The Amish Meet The South -- Many Desert Pricey Lancaster, Pa., For Dirt-Cheap Land In Rural Kentucky

HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. - Horse-drawn buggies, their steels wheels carving ruts in the asphalt, roll past Y'all's gas station and the Real Pit Bar-B-Que.

Bearded men in black, broad-brimmed hats plow in the shadow of the Jefferson Davis Monument, which is remarkably like the Washington Monument, only shorter.

Bubba, meet Amos.

Amish and Mennonite families are leaving Lancaster County in Pennsylvania for rural southwest Kentucky. Historians say it's the first out-of-state migration in 50 years from the country's oldest Amish and Mennonite communities.


In the past three years, about 50 Amish and Old Order Mennonite families have abandoned the skyrocketing land prices, eager developers, gawking tourists and environmental regulation of Lancaster County. In Kentucky, they have bought up hundreds of dirt-cheap acres of rich tobacco patches, corn fields and cattle farms. Ten more families will move there this year.

So far, the migration has been more a trickle than a flood, and no one forecasts the exodus of all of Lancaster County's roughly 3,000 Amish and 1,800 Old Order Mennonite families. But historians say that, over time, many young farmers will leave the nation's second-largest Amish community.

Mennonites are members of a Protestant sect who believe in separation of church and state, pacifism and the strict simplicity of their life and worship. The Amish, a conservative sect that split from the Mennonites centuries ago, reject many modern amenities, such as electricity and automobiles. And now they have quit Intercourse, Pa., for Square Deal and Sinking Fork, Ky., left Bird-in-Hand for Pee Dee and Fearsville.

Mule-drawn plows are passed by pickups with gun racks. Conscientious objectors regularly see the camouflaged soldiers of nearby Fort Campbell. Women in black bonnets live next door to women with big hair. German speakers strain to make out Southern-drawled words like "Minyonite."


Kentucky farmer Cecil Stricklen's a skeptic:

"I give them 10 years and they'll be just like us. They'll be putting mopeds in their buggies and roller skates on their horses."

Amishman Elam Stoltzfus is unfazed. "Not to be hard on the people here, but you do really find some windbags," said Stoltzfus, in straw hat, black suspenders and bare feet. He spoke in the quiet, even tone of people who aren't used to storytelling.

"You find some people who stretch things. They say, `We never saw it this dry this time of year.' Well, it wasn't so dry. Or `You'll never get that field plowed with horses.' Well, we plowed it just fine."

The Southerners serve up a mix of fascination and resentment.

There's Iris Scillian, 67, who solved the problem of how to tell the Amish and the Mennonites apart. It's hard to remember that Mennonite hats have narrow brims and Amish men have beards-sans-moustaches. She just calls them all Ammonites.

"They're strange people, but they're good people," she said. "They come up and move into these beautiful homes and first thing they do is rip out all the carpet and all the electricity. They drive their buggies up and down, tearing up the road with their steel wheels, and the horses do their business all over the road. The dogs bark when they go by. My little poodle does. I can't hear too good, but when she barks a certain way, I know it's the Amish."

There's William Turner, historian of Hopkinsville - or Hoptown, as the locals call it. He is curious:

"I've got so much I want to know about them, I'm like a mosquito in a nudist colony. I know what I want to do, but I don't know where to start."

Farmer Bates Payne says his new Amish neighbors are out of sync with the good-natured gregariousness of a small southern town. And he is baffled by the way they let some modern things filter into their traditions.

"They don't want a telephone, but they'll use yours," Payne said. "They don't want a car, but they'll ride in yours. They don't want their children to come up and play with our children. It's kind of like they don't want anything to do with you. Like we're their enemy or something."

Harvey Martin left his Old Order Mennonite enclave in Lancaster County and went 800 miles south because "it's crowded up there. Land's expensive," he said.

Said his wife, Lena: "With the children coming up, we could hardly get farms for the boys."


The Martins have 10 children, and tradition dictates that each of the six boys get a farm when he grows up.

So, two years ago, they sold their 45-acre Bowmansville farm for $6,000 an acre to Lena's father and paid $1,150 each for 450 acres in Todd County, Ky. Here, they get what Lancaster County is not: a place untramped by tourists, unsprawled by suburbia, uncinched by environmental laws.

Some Kentuckians see a downside.

The Amish and the Mennonites are causing the same problem that drove them to leave Lancaster County: destructively high land prices. They have made the price of farmland leap from about $800 to as much as $2,300 an acre. To them, that's cheap - Lancaster County land can sell for $10,000 an acre. But they have priced out some Southerners.

That's what happened to Donald and Ernestine Shaw. They rented a large farm for 20 years but had their hearts set on buying their neighbor's smaller farm when he decided to sell. In January, he took an Amish bid of $2,000 an acre, a price the Shaws just couldn't match.

"It's really hurt the farmers around here," said Ernestine Shaw. "People cannot pay that much for land and earn a living."

The newcomers have also driven up the cost of growing tobacco, a major Kentucky crop.

Here's how: In Kentucky, unlike Pennsylvania, the government regulates tobacco farming and lets farms grow only so many pounds. If farmers want to grow more, they have to lease the quotas of other farmers.

Though Amish don't like taking part in government programs, they're used to growing tobacco. Their bids have nearly doubled the price of tobacco quotas, too much for locals to pay.

People like Bates Payne are growing less - and making less money:

"The only way to fight them is to outbid them, and we can't afford that. And with all those children, they don't have to hire labor. It costs me $7 an hour for each man."

Christian County's highest elected official, Judge Executive Frank Gary, isn't thrilled about some other Amish and Mennonite side effects.

"They don't pay (local) taxes other than property taxes, and they don't vote," said Gary, who is seeking a fourth term. "They don't pay road-usage tax (gas tax), and they are a tremendous traffic hazard on the road."

And there's the "steel wheels on the blacktop roads. Those roads cost us $48,000 a mile and last 12 years but won't last a couple of years now."


The newcomers hear the griping.

"It gets around," Stoltzfus said. "There are just some people who say, `You'll just always be a foreigner here.' I guess we're just learning how big the world is."

In fact, many Southerners take care to hide any resentment they feel. They are extraordinarily friendly, stopping by to chat, offer help and marvel at the no-electricity gadgets.

Farmer C.C. Morris mailed to Pennsylvania for a book on the Amish. I.B. Binkley hired himself out to drive Amish children to their school in his van. Kentucky farmers are not as threatening to Amish and Mennonite beliefs as the suburbanization of Lancaster County. It's easier to keep children insulated from modern culture when computers and car phones aren't all around.