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Urbanization wreaks havoc on
Amish culture in Pennsylvania.
By J. Zane Walley
|There isnt much country left in Pennsylvanias Lancaster County.
The rolling hills and charming farms of the once verdant county
have largely become a repugnant sprawl of stamped-out tract homes
and townhouses. Many of the magnificent old homesteads for which
this county is famous have been ungraciously converted into Green
Acres bed and breakfast accommodations for the millions of sightseers
who flock to enjoy the country ambiance. Most tourists visit
Lancaster County to gain a glimpse into the lives of the most
famous residents, the Amish.
Clearly, the plain folk as the Amish refer to themselves, are highly unhappy about becoming a tourist attraction. Amishman Elmo Stoll in Brad Igous book, The Amish In Their Own Words, explains their view of why they have become so popular. The world is desperate for something to satisfy its hunger, some answer to its search for meaning in life, wanting something external to base faith upon, something to see and touch and handle. While they focus upon our beards and buggies and bonnets, they miss entirely what our faith is all about.
As subdivision-driven real estate values have soared, so have
the reprehensibly high Pennsylvania property and death taxes.
Farming is placed beyond the reach of young Amish people who want
to remain in the community. Stoll fully understands the harm that
urbanization wreaks on their culture. The high cost of living,
or perhaps it would be more correct to say the cost of living
high, makes it difficult to start farming today and to keep on
farming. As far back as we can go in the history of our people,
we find they were an agricultural people. In the Old Testament
the Israelites, too, were an agricultural people, as can be seen
by the many laws and commandments which were given them, nearly
all based on a rural people.
With the numbing leap in land prices, many Amish have turned to
shops and home businesses simply because the cost of farming was
too high. An acre of land devoted to a craft store can raise more
cash than an acre of field corn. They may agree that farming is
still the best place for a family if possible, but if not, a business
at home is certainly better than a factory job.
In the maelstrom of the commercialization of Amish culture, the
plain folk struggle to remain steadfast in their convictions.
To Amish, the idea of separation from the modern world and nonconformity
to its ways are stated clearly in the New Testament: Be not conformed
to this world, but be ye transformed. They believe that worldliness
keeps one from being close to God, so they choose to live without
modern conveniences and technology, such as cars and television.
Rather than use electricity, they have bottled-gas stoves and
refrigerators and travel largely by horse and buggy.
It isnt a pastoral Currier & Ives scene. The buggies precariously
dodge in and out of thick traffic or wait their turn in bumper-to-bumper
lines of automobiles while harried by camera-wielding tourists
and impatient urban commuters.
Along with massive urbanization and a transition to new occupations,
products, and markets, the Amish have been faced with a new breed
of trouble that they are ill-equipped to deal with because of
their religious doctrine of nonresistance. The nonresistance
belief springs from many verses in the New Testament, notably:
Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
A prominent Amish-American writer, Philip Mauro, in 1917 warned
his people of coming problems, quoting Matthew 24:9: They shall
lay hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the
synagogues, and into prisons. Mauro could have never theorized
that the threat would come from something as benign sounding as
a zoning board.
The zoning board in Lancaster Countys Lampeter Township is rigorously
inflexible in creating a stately and charming milieu in their
dominion of authority. As Amishman John King found out, woe to
those who do not obey their dictates.
Kings family has lived in Lancaster County almost 300 years.
The first Amish arrived in the early 1700s to take part in William
Penns Holy Experiment of religious freedom. They called the
place Penns Woods or Pennsylvania, and among them was Jonathan
King, John Kings forefather and namesake. The Kings came to America
from Europe to escape religious persecution where they were hunted
down, asked to recant, had their children taken, were threatened,
exiled, tortured, sold into slavery, branded, burned at the stake,
drowned, or dismembered.
All John Kings ancestors tilled the fertile soil of Lancaster
County. Its farmland beauty was heightened under almost 300 years
of careful husbandry by the Amish and other plain folk religious
sects. It was the number one agricultural producer among all nonirrigated
counties in the nation, with its 4,930 farms pouring out $930
million in dairy, meat and grain products.
King spent his youth working his fathers farm with a team of
mules. After marrying Sarah in 1959, the couple purchased a small
place in what is now Lampeter Township. Even in those years, land
was becoming high-priced and scarce, so John and Sarah opened
a small woodworking shop in 1960 and began crafting cabinets in
the barn. They toiled hard and they prospered. As King says, It
is our way. We work long hours six days each week and we reserve
Sunday to honor the Sabbath and worship the Lord.
As John and Sarahs business grew, émigré suburbanites began filling
the land around them. The urban sprawl eventually encircled their
home and shop. By this time the business had several employees.
Delivery trucks brought material needed to make the furniture
and hauled the finished products to distant markets. The Kings
shop outgrew the barn and they began storing manufacturing materials
outside behind the building.
The newly arrived city refugees began grumbling about the shops
appearance and activity and complaining their properties were
being somehow devalued. They ignored that the shop was right before
their eyes when they made their investment.
The Kings three-decade nightmare began after East Lampeter Township
enacted zoning laws in 1970. The Kings woodshop was supposed
to be legally exempted or grandfathered because it was in place
before the zoning was implemented. But in 72 the ordeal started
with a small wall and an enclosure in front of the barn/shop.
John King believed that he had complied with the regulations,
but after he completed the construction a zoning officer told
him the permit was not legal and he had to tear down the wall.
King dutifully agreed to do so.
In 1975 he received an order not to use his land behind the barn
for materials and storage. He spoke with a township supervisor
who disagreed with the order and told King he could use it. However,
another discontinue use notice arrived and again King began
to clean up the storage area. Seemingly ignoring the fact that
he was discontinuing use, the township took him to court and fined
Thus began years of legal actions by the township in which he
was bounced between township meetings, township supervisors, attorneys,
and zoning officials. The incessant legal battles slowly transformed
the Amishman from one who did not even believe in appearing in
court into a citizen determined to stand up for his rights. He
differed with the townships rulings against his property and
livelihood and due to his nature he ignored them and got on with
his work. For this, he was charged with a flagrant, callous,
and willful disregard for the authority of the court. The gray-haired
old gentleman was to be ordered imprisoned until he purged his
contempt by complying with the Orders of the Court. He complied
merely to get out of jail.
In 1976 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources
and OSHA stormed the tiny business. King believes the raid was
set up by the township. In Kings own words, They wanted to put
us out of business.
The dispute became so bitter that the township even alleged that King was not Amish. That occurred after he filed a discrimination civil rights action against them, in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. He contends, The Constitution and civil rights
laws have been ignored and bypassed by the Lancaster County Court
and East Lampeter Township officials and zoning boards because
of retaliation, grudges and hate. They lied and lied in court.
They singled us out because we are Amish. Because of our nonresistance
belief, they believed they could run us over.
These sound like the words of an embittered man, but the credibility
of Kings allegations against the Lampeter system was strengthened
because of remarkable recent events in Lancaster County that cast
enormous doubt on the honesty of those courts and law enforcement.
Lancaster County made a Faustian bargain. By trying to execute
an innocent woman, it lost its soul, wrote Federal Judge Stewart
In December 1997, Dalzell, an eloquent, erudite appointee of former
President George Bush, freed convicted murderer Lisa Lambert.
He stated that her trial had been extravagantly corrupted by
prosecutorial misconduct. Judge Dalzell said in his decision
that Ms. Lambert had been a victim, in 25 proven instances, where
prosecutors and the police had fabricated, hidden and destroyed
evidence, tampered with witnesses and offered perjured testimony.
The crucial evidence against Lambert, to which Judge Dalzell referred,
was produced by the chief detective of East Lampeter Township.
More stories casting doubt on the integrity of Lancaster officials
began to surface. In March of 1999, Daniel Groff, a member of
the Pennsylvania Farmers Union and junkyard owner publicly committed
suicide when zoning officials sent a contractor to haul his merchandise
away and a conflict ensued. His suicide occurred after a two-decade
battle against zoning officials in Lancaster County. He, too,
claimed harassment by zoning officials. Unbelievably, Groff had
been arrested, charged and convicted of arson in that county for
burning his own car on his property. Like King, Groff contended
that he was grandfathered because his business existed before
Other reports concerning a mentally challenged brother and sister
who committed suicide rather than be forced from their nonconforming
mobile home in Lancaster County are currently being investigated
by Pennsylvania property rights groups.
The decision by the King family to resist, to stand up for their
rights has taken a dreadful personal toll on the family. With
downcast eyes, John dispiritedly says that he has separated
from the church because members of the Old World Amish group thought
poorly of his actions. He still practices the Amish ways but
he and his family seem to be outside of the principal Amish community.
John King has been forbidden by court order to conduct business
on his property. Recently he and Sarah filed bankruptcy and he
has suffered several heart attacks and a nervous breakdown. Adding
to the troublesome burden the elderly gentleman carries, East
Lampeter Township has asked to be exempted from the bankruptcy,
leaving the Kings to face the possibility of losing all that they
None of us will feel the depth of hopelessness that John King
feels as he sees his world crumbling because of others who do
not share his view of constitutional rights and those who refuse
to stand up. Because of the silent, nonresistive nature of the
Amish community there is no way to measure the impact of forcing
the property of all to fit the mold of sheltered uniformity.
John King remains a man of powerful faith and rests the case with
his God. He thumbs through a worn Bible and reads from Ezekiel:
The prince must not take any of the inheritance of the people,
driving them off their property.
Authors Note: I was honored to visit with John King. While others
have made noise about standing for property rights, he has, with
no support from anyone, quietly stood his ground for almost 30
years. He is cut from the same peaceful but sturdy cloth of his
forefathers who would not renounce their faith in the face of
imprisonment or worse. When a man like John King loses his rights,
we all lose some of our freedom. He inspired me to break out the
good book and do a bit of reading on my own. To his gentle reading
from Ezekiel, I would add a stout one from Kings, Chapter XXI:19:
Thus saith the Lord, Hast thou killed, and also taken possession?
And thou shalt speak unto him, saying, Thus saith the Lord, In
the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick
thy blood, even thine.
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