The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

November 10, 2012

Amish sect leaving region

Kathy Mellott
kmellott@tribdem.com

NICKTOWN — It was a cold November morning and there was no smoke coming from the chimney of the Samuel Yoder farm in Barr Township.

The telltale dark green blinds seen in Amish homes were missing from Yoder’s windows – a sure sign no one was living there.

The Swartzentruber Amish, an ultraconservative sect of Anabaptists, are migrating to what they hope will be greener pastures.

“The people are moving out,” said George Poorman, a Portage Township resident who befriended many over the years. “They were honest people, but they also are close-lipped about everything.”

Leaving the area are the Amish who raised the hackles of police 15 years ago, when they moved from Ohio into northern Cambria County.

Police brought the members into court after they refused to affix caution triangles to the rear of their buggies, a state law for any slow-moving vehicle using public highways.

Citing religious reasons, the sect is opposed to any advancement of regulation that they view as modern.

Numbers grew

Over the years, the few families who moved in, buying up dairy farms north of Ebensburg, grew to 21. As of Friday, the number is down to nine, with the rest planning to be moved by the end of next year.

Their bishop, Levi Swartzentruber, a man of few words who continues to farm near Duman Lake, is noncommittal about when he will leave.

“I guess I can’t say for sure,” he said as he and his son cleaned barn stalls in the twilight one evening last week.

One of the younger couples, who asked that their name not be used in the story, said they have already sold their farm, purchased another one in Watertown, a rural area in northern New York state, and will leave after the beginning of the year.

Their farm in Barr Township has been sold to another Amish family, one with more modern ideas who will be setting up a sawmill, the husband said.

Advertisements in an Indiana County shopper’s guide list a John Jr. Hershberger, a land agent with an address in Jasper, N.Y., asking for Amish looking to “buy or rent farms or smaller places in Nicktown or surrounding areas” to contact him.

Donald Kraybill, a senior fellow of the Young Center for Anabaptist & Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, has heard of the outward migration from Cambria County of what he termed the “Swartz Amish.”

“Some have already left and the rest plan to leave in the spring,” he said.

Sect problems

The sect is in 15 states and has 110 congregations and several different subgroups, Kraybill said.

They started as a few families who moved here because they opposed tightening regulations in Ohio. They were back in the public eye three years ago over issues with outhouses at their school and the human waste being dumped on land.

Under court order, the school was padlocked, and the bishop’s second cousin served three months in the Cambria County Prison for violation of state and county sewage-disposal laws.

Two of the young families who built new houses, one in Barr and one in Blacklick Township, had their homes padlocked by court order two years ago because they failed to get building permits or make changes as required by law and would not alter their outhouses according to regulations.

The controversy split the “English” community, local leaders said, with some supporting the strong religious views and others outraged.

“They are very honest and hard working, but you have to comply with the laws of the state,” Blacklick Township Supervisor Joe Sherwood said. “When we were having trouble with them over the septic issues, we had a lot of people saying that if the Amish don’t have to obey the laws, they didn’t either.”

Sect leaders eventually gave into the demands of the Cambria County Sewage Enforcement Agency and the school reopened.

County compromise

Cambria County Judge Norman Krumenacker met numerous times with the church leaders and at one point visited a home in Barr Township in the hopes of reaching a compromise to the sewage and building issues.

The issues with the houses, which dealt with sizes of windows, porch railings, that type of thing, were eventually ironed out, said Johnstown attorney Bill Barbin, who represents the Cambria County Sewage Enforcement Agency.

In the late summer of 2011, church leaders from Ohio and New York met with local members, county sewage enforcement and the state Department of Environmental Protection in the basement of the Cambria County Courthouse.

An agreement was reached and approved by Krumenacker, prompting him in late December to lift the order that shuttered the houses.

Ironically, by that time the families had already decided to leave Cambria County and head north, one Amish man confirmed.

The deal, designed to meet the sewage needs of all of the Swartzentrubers in the county, called for a system in which waste would be pumped from the outhouses and brought to a centrally located underground tank, Barbin said.

It would be pumped out on a regular basis by a state licensed sewage-disposal company.

The tank is already in place, but the system never was used.

“I really believe we made the effort as required by the Constitution to accommodate their beliefs,” Barbin said. “We consider health and raw sewage a real concern.”

Reasons varied

The reasons for the exodus appear varied. One Amish man told The Tribune-Democrat that the price of land in Cambria has increased to the point that young families can no longer purchase farms.

When questioned, the bishop, with his white beard stretching toward the middle of his chest, said he couldn’t blame anyone or anything for the outward migration.

But a few minutes later he said: “I guess maybe it was because of me,” indicating his conservative stance.

Kraybill’s not surprised by the exit and cited all of the reasons given by the local residents.

“It is not unusual for them to migrate for a number of reasons,” he wrote in an email.

Land prices, conflicts with government, dissatisfaction with leadership or other church troubles generally pushed them into other areas, he said.

“Given the long conflict in Cambria County, I’m not surprised that they are leaving,” Kraybill said.

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