Jan 13, 2016

An Amish community modernizes in Michigan: Goodbye horse and buggy, hello minivans and power tools

January 12, 2016

As part of this week’sCommunity Vibeseries. We’re exploring one interesting thing about different towns across the state.

Today, we go to northern Mid-Michigan, which is home to a large Amish population. For some Amish families there, their traditional lifestyle is starting to evolve and change.

The area around Mt. Pleasant and Clare is kind of like Michigan’s Great Plains. It’s really flat and there is a lot of land and a lot of farms and fields. If you’re driving up US-127 and need to stop for gas around the area, it wouldn’t be unusual to see an Amish man with a top hat and beard traveling by horse and buggy around town.

“We don’t see ourselves as all that different, it is only because the world has changed,” Helmuth says.

Helmuth and his wife dress like they're from the early 1900's. His wife wears a bonnet a long dress that looks like it belongs on the set of Little House on the Prairie.

The Amish are a branch of the Mennonite church. The way they dress and their lifestyle is based on their interpretation of the bible.

“We don’t dress differently just to be different,” Helmuth says. “We dress differently because we want to represent modesty.”

A lot of Amish families started moving to the area, mostly from Indiana, about 25 years ago. Helmuth says the combination of a lot of land and low cost of living makes it easy for the Amish to live their simple lifestyle.

“Michigan is a very accepting state for Amish people,” Helmuth says. “Before we moved up here I met a Mennonite man that said that Michigan is a very friendly state and the further north you go, the more friendly they are, so we picked the middle and we found it so.”

The Mennonite Church started in the German and Dutch speaking parts of Central Europe, and most Amish communities in the U.S. today mostly still speak German with each other. Helmuth speaks German with other Amish people, but there are other traditions that are starting to modernize and change in his Amish community.

For example, Helmuth makes kitchen cabinets for a living and uses power tools in his shop. Helmuth says the use of electricity is becoming more common in Amish communities, especially for families that make a living in an industry trade instead of on the farm. It’s just hard to produce enough to make a living when you can’t use electricity.

“When I bought a table saw, that table saw came with an electric motor and switches ready to use. Some years ago [the Amish community] thought we’d get rid of that and we’ll put on other means of powering [the saw]. But slowly we realized that it’s just not practical,” Helmuth says.  

Helmuth, like most Amish, doesn’t drive a car. He does have a horse and buggy, but he only really uses that when he goes to church. If Helmuth is really in a bind, he’ll actually hire someone else to drive him around.

Helmuth’s helper in the shop, Noah Yoder, grew up in a very strict Amish sect in Tennessee that would not allow Amish families to hire a driver and they would not allow electricity, but the Amish in Rosebush are less rigid, and today Yoder has a cell phone and drives a white minivan.

“Jesus says love not the things of this world, he didn’t say have not these things,” Yoder says.

So maybe next time, if you stop by a gas station near Clare, you might see an Amish man filling up for gas instead of riding into town by horse and buggy. 

Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. 


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