In the last two years the Amish population in Van Buren County has gone from virtually zero to an estimated couple of hundred families.

In fact, Michigan’s Amish population in general has grown about 36 percent since 2010, according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

The Herald-Palladium spoke to some of those Amish families recently, who said mainly they just wanted a change of scenery. 

Lovina Bontrager said it all just kind of worked out for her and her family to move to Lawrence. 

“There was a group here that moved down from close to Big Rapids and I guess we just wanted to relocate,” she said. “We asked them about it and I guess they just liked the location and there were a lot of places for sale at the time. It was kind of near a city. That’s really it.”

The Amish are a group of Christians known for simple living, plain dress and not adopting most conveniences of modern technology. This differs from family to family. Some Amish travel by horse and buggy and don’t have electricity in their homes. Others use utilize some modern technology, but not every convenience. The most conservative sects live mostly away from modern society, while others choose to co-exist more with the general population, like the group in Van Buren County. 

According to the website, Michigan has the nation’s sixth-largest Amish population. Centreville, in St. Joseph County, has the state’s largest concentration of Amish, with 1,500 people.

Daniel Hostetler said he isn’t quite sure why he and his family came to Hartford from Ohio.

“We wanted a change of location and this community was starting, and I liked the area and that’s kind of how it worked out,” he said.

Bontrager said her kids, four daughters and three sons all like it better than where they were in Ohio. 

“The rivers, the lakes – there’s a lot more wildlife and more wooded areas, which is what my family likes a lot,” she said. “It’s so wide open there, there’s nothing to stop the wind. Here we have trees all around us.”

This increase in Amish families has created shifts in thought for Van Buren community leaders regarding how to accommodate the new population. It has also brought a plethora of new businesses that cater toward the Amish community, and some that cater to both the Amish and non-Amish communities alike.

Business boom

Hostetler owns and operates Hostetler Metal Sales along Red Arrow Highway in Hartford. He said he started up his business simply to help supply the community with metal roofing and siding.

“So far we’ve mostly sold to contractors, but we do sell to individuals,” he said. “Business is going well for this part of the year and starting up late summer last year. We’re satisfied so far.”

Hostetler and his family moved to the Hartford area from Ohio in November 2017 and his business was up and running mid-August 2018.

“We did the same business in Ohio. We started in March 2009 and we ran it similar down there,” he said.

So far, with the help of his wife, two sons and occasionally his granddaughter, the company has rolled out about 140,000 feet of metal.

“All our coils come in as 10,000 pound flat metal coils,” Hostetler said. “We run it through machines to cut it and shape it into pieces. Then it’s wrapped up to protect it. Then we carry all the screws to fasten the metal down that match all colors.”

He said they basically carry anything that goes into a pole barn, besides the wood.

Hostetler hopes to eventually employ a few more people and maybe even more if they get really busy. 

Martha Petershein and her husband, Jacob, run Lone Pine Bulk Foods and Bakery out of the back of their home along Butcher Road in Lawrence.

Petershein said they started the business last May with baked goods, and it expanded from there.

“Nobody else had a business like this, so we thought we’d start one and see how it goes,” she said. “So far it’s pretty good. Now we’re putting up a new building in the back so we hope to move it out there this summer.”

Petershein said the new store is about twice the size of the current one. Once it is up and running, they plan to carry even more items.

“We carry all the bulk foods and baked goods,” she said. “Anything people need for baking and things like that.”

Petershein said the freshest baked goods are Thursday to Saturday because she works while it is closed Wednesday to stock up for the weekend. She makes fresh donuts the first Friday of each month.

Lone Pine is at 56789 Butcher Road, Lawrence. It is open Monday-Friday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed Wednesday. 

Bontrager runs Lovina’s Kitchen along County Road 673 in Lawrence. She said she’s been baking for many years.

“My mom used to do it. She had four daughters and I was really the only one that took an interest in it. After she quit she turned it over to me and I just kept doing it. Even when my kids were small I did it,” she said.

Bontrager and her family came to the area from Kenton, Ohio, in October 2017.

“I was doing good down in Ohio, so when we got up here, I felt so idled and I had nothing to do,” she said. “There was another Amish family in town that used to do it here, but they moved, so I started again.”

In the summer she does all the baking for an Amish bulk food store in Bloomingdale and in the winter she takes orders.

Bontrager also has a fabric store because the Amish community makes their own clothes.

“I’ve also got hats and shoes, school supplies and baby items,” she said.

Eventually she’d like to do catering and expand the fabric store.

For not having a sign up near the road yet, she said she gets more and more of the non-Amish community stopping by every week. 

Some other Amish-run businesses include Lakeside Commercial Roofing in Lawrence, A&J Metal Roofing in Hartford and Country Custom Cabinets in Lawrence.

Culture shock

Bontrager said selling baked goods and holding fundraisers for the area Amish school has given her the chance to get to know the non-Amish community.

“A lot of people around here have never had Amish food. Once they get the taste of it, they just think it’s the best,” she said. “Some of the young people around here didn’t even know the Amish people exist.”

The Amish in Van Buren County have created a community within a community, according to Bontrager. 

“We have our own transportation, our kids go to their own schools, we have our own churches and we use horses for our farming instead of tractors,” she said. “A lot of families don’t have cows, but we have our own cow for milk and our own chickens for eggs.”

The family also raises horses. They have about 30. 

Bontrager said one of her daughters teaches at the Amish school on 48th Avenue near County Road 681 in Lawrence. It’s a one-room schoolhouse attended by first- through eighth-graders.

“We don’t have higher education because they actually get a better education helping their dad and mom at home. The girls learn sewing and cooking and baking and gardening and canning, because we do canning instead of freezing,” Bontrager said. “And that’s actually a better education than more schooling for our kids, the way we have our lifestyle.”

Bontrager and her family organize fundraiser dinners and breakfasts for the school to keep it running. All the food is made from scratch. She said during the summer time they hold the fundraisers monthly at the Lions Club in Lawrence. 

“With a new community comes a lot of costs, we had to build the school house, get the permits and everything,” she said. “But we like to go to your guys’ fundraisers too. Like we’ve been to some at the fire station.” 

Accommodating the Amish

Towns and Van Buren County have worked to make sure the incoming Amish people feel welcome and safe. 

Richard Godfrey, chairman of the Van Buren County Board of Commissioners, said the Amish are a very independent, self-sufficient group.

“I did have a request to permit them to erect a hitching rail on county property in Bloomingdale. The village did not want them to park their buggies on the streets. That request was granted,” he said. “We also permitted them to erect a rail on property owned by Bloomingdale Communications in Bloomingdale.”

He said there was another request to establish an Amish cemetery in Bloomingdale Township.

Hartford has erected a hitching post and horse waste basket behind City Hall.

Caution signs to warn people that they have to share the road with horse-drawn buggies have been erected throughout the county.  

There has already been an accident involving a van and a horsedrawn buggy that killed the horse and seriously injured the driver. The van driver in that crash is facing a misdemeanor charge of moving violation causing serious impairment.

Van Buren County Sheriff Daniel Abbott said people driving out in areas where the Amish community lives should use extreme caution.

“A lot of these buggies are being driven by underage youth,” he said. “When approaching a horse-drawn buggy, slow down, give the horse and buggy as much distance as possible to avoid spooking the horse, especially when passing.”

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