Hochstetler children readied themselves with giddy excitement for a long-awaited afternoon of ice skating. The girls hiked up woolen tights beneath home-sewn dresses, and the boys pulled hats over bowl-cut hair.
The eldest, Carolyn, 16, surveyed the bunch and then headed for the barn.
''I'm going to hitch up Larry," she hollered over her shoulder, referring to the horse that would ferry them by buggy to a nearby lake.
Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at email@example.com.