4 Things to Consider Before You Try to Join the Amish

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

I know, I know. The recession blows. The job you may soon lose* is stressful and unpleasant. And beards are more popular these days. But before you abandon your fast-paced lifestyle for a quieter, more-cow-filled one, I recommend consulting my book, Be Amazing. There are a few things you need to think about.



1) Can You Tell the Difference Between Amish and Mennonite?
You're never going to endear yourself to your new neighbors if you can't tell 'em apart from their theological cousins down the road. Historically the older of the two sects, Mennonites believed in plain, unadorned living and adult baptism, making them not all that different from the other Christian groups that popped up in Germany and Switzerland in the 17th century. But, around 1693, one of their members, a guy named Jakob Amman, started to get a little rowdy. Amman traveled around the countryside preaching a more hard-line version of Mennonism that called for, among other things, a return to traditional clothing, avoidance of worldly grooming trends like moustaches, mandatory un-cut beards, and the public shunning of excommunicated church members. Taking their name from Amman's, his new followers called themselves "Amish."

Over the next few hundred years, both groups did their fair share of theological off-shooting. Today, there are numerous sub-groups of both Mennonite and Amish, making it difficult to pin them down with generalities. However, in most cases, the easiest way to tell the two apart is to look for a family car--most Mennonites drive them, most Amish don't. But, just because they enjoy a faster mode of travel doesn't mean the Mennonites are ostentatious about their automobiles. In fact, it's common practice to cover any Detroit-installed chrome with black paint, just to let the world know they aren't trying to be flashy.

2) Do You Know the Best Place to Move?
Obviously, your city digs will have to go, but contrary to popular belief, the geographic epicenter of Amish life is not Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Turns out, several counties in east-central Ohio are actually home to the largest Amish community in the world--population 29,000, and growing. Each Amish family has an average of 7 children, so their numbers have seemingly doubled every 20 years since outsiders started keeping records in the 1940s.

3) Can You Find Where the In-Crowd Hangs Out?
Earn your dirt-road cred by taking a shopping trip to Spector's. This department store in Middlefield, Ohio caters to Amish customers. Since 1937, they've dealt in things like quilting supplies, fabric, and the other necessities of Amish life that can't be easily made on the farm. And with several locations around the state, it may well be the world's first Amish-centric chain store.

4) Will You Be Able to Buy a Farm?
It's harder than it sounds. There are two things working against you. First, that whole population growth issue means that every generation sees even more young men in need of a farm of their own. The other problem, however, comes from the outside. Across the country, the rural areas the Amish inhabit are rapidly becoming exurbs, and what was once farmland is being sold to make way for subdivisions and Wal-Marts--making raw land, even when it is available, prohibitively expensive. In Lancaster County, for instance, 100 acres cost as much as $1 million in 2007. Things may be a bit easier now, though, what with the bursting of the real-estate bubble. So, if you can get your hands on some good farmland, do be ready to build a lot of barns. You probably already know that Amish construct their own, and their neighbors', in massive 24-hour barn raising parties. But, because many Amish groups don't believe in using "worldly" devices like lightning rods, those hand-built barns often end up having to be re-hand-built.

The Electric Amish really are a band, and you should listen to their music.

*ETA: Thanks for the heads-up on my grammar brain-fart. It's Saturday. My brain takes the day off today.