Six years ago, Amish families started settling in Vermont. How are they doing?
To answer this question from Dean Lehrke of Kansas, Brave Little State travels to the Northeast Kingdom to explore the ways that isolated Amish families have become fixtures in their Vermont community.
More than a dozen Amish families have moved to Orleans County since 2015. Maybe you’ve seen them, or have a picture in your head of what they look like: The women with long dresses and head coverings, the men with wide-brimmed hats, suspenders and beards. The horse-and-buggies.
So… Why did they move here? How are they doing?
That’s what Dean Lehrke of Altamont, Kansas, wanted to know, and he posed those questions to Brave Little State. VPR’s people-powered journalism project answers questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by you, because we want our journalism to be more inclusive, more transparent and more fun.
Most of this story isn’t about how Amish people are different from other Vermonters. Instead, I try to understand the connections between Amish families and other Vermonters. In doing so, I draw on my own experience growing up in Christian Science — another culturally isolated community — to better understand Amish practices and Amish beliefs that go against convention.
Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio above if you can! But we also provide a written version of the episode below.
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Benefit in Brownington
On Saturday, Oct. 16, I drove to the town of Brownington, located in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. It’s on the eastern side of Interstate 91, just north of Lake Willoughby.
I parked in a grassy field lot outside Arnolds Rescue Center, a rare donkey rescue in Brownington. I did meet some donkeys — plus an absolutely enormous mule — but, ultimately, that’s not why I was there.
Instead, I attended a fundraiser dinner. It was for a baby, named Levi, who was born last winter in need of some procedures on his heart.
This event was the last in a series of dinners to benefit Baby Levi. And I was told that, at one of those dinners, a thousand people walked through. In the hour that I was at this dinner, I definitely saw multiple hundreds of people.
I’ve also been told that a man donated a motorcycle to benefit Baby Levi.
At the final dinner, there was also an auction, with items like a beautiful white quilt with a blue star in the middle, books, some guns, some cameras, nail polish.
The reason I can only describe this in writing — why I don’t have any audio or photos from my time there — is because I was invited on one condition: that I leave my recording equipment behind.
That’s because a lot of the attendees, including the family benefiting from the fundraiser, were Amish.
A personal connection
Dean Lehrke originally posed the question at the heart of my reporting:
“Why are the Amish moving to Vermont? How are they doing in a state considered secular?”
Dean told Brave Little State over email that he’s a retired mechanical engineer and has a number of Amish friends. He said he’s curious about the Amish coming to Vermont, specifically, because he’s interested in their migrations out of “traditional states” like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
When I saw that Dean’s question was a finalist in the Brave Little State voting round, I knew I really wanted to do the reporting — because I have some personal interest in the topic.
One reason is because of the way I grew up. I was raised as a Christian Scientist, and similar to the Amish, I was taught to set myself apart from the wider world. I became more aware that my family was different as I got older, but it felt pretty normal as a kid.
Christian Scientists are most often associated with the idea that members do not go to modern medical doctors. I didn't see a doctor until I was an adult, when I made that decision on my own.
In high school and college, when my friends would learn I didn’t get annual physicals or shots, they would ask me why. I would try and explain how the whole no-doctor thing wasn’t about doctors as much as it was about the way I perceived my own identity: I didn't think about my physical body very much growing up. I didn’t even conceptualize myself as human for a really long time.
That’s the reaction I got from my producer, Josh Crane, when I told him this for the first time. Let me explain …
Until I was about 25 years old, I thought of myself as a spiritual idea rather than a physical being. Whenever I felt something in my body, I would ignore it — and actively think away from it — as much as possible, and focus on my spirituality.
I’ve since moved away from Christian Science (more on that later), but with the kind of background I have, it’s made me wonder about people in other religious communities whose practices and thinking go against general societal convention. What do they hold on to? And how do they navigate that pressure to join everyone else?
The other reason I knew I wanted to help answer Dean’s question about the Amish community in Vermont is because my family also has Amish friends in Pennsylvania. My Mom and Dad were living in Philadelphia in the late 80s — before I was born — and a mutual acquaintance connected them with an Amish couple, Mary and Josh.
My Mom and Josh are no longer with us. But I did chat with my Dad during a recent visit at his house, and I did get in touch with Mary … eventually. I tried her old phone number, which didn’t work. (As I remember it, her phone was in the barn, anyway.) So I reached out with a handwritten letter. Mary eventually called back on a different number.
I learned that my Mom especially hit it off with Mary over their shared love for quilting — I still have a small patchwork comforter that my Mom provided fabric for and that Mary made me. It’s bright, multicolored and cozy, and about the size of a twin bed. I’ve been sitting with it spread across my lap while writing this story.
My Dad says when I was a baby, I actually took my first steps in Mary and Josh’s farmhouse.
My first memory starts with standing in their basement, next to a giant wooden table, asking about the white, sheer head coverings the Amish women wore on the back of their heads, which were shaped like hearts. I was asking Josh whether the women pinned their coverings to their scalps, and he was saying, “Oh yeah, that’s what happens,” joking around with me.
(For the record, Mary points out that Amish women have a band they pin their coverings to — not their heads.)
According to Mary, her husband Josh not only had a sense of humor, but also liked to travel. That’s why, after my parents moved to New Hampshire, where I grew up, Mary and Josh took the train to visit us. They stopped by my grandparents’ house, too.
My grandfather, Poppi, remembers Mary and Josh coming over and walking to the local drug store to buy souvenirs.
“Because of all their regalia that they had on, their Amish clothing and like that,” Poppi says, “I thought people were going to get in an accident stretching their heads, looking at ‘em as they walked over to the drug store.”
“It looked like two different worlds, just across the street. How could that happen?”
My family also traveled to Pennsylvania to see Mary and Josh several times. There’s one moment from those trips that stayed with Gaga, my grandmother. It was when my family stopped at the gas station.
“And on that side of the street, it was so busy, you know, regular people walking, running and whatever ... houses, you know, like we live in,” she says. “And on the other side of the street, it was very quiet, just across the road ... I could see a big beautiful Amish farm. And I saw a couple horses and wagons go by.”
She adds: “It looked like two different worlds, just across the street. How could that happen?”
Two different worlds. During my conversation with Mary, I asked whether it was odd for her and Josh to be friends with my non-Amish parents. She said not really — plenty of Amish people befriend other folks. My parents, she says, happened to be very nice, open people, which is why they all got along.
On behalf of my family, I can say that Mary, Josh, and their family are wonderful and generous people. Before our recent call, I hadn’t spoken with Mary in over a decade, and it was so easy to talk and catch up. I’m grateful to know her family.
In the interest of transparency…
A note before we go any further: Brave Little State has been wrestling over how to approach this episode. We prefer to report stories with and for communities, rather than about them. In this case, though, the question we’ve been asked to answer did not come from an Amish person.
If this story were for, and created with, the Amish community, I’m not sure we would have a story at all.
That’s because Amish people try to avoid attention. They are dedicated to humility, which means recognition of the individual through images or audio or any other kind of recording is generally regarded as prideful behavior. Even my family friend Mary, who has known me as long as I’ve been alive, asked me to leave out too many personally-identifying details in this story, which I did.
So, today, you will not be hearing directly from any Amish individuals. I did speak with Amish people in my reporting, but no microphones or cameras were present, and we’ve decided to omit personal details out of respect. You will hear directly from people who know and interact with Vermont’s Amish community in one way or another.
And, as much as I’d like for Brave Little State’s audience to include the Amish community, they will probably not be the ones listening to or reading this story.
(I do plan to send a printed copy to Mary, and a few members of Brownington’s Amish community who expressed interest. If you have Amish neighbors or others without access to the internet, here is a PDF version of our episode. Feel free to print it out and share.)
That means the more likely audience for this episode will be “The English,” which is the Amish term for anyone who’s not Amish, whether you’re actually from England or not.
So, for all you “English” out there, here’s a little introduction…
Lesson number one: Amish is a term that describes an ethnic group with common national and cultural traditions. Amish people have their own language — a German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch — their own way of dressing, and shared Swiss-German and German ancestry. They also generally only marry people in their own population.
Lesson number two: Amish people are Anabaptists, meaning that they’re people who reformed inside of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 1500s. It’s a long, complicated history, but what you need to know is that the Anabaptists were badly persecuted by both religious and civil authorities. They fled to various parts of northern Europe, and later to Pennsylvania after European colonists violently uprooted Indigenous people there.
Throughout their migrations, the Anabaptists continued to splinter into a number of different groups, including the Mennonites, some of whom also live in Vermont. For our purposes, just know that the Amish, also known as the “Old Order Amish,” are the most conservative of the bunch.
Lesson number three: It’s a tricky business to accurately define religious beliefs for an entire group of people. Broadly speaking, the Amish follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. They are pacifists. And they separate themselves — mostly — from the rest of the world to preserve the purity of their church. They also hold church services inside their homes.
From Pennsylvania to Vermont
The Amish first arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1700s. Since then, they’ve continued to settle elsewhere in the U.S.
“There's well over 500 settlements of Amish [people] in North America, and well over 2,000 individual churches within all of those settlements,” says Cory Anderson. He’s a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State’s Population Research Institute and studies population and migration trends among the Amish.
Cory says their numbers continue to grow, doubling about every two decades. They now include about 400,000 individuals. This is due to high birth rates — about seven children per woman — and, according to Cory, Amish communities also have really high retention rates.
“Some groups can boast a retention rate of, close to 100% of their young people will choose to stay among the Amish,” he says.
Cory adds that the growth of Amish communities has taken place almost entirely in rural America: “And they're continuing to look for places across the country where they can replicate their religious and ethnic lifestyle in rural places.”
And in recent years, Vermont has become one of those rural places attractive for Amish settlement.
Most Amish people those reporters spoke to expressed reluctance to discuss their motivations, apart from wanting to farm and live peacefully on the land. Brave Little State has decided not to ask those same people … that same question … again.
But there are some patterns that can explain why Amish families chose Vermont. For starters, road safety. In Amish settlements closer to population centers, Cory says, “there’s just this series of automobile accidents with horse-and-buggies that have seriously injured [Amish] people or taken their lives.” While I was reporting this story, there have been at least three such crashes near large Amish settlements.
Vermont is also something of a natural fit for the Amish lifestyle.
“Amish are looking for land that's affordable,” Cory says. “They're looking to take over small farms, they are looking for places where the population growth is relatively neutral or even a little bit of negative population growth … They're looking for places where there are small towns nearby where they can engage a local economy.”
The Amish have a reputation for being skilled farmers and craftspeople, and they need places to sell their products.
“But they're also looking for banks and a post office and a grocery store — just some of the basic necessities nearby,” Cory says.
Sound familiar, Vermont?
Origins of Vermont’s Amish community
According to previous news coverage and local residents, Amish families started showing up in Orleans County about six years ago.
“Suddenly, I turned around and there were three guys dressed in blue suits and straw hats kind of standing there politely, waiting to get my attention,” says Jane Greenwood, a 72-year-old Brownington resident and retired sawmill owner.
Jane still builds and farms and works with her tractor, and says she was doing a job at the local Old Stone House Museum when she met one of the first Amish families looking to settle in Vermont.
“So I turned around and said, ‘Oh! Welcome. Greetings,’” Jane says. “And they weren’t terribly talkative, but they had a map of Brownington.”
She remembers the Amish family telling her that they were looking to buy a piece of land to grow watermelons.
“You want to grow watermelons … in Brownington?” Jane replied. “And they said, ‘Yep, it would need to be kind of a south slope.’”
Jane connected this family with an older couple who had land well-suited to watermelon growing.
“And since then, they have been growing watermelons,” she says. “Beautiful. Just hundreds and hundreds of watermelons.”
Jane says there were three original Amish families to move to the area, and since then, their brothers and sisters and children have gone off and bought individual farms. She estimates there are now around 30 landowners total.
Others with whom I’ve spoken, including Amish people, put the number of families in Orleans County somewhere between 17 and 18.
They now have their own school in Brownington — the only Amish school in the state, according to state education officials. And they’ve gotten to know their neighbors.
“We help each other”
In answering the second part of Dean Lehrke’s question, about how Vermont’s Amish community is doing in a state considered secular, I should say right up front: Vermont is definitely a secular place. In a previous episode, Brave Little State explored how we’re among the least-religious states in the country.
But I also want to pause here and remember what population researcher Cory Anderson said about what the Amish look for when settling somewhere new.
They aren’t looking for hyper-religious places. They’re looking for land, not a lot of other people, local amenities like a post office and bank and grocery store, and a local economy.
"We were on the eighth hole, and we looked ahead and we saw an Amish couple, an older Amish couple, chipping onto the green!”
That last part, the local economy, is how most Amish and non-Amish people seem to connect with one another around Brownington. For instance, Jane Greenwood, the former sawmill owner, says she works carpentry with her Amish neighbors from time to time, and has leased out some land to them too.
“They're just wonderful to work with,” she says. “It's easy to come to an agreement. They're clear when they agree, and they're very clear when they don't agree. There's no strings attached. It's just very simple.”
This is true for Jane even when she’s doing work that’s usually reserved for the men in Amish tradition. Recently, she says she was helping an Amish neighbor rig a sawmill on an engine and loading it onto a trailer — he had sold it to some Mennonites in New York state.
“And I was noticing — in fact the driver called me, addressed me as a ‘he,’” Jane says.
Regardless, she says she feels her Amish neighbors accept her for who she is.
“I don't feel any gender alienation … When I grab my end of something heavy to pick up, they have no qualms about it,” Jane says. “And there's no issue made of the fact that I'm a woman working out of a woman's role in the Amish community.”
That sort of togetherness despite cultural difference is something my colleague at Vermont Public Radio, Pete Hirschfeld, has noticed too. He and his wife have a camp in Westmore, which is the next town over from Brownington. They often stop at the roadside stands where the Amish sell food.
“You have homemade pickles, strawberries in the spring, hand-churned butter from the cows that they're milking,” Pete says. “Wax candles, quilts, pastries, pies…”
Pete’s favorites are the pickles and the fruit-and-cream cheese hand pies. And when I visited Brownington, they were even selling an amazing potholder shaped like a pair of jorts.
“What we've also been sort of able to see going to those farmstands is the extent to which they've turned into little hubs for the community,” Pete says. “When you go there, it's not uncommon to see a driveway full of people. And a lot of them are tourists, for sure, but a lot of them are locals that go there on a daily and weekly basis.”
And then Pete has this story, which he points to as another example of how Amish and non-Amish have become entwined in Orleans County:
“My wife and I, we’re not good at it, but we like to play golf every week or so,” he says. “And there's a golf course in Barton, which adjoins Westmore and Brownington. And we were on the eighth hole, and we looked ahead and we saw an Amish couple, an older Amish couple, chipping onto the green!”
Yep, Pete noticed Amish people — who are known for working hard, living simply, and remaining isolated from most of modern society — playing a round of golf.
“They were part of a foursome with these two Kingdom boys. And I don't know how they met — I didn't talk to them,” Pete says. “But it was just like, wow … some circumstance unfolded where they invited — or maybe the Amish people love to play golf, and they invited these two people they met in the Kingdom to play with them. You know, there's an intimacy to playing golf with somebody. You're stuck together for two and a half or three hours and there's gonna be a lot of small talk and getting to know each other. And so it just made me realize that like, wow, there are people here who count Amish as their friends.”
As for the Amish people who count “English” people as their friends? Several Amish people I spoke with said they like living in the area and are friendly with their neighbors. One man told me the relationships he has with the English are “like neighbors should be — we help each other.”
They help, for instance, when a reporter (*ahem*) gets her Prius stuck in one of Brownington’s grassy fields after a hard rain. I was about to drive through an extremely muddy patch when two Amish men came running up to the side of my car. They told me to go slow, and pushed my Prius forward as it slipped and slid through the worst of it.
“I think you’re gonna make it,” one of the men told me.
And thanks to their help, I did.
‘It’s the Amish doughnuts’
There’s one connection between Amish and non-Amish community members that feels particularly special in Brownington. And it all started over … doughnuts.
“Yep, yep. It's the Amish doughnuts. They got us.”
That’s what Bari Fischer told me. She helps run Arnolds Rescue Center with a woman named Sue Arnold. It’s a wildlife rehabilitation center that originated in Florida. And, as Bari explains it, she and Sue were driving around the Northeast Kingdom one summer. That’s when they bought the Amish donuts.
"'You will never be alone up here. We're right down the street.’”
They pulled over to eat them, Bari says, in the front yard of a property, which had a really pretty view.
“There was a for sale sign in front of it,” she recalls. “And so that's how it happened.”
A couple years ago, the women moved their donkeys and horses to Brownington, establishing the northern branch of their rescue center. That’s around the time Bari says their relationship began with the Amish.
“Can I tell ‘em the story, Sue?” Bari asked over her shoulder while I was talking to her on the phone. “Sue’s right here,” she clarified to me.
After Sue granted permission, Bari began…
“OK. Sue is a widow. She, about seven years ago, lost her husband and then lost her second daughter to cancer. And so we were standing in the front yard, and one of the Amish neighbors came by in his buggy, and he pulled in with his wife and kids. And we started talking, and Sue said, ‘You know, I'm gonna be alone up here.’ And he looked at her and said, ‘No, you will never be alone up here. We're right down the street.’”
Bari paused and sighed.
“And took our hearts away,” she said finally. “And has continued to take our hearts away. It’s the kind of place you’d like to live.”
Since the rescue center moved to Brownington, Bari says the Amish community has continued to be a source of support, building the rescue’s barn and arena.
“They will come at a moment’s notice,” she says. “If we have an animal that gets stuck somewhere, or something needs to be fixed, they’ll come here in a heartbeat.”
In return, Bari and Sue do what they can. They drive the Amish when they need a ride, and more recently, after an Amish family gave birth to a baby named Levi who needed some serious medical care, Bari has been transporting the family back and forth to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. She’s become the go-between for the family and Boston Children’s Hospital, too.
Bari and Sue have also provided the space for the fundraiser dinners, the last of which I attended the other week. The goal is to help the family pay some of the medical expenses, which Bari estimates will add up to $1 million before the end of the year. So far, Bari says they’ve raised between $7,500 and $10,000 at each dinner.
In the course of reporting this episode, what I found myself wishing for most was to speak with Baby Levi’s parents. I really wanted to understand how they were feeling about this outpouring of support for their child, from people outside their Amish community.
I did talk with one member of Baby Levi’s family when I stopped by the recent fundraiser dinner (without my recording gear). This woman said she and her family are definitely appreciative of the community coming out. She wanted to thank the people who have participated, and said it was truly a blessing.
"A deeper value system"
During that conversation, we were standing next to the food table where all the Amish women were milling about. A little ways away, the Amish men were kind of clumped together too. As for all the non-Amish neighbors, they were in a separate group, mostly sitting down to eat. There was certainly some intermingling, but also very obvious separation.
As much as we’ve talked about togetherness in this episode, we can’t forget there are intentional ways the Amish will always set themselves apart.
Cory Anderson, the population researcher from Penn State, says the visible ways in which the Amish do differentiate from broader society — their dress, their choices around using (or, mostly, not using) electricity, cars and other modern conveniences — are often incorrectly interpreted.
“The Amish have been selective about what sort of practices they're engaging in, but it’s not because they're trying to live during the 1800s,” Cory explains. “So when we look at the Amish, we see differences in technology practices and we see differences in clothing practices … But that [practice] more represents a deeper value system.”
And that value system, Cory says, “tends to be against pride, and against getting a lot of new ideas from other systems besides the church and, by extension, the Scriptures.”
He adds that in the end, the Amish community’s ultimate goal is to preserve their church — and their very existence.
“They see their church as this vehicle that allows them to impart Christian beliefs and practices to the next generations,” Cory says. “They view every generation as in this battle to keep the purity of the church … all to the end goal of, [their] members, when they die, to be found to be faithful in God's eyes and to be accepted into heaven.”
Cory argues that having a narrative to explain life and death, plus the mutual aid common within Amish settlements, and then the social pressure to conform, all acts as motivation for Amish community members to stay within the system.
“Most people are not going to make drastic life changes unless there's really something wrong going on,” Cory says. “They’ll probably stay put where they’re at.”
Some, though, do not stay put.
Endings and beginnings
“Yes, the Amish have that sense of community and belonging, but there's a different kind of belonging that comes with being where people understand you.”
That’s Saloma Miller Furlong speaking with former VPR staffer Patti Daniels back in 2014 about her memoir, Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman's Ties to Two Worlds. Saloma left her Amish community — twice — to move to Vermont.
“No matter how hard I tried, I could not tamp down the questions that just kept boiling right up from within me,” Saloma explained. “And my mother used to say to me, ‘Oh, Saloma, if you only knew how much better off you are without asking those questions, maybe you'd stop asking them.’”
Saloma elaborated on the types of questions she’d ask:
“Why can't we have bicycles but we can ride in somebody else's car?”
“Why can't we have a Christmas tree like the [neighbors] across the street?”
“Why can't we take pictures in school?”
“If God really doesn't want people to ask questions, then why did he give me such an inquisitive nature?”
According to Saloma, her Amish community members could not, or would not, answer her questions.
“And so having that curious, feisty, adventurous spirit that I had from the start just did not fit into a community where the women and the girls are expected to be demure, quiet, and submissive,” she said.
The community I grew up in — Christian Science — fit me for a while, until it didn’t anymore. About five years ago, I started having heart palpitations, which changed everything.
At first, I prayed, like I always had.
But the heart palpitations were not going away. More than a year after they started, I went through a crisis of faith, not just because of my health problems, but also because I just wasn't feeling God in the same way I was used to. I felt very alone.
So, I decided to get some help, and go to a doctor for the first time.
I’m OK now. But I don’t practice Christian Science anymore. It’s not because I have something against it, it just doesn’t feed my spirituality like it used to. And it doesn’t explain the world to me anymore.
I haven’t replaced my religion as much as I’ve let it go.
I grew up shutting the world out a lot because I was so focused on understanding my spiritual identity. The older I got, the more I realized how little I knew about so many things. That’s why I became a journalist — I feel a sense of connectedness and depth when I learn more about everything around me.
And when I learn about communities like the Amish.
Perhaps what I’ve learned most, though, in reporting this story, is that just because we have a question or curiosity, especially about a community that’s not our own, it doesn’t mean that community owes us an answer.
Having been on the receiving end of similar kinds of questions about Christian Science, I learned to handle them with patience and grace — to even expect them.
But it might just be better, sometimes, to let people be.
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This episode was reported by Elodie Reed and produced by Josh Crane. Mix and sound design by Myra Flynn and Angela Evancie. Editing and digital production by our team. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Dan Maclure, Donald Kraybill, Elodie’s dad, George, her family friend, Mary, and her grandparents, Gaga and Poppi, who at 91 and 89 years old, have made their public radio debut. You can send us a note any time at email@example.com.
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