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Tobacco In Amish Country

Tom Lowry
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 1)

One big advantage the Amish have had through the years over non-Amish farmers--or "English" farmers as the Amish call them--was that they could cut costs by using their families to work the fields. But more Amish children are turning their backs on farming. The eldest three of Stoltzfus' nine children have gone into business building and selling backyard gazebos. This reflects a larger trend in the Amish community in which more of its members are starting up micro-enterprises, from handcrafts to concrete masonry. Dozens of these businesses have annual revenues of more than $500,000 a year.

"Tobacco farming among the Amish is clearly declining. You see mostly the conservative Amish raising it, clinging to traditions," says Donald B. Kraybill, provost of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, and author of six books on the Amish. Kraybill believes the more progressive Amish have greater religious concerns about tobacco farming because of the health issues with smoking. "The more the Amish move into the world," says Kraybill, "the less likely they will be to raise tobacco."

But a cynical Stoltzfus believes when the Amish get "lazy, that's when they take it as a religious belief." Still, without the proper help, Stoltzfus says he's considering giving up farming altogether to help his wife, Katie, with her business of making and selling quilts. The quilts and other Amish-made products, from preserves to doghouses, are popular among the four million to five million tourists who come to Lancaster every year to catch a glimpse of these throwbacks to another time, the so-called Plain People.

The Amish journey to Lancaster County can be traced to seventeenth century Europe and a splinter Anabaptist movement (the Anabaptists rejected the Roman Catholic practice of baptism at birth). The founder of the Amish movement was Swiss-born Jakob Ammann, who broke away from the Anabaptist movement in 1693. He believed the Anabaptists, who over time became known as the Mennonites, had begun to show weak discipline and a waning spirituality. It is Ammann who stressed the humble and simple living that characterizes the Amish today. He encouraged untrimmed beards, plain clothing and use of hook and eye fasteners instead of buttons.

The Amish followed the Mennonites to the New World in the early 1700s to escape Europe's growing religious intolerance. Both groups settled near Philadelphia in a colony governed by Quaker William Penn. In the mid-1700s, the first Amish settled in Lancaster County and neighboring Berks County, where the communities remained small until the 1900s. In this century, the Amish population in Pennsylvania has doubled about every 20 years, with families averaging seven to 10 children. Lancaster County, where just 500 Amish lived in 1900, is now home to the second largest Amish community in the United States. Holmes County, Ohio, has the largest. The Amish population nationwide, with settlements from Kentucky to Wisconsin, numbers about 150,000.

Lancaster County's Amish community was introduced to the world in the 1985 movie Witness, starring Harrison Ford as a Philadelphia police detective hiding out among the Amish. The filming of the movie caused quite a stir among the camera-shy Amish and particularly with church leaders who run the communities.

The Amish have a myriad of church districts and sects as do their cousins, the Mennonites. But most Mennonites have adapted to mainstream life, except for some of the Old Order Mennonite sects. The "horse-and-buggy Mennonites" practice the same strict disciplines as the Amish.

Both the early Mennonite and Amish settlers in Lancaster County quickly took to tobacco farming, encouraged by the county's heavy soil and high humidity during the growing season. In 1839, the first year that a census was available on tobacco in Pennsylvania, records show that Lancaster County produced 48,860 pounds, establishing a legacy that stands today as the state's leading tobacco producing county. The 1995 crop was approximately 17 million pounds.

Lancaster maintains a rich history in tobacco and cigars. The term "stogie" originated in Lancaster, home of the legendary Conestoga wagon that carried families West in the 1800s. The wagon masters would often smoke long cigars using coarser leaves that gave off a distinctly strong aroma. The cigars became known as "stogies."

Much of the county's tobacco history is either documented or told through nostalgic yarns by the locals at Demuth's in downtown Lancaster, the county seat. Demuth's, founded in 1770, is the oldest continuously operating smoke shop in the United States (see Cigar Aficionado, Autumn 1995). Several years ago, ancestors of founder Christopher Demuth decided to operate the shop as a nonprofit foundation to preserve it as a historic jewel for tobacco buffs.

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