I am pushing the speed limit on Route 1A between Fort Fairfield and Easton when I come upon a black horse-drawn buggy, a replica of the image on a caution sign I just passed. Reflexively, I disengage the cruise control.
Interesting, I think. Why did I do that? Safety? Respect? Seeing this 19th century vehicle makes me slow down. As I roll past, the teenage carriage driver in a wide-brimmed straw hat gives a quick wave and a smile.
I accelerate gradually, but my mind remains with the animal-powered vehicle and its young driver.
If I lived closer to the Amish families in Aroostook County, I would be reminded daily of a lifestyle that moves at a much slower pace than mine. Would I change my ways as a result? Would I assess the need for road trips more carefully? Would I be more mindful of the excesses in my life?
How does the presence of these families in a community affect the people who do live near and work with them?
“They bring out the best in people,” says Fort Fairfield Town Manager Dan Foster. “They bring out people’s desire to help. I love having them here. They are wonderful people.”
Since 2007, a dozen Amish families have moved into the communities of Fort Fairfield and Easton from New York, Ohio, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri. Representing one of the most conservative Amish orders, they live without electricity or telephones and use only horse-powered vehicles and farm equipment. They speak Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect of German, to each other and English to their neighbors, whom they call “the English,” and facing the lens of a camera offends not only their modesty and privacy, but also their religious beliefs.
The parents in this community, all in their 40s, have as many as 14 children, whom they educate in a one-room school through grade eight, when young people begin their chosen work. Each family pursues a particular trade for income — carpentry, metalwork, harness-making, baking — as well as farming for sustenance.
Drawn to Aroostook County by its remoteness and the availability of affordable farmland, the Amish cultivate the small fields unsuitable for large farm equipment that have lain fallow in the wake of corporate consolidation.
“They are an economic force,” Foster told WCSH6 reporter Bill Green in a broadcast still viewable on the town’s website, fortfairfield.org. But greater than the economic asset, Foster told me, is the example they set by living in community.
“They know how to do community, among themselves and the English — how to resolve issues and work together for the common good. There are a lot of lessons to be learned,” he said, describing their collaborative decision-making and easy, gentle way of doing business. “People are seeing that and it can’t help rub off and make you feel better about your community.”
More than jobs and infrastructure, Foster says, sustainable economic development is about creating a place of quality where people want to be and want to participate in the community. The Amish contribute to that quality of life. “They live their values and demonstrate how to utilize a shared resource.”
Horseman Steve Ulman calls the Amish a transfusion for Fort Fairfield, where he operates Rocking-S Ranch riding stables. One of the first customers for an Amish harness-maker, Ulman says they are increasing the value of the land tremendously.
“We have so much land in Aroostook County, yet we have fewer people. Now we have people coming in who value the land.” He praised their industrious restoration of “small farms that are still capable of producing wonderful crops.”
He also observed, “The Amish have been successful at what we are unable to do — keep our young people in Aroostook. Their children stay here. They become Amish. That speaks volumes.”
Both Dan and Steve suggested I talk to Carla Hayes, who could not wait for the first family to arrive from Heuvelton, N.Y., in August 2007.
“When the news was out that the Amish were coming to our community, just three houses from where I live, I had an intense excitement and interest to meet these people and really did not understand why. Now, four years later, my understanding is very clear,” she said.
“Noah and Lovina [Yoder] and their 11 children have become wonderful friends, and we are blessed to have them as our neighbors. The impact this family has had on my husband, David, and me has been deep, more than an ordinary relationship.
“Our ways of living are years apart; however, their examples of family, neighbors and community are very ‘today,’ or should I say, the way it should be in our state now. Never would there be a welfare system or a need to draw on other government resources if we learned from their ways, starting with family.”
When Carla offered to introduce me to her Amish neighbors, I could not refuse. How are Amish people affected by living in Aroostook County, I wondered, reversing my initial inquiry. Noah was happy to respond.
“We couldn’t have hoped for a better community,” he said. “For a whole month, [after they arrived] not a day went by when people didn’t stop by with food or offers of help. We had to improve our way of living. People up here were better at it than we were.”
Noah and his brother-in-law Harvey Miller defied predictions they could not endure the cold and remoteness of northern Maine and moved their families to Aroostook in 2007 — the year of the big snow.
“It was the best winter of my life,” Noah recalled.
They found the cold no greater than in New York, and Aroostook was the perfect setting for raising their children — a farm-based lifestyle conducive to teaching responsibility at an early age.
“The earlier you learn to take responsibility the better you are,” he said, describing how his younger children start by caring for an animal. “There is no manual for raising children. What is often missing is real love for children.
“As simple as we live, we are all the same,” he said, echoing Carla’s recollections of laughing with the Yoders over the things all children do.
Carla said, “There is, however, an element of sharing, helping and caring that is taught as a foundation for adulthood.
“There is joy in being able to help. They are the greatest example of what community should be — to help and care for one another.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.