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Tough Times
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At a glance
•LaGrange County has a population of 37,000, of which about 15,000 are Amish.
•Of Indiana’s 92 counties, LaGrange County had the second-highest unemployment rate in January – at 18 percent, twice the state’s seasonally adjusted rate of 9.2 percent. Elkhart County topped the list with 18.3 percent unemployment.
•In January, LaGrange County had a labor force of 17,720, with 3,188 unemployed. In January 2008, the county’s labor force was 17,001, with 1,068 unemployed for a jobless rate of 6.3 percent.
•In December, LaGrange County also had the second-worst unemployment in Indiana, at 15.1 percent. That means of a labor force of 17,710, there were 2,680 unemployed.
Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
The downturn in the RV industry has hurt the Amish communities in LaGrange and Elkhart counties.

Amish caught in RV slump

Many in Elkhart-LaGrange settlement look to form own businesses

Photos by Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
A buggy passes by a cluster of RVs and prefab housing units sitting in a factory lot in Topeka.
BELOW: Residents gather for the Spring Draft Horse Auction at Topeka Auction Barn.

The bright lights and industrial roar of an RV plant might seem at odds with the bucolic lifestyle of the Amish.

But as those plants increasingly go dark, hundreds of Amish families in LaGrange and Elkhart counties are scrambling to find ways to pay for their plain, white gas-lit houses, their work horses and the covered buggies that symbolize their faith.

Mass layoffs in the RV industry have ravaged the region in which an estimated 70 percent of the nation’s motor homes and travel trailers are made.

And as unemployment in LaGrange and Elkhart counties approaches 20 percent, it’s forcing the third-largest Amish settlement in the United States to again redefine its economy and relationship with the outside world.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Amish are greeting the industry’s collapse with mixed feelings.

“You could almost say it’s a good impact,” Freeman Miller said of the widespread unemployment caused by the downturn. He’s an Amish minister who owns a wholesale chair-making business south of LaGrange.

Miller sat down on a recent morning behind his desk in his shop, which is in the yard next to his house.

The desk is between corner windows through which the sun does the work electric lights would in most offices. It backlit Miller with his gray eyes, his long, graying beard, his black suspenders and his plain, white shirt. Horse-drawn buggies clopped frequently by on the country road just outside.

He was expressing the uneasiness many Elkhart-LaGrange Amish have felt for decades about working in big industrial factories and the relatively ample paychecks and leisure time that have come with it.

But the alternatives many Amish are turning to also pose thorny questions for a community seeking to keep some space between itself and the broader society.

Lost jobs

Data to track unemployment by religion are hard to come by. But the RV collapse likely has hit the Elkhart-LaGrange settlement of the Amish even harder than its non-Amish neighbors, said Gary Zehr, director of the LaGrange County Economic Development Corp.

Most of the settlement’s 22,000 residents live in western LaGrange County, with roughly a third across the line in Elkhart County and a smattering along the northern edge of Noble County.

In 2007, before the RV industry started to plummet, 53.3 percent of the heads of Amish households in the settlement did factory work, primarily making RVs and manufactured homes, said Steven N. Nolt, a historian at Goshen College who has done extensive research and published numerous books on the Amish.

“The settlement here in northern Indiana is very unusual in this regard,” Nolt said. “The settlements across America have been moving away from farming as their economic base of employment for some time now. But virtually every place else, that move away from the farm has been toward small, at-home shops.”

Adams County is home to a sizable Amish population and has been the scene of hundreds of RV layoffs, for example. But the Amish there have a heritage different from the Elkhart-LaGrange settlement and work in the RV plants in much smaller numbers, if at all.

The Amish are closely associated in popular thinking with agriculture, but as land has become more expensive and scarce, fewer cite farming as their primary occupation.

That’s particularly true of the Elkhart-LaGrange settlement. According to a 2002 community directory, only 17.4 percent of heads of households supported their families by farming. By 2007, that figure had dropped to 14.2 percent.

Part of identity

But the Amish’s agrarian past is an important part of their identity.

“Through that, we learned how to work,” Miller said, as two young women busied themselves about the office in their white bonnets, modest dresses and modern sneakers. A short time later, one of them drove past on the road in a gas-powered forklift.

“In yesterday’s world, you didn’t have to think,” Miller said. “All you had to do is get up at 4 in the morning and go out and sweat.”

But the Elkhart-LaGrange Amish have been straining the boundaries of their community for a long time.

The settlement was founded in 1841, and it took just a half-century for them to begin to seek farmland elsewhere. From the 1890s to the 1920s, members of the settlement moved west to start farm-based communities in North Dakota, Missouri, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

“These all went under in the Dust Bowl,” Nolt said.

The Dust Bowl occurred in the early-to-mid-1903s, when catastrophic dust storms caused ecological and agricultural damage in the Great Plains.

Many residents of the failed communities moved back to LaGrange County, deciding that staying close to home was more important than working on a farm.

By the 1930s, the first of the Elkhart-LaGrange Amish began working in area factories. But it wasn’t until the early 1980s that large numbers of men – and a few unmarried women – flocked to the plants to work.

Miller worked for Jayco Corp. from 1974 until 1995, making his way up to plant manager. He and Zehr estimate that in recent good years, the average Amish RV worker made more than $60,000.

The community never formally debated whether it fit with Amish values to work in heavy industry making so much cash, Miller said.

But the community never was completely comfortable with it, either.

“Once you start working in the factory and have the combination of a good paycheck and free time, it does put pressure on the home and the church,” Nolt said. “It raises questions like, ‘How many times a week should we have a meal in a restaurant or go water skiing on Lake Wawasee?’ ”

For the hundreds of Amish who have lost factory jobs in the past year, such concerns are academic.

Miller said many out-of-work men have joined traveling construction crews, going to Texas or wherever else they can find temporary work.

New circumstances

Despite a traditional reluctance to participate in government-run programs, most who are eligible draw unemployment benefits, Miller said.

Some Amish families struggle to pay mortgages undertaken in flush times. But Miller said only a few would face foreclosure; the rest will look to family and community to see them through.

The loss of disposable income has been felt in the broader community.

Kathy Schrock, a manager at East of Chicago Pizza in Shipshewana, said business in winter got so bad that it started closing Sundays and Mondays. But the restaurant didn’t lose its Amish clientele altogether.

“They may not come in as often, but we still see them,” Schrock said.

Now the restaurant is looking for better times as the tourist season begins.

And one restaurant appears to have benefited from the downturn. Out-of-work Amish men are going to Crossroads Cafe in Topeka to socialize, said Marlene Mast, who works there.

“We’re doing awesome,” Mast said. “Guys aren’t working, so they’re coming in and having coffee. But they end up eating.”

As they try to adapt, many former RV workers are trying to find their way back onto the farm, said Steve Engleking, agricultural and natural resources educator for the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service in LaGrange. But even for the Amish, that’s not as easy as it might look.

“Some of them are fourth-generation off the farm, but they’re struggling to make ends meet,” Engleking said. “The struggle we have is that a lot of people want to be something that they don’t understand you’ve got to become.”

Engleking said he’d gotten a call that morning from a young Amish man who’d lost his RV job. He wanted to start a dairy farm.

Engleking cautioned the man that dairy farming is complex, milk prices can be fickle, and the enterprise requires a big upfront investment.

“They want to be entrepreneurs, but my job is to be a voice of caution with them,” he said.

A more modest – but possibly more realistic – endeavor is produce farming in greenhouses and on small plots.

Organizers of the Clearspring Produce Auction south of LaGrange hope more growers will attract bigger buyers and boost everybody’s business, Engleking said.

New problems

Zehr, the son of Amish parents who left the faith, said the Amish are remarkably resourceful.

“They’ll find a way to make a living,” he said as he drove around southwest LaGrange County pointing out organic farms, harness shops, nurseries, a fence company, a boat-repair business, a bulk-food store, a welding shop and even a deer farm.

But founding enough microbusinesses to support every family will be a challenge for the settlement.

Some roads in LaGrange County don’t have the streetlights, sidewalks and elaborate landscaping of most suburbs. But the plain, white houses, barns and small pastures are packed so closely together that Nolt and a colleague, Thomas J. Meyers, have called them “Amish” suburbs.

In fact, it’s striking – and a little alarming – to drive such roads, weaving in and out of a steady stream of bicycles, buggies and pedestrians.

Miller’s shop is an example of the commerce the Amish hope will replace jobs in the RV plants.

When he started it in 1995, all he knew was that he liked woodworking and a friend told him he should make chairs.

“I didn’t have any idea how to do it,” he said with a loud laugh. “I was making some crude stuff.”

But now Miller is coordinating the production of thousands of chairs a week in more than 100 different styles, and his business is growing.

Miller’s business model is closer to what Amish in other settlements have done as they’ve moved away from farming.

Despite the thousands of chairs he sells, he employs only 11 in the small shop next to his home. The rest of the work is farmed out to three subshops run by other Amish at their homes.

And despite higher labor costs than Chinese furniture producers, Miller said he competes by producing high-quality products and responding more nimbly to what his customers want.

As business grows, more subshops can be added to the business, Miller said.

“But getting bigger just creates more problems,” Miller said as he showed a visitor a glossy magazine ad for one of his chairs.

Home-based businesses make it harder for Amish to keep “un-Amish” technology such as the Internet at arm’s length.

“If you go to work in the factory, you do some things that are un-Amish, but you also leave it there,” Nolt said.

Miller said he pays somebody to handle Internet traffic and some other aspects of marketing for him. And it’s likely he’ll find a way to deal with the other problems as they arise.

“God gave us a brain to use,” he said, simply.