November 24, 2017

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Amish putting down new roots

Ontario families buying and preparing land in southeast Manitoba

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Signage is posted on Highway 201 to warn drivers of horse-and-cart traffic as Amish residents plan to settle in the area.</p></p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Signage is posted on Highway 201 to warn drivers of horse-and-cart traffic as Amish residents plan to settle in the area.

The Amish are coming, and Manitoba Highways has posted road signs with a silhouetted horse and buggy in places where they plan to settle.

Amish families are buying land and preparing to relocate to southeastern Manitoba, the first members of that religious sect to settle here.

As many as 20 to 30 Amish families from Ontario are looking to move into the RM of Stuartburn, Reeve Jim Swidersky said.

Amish people, who travel by horse and buggy and shun many modern conveniences, including landline and cellular telephones, in order to live in “Christ-like simplicity,” have been buying farmland near Vita, about 100 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.

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The Amish are coming, and Manitoba Highways has posted road signs with a silhouetted horse and buggy in places where they plan to settle.

Amish families are buying land and preparing to relocate to southeastern Manitoba, the first members of that religious sect to settle here.

As many as 20 to 30 Amish families from Ontario are looking to move into the RM of Stuartburn, Reeve Jim Swidersky said.

Amish people, who travel by horse and buggy and shun many modern conveniences, including landline and cellular telephones, in order to live in "Christ-like simplicity," have been buying farmland near Vita, about 100 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.

Swidersky estimated about 100 Amish may settle there, mostly young families starting out. There are already highway signs featuring a horse and buggy along Highway 201 to warn motorists to beware when driving in the area.

Only a handful of Amish families have purchased land so far, totalling about a dozen quarter sections (160 acres each), Swidersky said.

Those families went back home to Ontario about two weeks ago to spend the winter there, and plan to return in the spring to build homesteads.

Before leaving, they did some preliminary work to make the land ready for settlement, including drilling wells, obtaining building permits and constructing pole sheds for their horse and wagons.

They also brought out horses and wagons to be boarded in Manitoba over the winter. They used transport trucks and trailers for the move, operated by non-Amish drivers.

The families are from locations in southern Ontario, including Middlesex County, Port Elgin and Salford. More than 300,000 Amish live in the United States, but only about 5,500 in Canada.

Small numbers of Amish recently migrated into Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, as well.

The Amish look similar to, but are a different religious sect than, Old Order Mennonites, a group that moved into Manitoba, northwest of Gladstone, in 2006.

Old Order Mennonites live apart from the rest of the world, like the Amish, and are not to be confused with acculturated Mennonites who have assimilated into society.

Both Amish and Old Order Mennonites are sects that broke from the main Mennonite church: the Amish in 1693 and the Old Order Mennonites in the 1800s. Both adhere to a simple lifestyle, including staying disconnected from the main power grid and using a horse and buggy for transportation.

However, one distinguishing physical trait between the two religious sects is the beards. While men from both sects tend to wear beards, at least for orthodox Old Order Mennonites, Amish beards have the moustache shaved out.

The Amish, who are pacifists like all divisions of Mennonites, have kept that style of beard since 1693 to differentiate themselves from military people.

Moustaches were once associated with military service, where military officers typically sported thick flowing moustaches.

Publicity is the last thing the Amish seek, Swidersky said, yet it’s inevitable when the religious sect moves into an area where people are not familiar with them.

Swidersky said the Amish homesteaders need no special permission from the municipal government.

"We didn’t have to approve anything. They bought lots of private land and they also bought some land from the RM," Swidersky said.

The municipality sold 3½ parcels of land (560 acres) to the Amish people, at an average price of $45,000-$50,000 per quarter section, he said.

The properties have pockets of swampy and stony land.

The Amish members continue to seek land in the area, the reeve said.

They are looking for land contiguous with or at least near other Amish-owned parcels to form a little community.

"If I’m not mistaken, they try to be connected (by land), but if they can’t be, they try to be very close," Swidersky said.

While spurning ownership of telephones, Amish have still managed to conduct business with the RM by going to the homes of neighbours in Ontario and using their land phones, Swidersky said.

The migration into Manitoba is in response to high farmland prices, said Royden Loewen, the chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Amish and Old Order Mennonites are spreading out to search for less expensive land.

The Amish have had two strategies in the face of rising farmland prices, Loewen said. One is to allow families to work in factories. A significant number of Amish in the U.S. are doing that, riding their horse-drawn buggies to the factory and back every day.

The other response is what the Amish are doing in Manitoba, and that is seeking out areas where land is less expensive.

"This will be a risky venture on their part" because the property being purchased in southeastern Manitoba is marginal farmland, said Loewen, author of the book Horse-and-Buggy Genius (University of Manitoba Press).

However, their dedication to self-sufficiency gives them a better chance to succeed, he said.

Loewen added Amish have shown a recent wanderlust.

While Amish have typically been found only in the U.S. and Ontario, some have located to Bolivia and Argentina and there is also a community near the city of Cork in Ireland.

There are many different subgroups of Amish. For example, some prohibit tractors and use only horses on farm fields, while others allow tractors but only with steel wheels, not rubber, Loewen said.

While they typically aren’t connected to a power grid, Amish will produce their own electricity by using gas generators. Some will build hydraulic and air-pressure systems and adapt their tools to run off them.

"They don’t like to be linked to the outside world," said Loewen, who called the migration of Amish another feather in the cap for a province that prides itself on cultural diversity.

Swidersky is undeterred by the scandal that rocked the Old Order Mennonite community near Gladstone over child physical and sexual abuse.

The lead perpetrator received a 51/2-year prison sentence.

He was found guilty of committing heinous acts where he repeatedly punished children for their supposed sexual thoughts while he conducted his own sexual abuse.

The school where the abuse took place, a relatively new building, was burned to the ground by the community following the convictions, and a new facility was built.

As well, two homes where the two main perpetrators lived, a father and a son, are said by passersby to stand empty, almost like monuments of shame.

The men of the community have also shaved off their beards, indicating the group has forged ties with a less orthodox community in Ontario. The group was originally connected to an Orthodox church near Gorrie, Ont.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Bill Redekop .

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