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Westward ho for Amish

Drawn by cheaper land and open spaces, more than 400 Amish have settled in Colorado. More families arrive each month.

June 01, 2010|By Jenny Deam, For The Times

Reporting from Westcliffe, Colo. — Custer County Commissioner Jim Austin knew life was changing in his little corner of rural Colorado when they had to put up buggy crossing signs on Highway 69.

"This is a farming and ranching community. We're used to our slow-moving vehicles. But a buggy?" the 68-year-old with a flowing white ponytail and turquoise earring asked. "Now that was something different."

The unlikely arrival of the Amish to this former frontier town, population 560, was a gradual thing. First, there was the occasional horse-drawn wagon Austin would pass as he drove his school bus route. Then there was the growing number of men in long beards and women in crisp, white prayer caps who came to town for supplies. Before long, the supermarket installed a hitching post.

It all started in the spring of 2002 when Enos Yoder, an Amish hay farmer and horse trainer from Iowa, first laid eyes on the green valley at the foot of the spectacular Sangre de Cristo Mountains three hours south of Denver.

Yoder had come to deliver horses to a rancher and couldn't get the isolated, unspoiled beauty out of his head. His Amish community in Bloomfield, Iowa, had begun to feel too cramped for his tastes. The West, with its lure of cheaper land and open spaces, was calling.

In 2007, he and his wife, Norma, packed up their five children (there are two more now), their horses and, of course, their buggies and headed west. A truck was hired for the horses, a van for the people because, in keeping with his religion, Yoder does not drive.

A twitch of a grin hid behind his wiry beard, and it seemed impossible he is only 36. He patiently explained, as he has countless times, that cars — and electricity, television, even zippers — are part of "the world," or instruments of modern life the Amish strive to avoid.

Yoder built his four-bedroom log house by hand on 400 acres about nine miles outside of town. Soon word filtered back to Amish communities in Iowa, Ohio and Indiana about this postcard-perfect place with lots of elbow room and townspeople who don't pay much mind to other people's business.

The Amish population in Colorado went from zero in 2002 to more than 400 in 2008, the last time anyone counted. More arrive each month.

It is all part of a larger, ongoing migration west as Amish pull up generations of roots in the East and Midwest, said Steve Scott, a research associate for the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

Although nowhere near the numbers of the 19,000 Amish in Holmes County, Ohio, or the 27,000 in Lancaster County, Pa., the influx into the Rocky Mountain region is still significant, Scott said. It's driven by lifestyle and economics: Land can be six times cheaper in Colorado than in Pennsylvania.

Austin, like most townspeople in Westcliffe, knew little about the Amish and expected characters plucked from a different century. Imagine his surprise when a cellphone went off during a meeting with Yoder and a few other Amish men about adding a buggy easement to the highway. The Amish men quickly dug into the pockets of their old-fashioned trousers. Apparently zippers are forbidden, but cellphones are not.

"We're so isolated out here. It's really necessary for safety," said Chester Hostetler about his community vote to allow cellphones and land lines.

The 53-year-old carpenter and father of 10 was the third to bring his family to Westcliffe. He too built his six-bedroom log home by hand. It is wired for electricity for resale value but the lights, stove and refrigerator run on propane. There is a four-car garage, but no car.

"We just love it here," said his wife, Irene. "The people take us for what we are."

In most rural communities across the nation, populations are dropping, so Austin is thrilled to see potential growth. A new Amish gift store opened on Main Street. The bed and breakfast inn across the street recently had tourists come just to see the Amish.

"I'm kind of partial to them because they are stewards of the land, which is consistent with my own heritage," said Austin, who is Native American. Coexistence is just a shrug in these parts. "They play by the rules, and they pay their taxes. They are hard-working, polite, quiet people who are excellent neighbors. What's not to like?"

Deam writes for The Times.

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