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With an abundance of open space and a history of conservation, Montana possibly provides some of the richest opportunities for new Amish colonies. In Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, where some 80 percent of Amish communities are located, cities and housing developments have steadily encroached upon generational Amish communities. The congestion and competition for land has left many Amish settlements with nowhere to grow.

About a decade ago, the first Amish community in Montana was established in Rexford, west of Eureka. Since then, another two have been established, one in St. Ignatius and the other in southeastern Montana north of Ashland. A fledgling Amish community is in the beginning stages of settlement near Three Forks on the Jefferson River.

Built on a solid agrarian tradition, diminishing land and less profitable farming has caused the Amish to move toward a trades-based economy. In that shift, many Amish communities embraced tourism, selling Amish-made crafts, opening restaurants and inns and taking visitors on buggy tours of their communities. Montana's Amish are returning to agriculture while continuing to work in the trades.

Diminishing farmland and municipal growth are only part of why Amish people may be drawn to the Big Sky State. In Pennsylvania, some local governments passed zoning laws that prohibit keeping livestock in certain townships n a move many Amish leaders say is aimed at forcing out Amish families who have called the area home for generations. And in Illinois, local governments have begun to charge $50 for the licensing of an Amish buggy.

The Amish have also been victim of an increasing number of violent, prejudice-based crimes.

A brief history

The Amish are descedants of 16th Century European Anabaptists, which challenged the church's edicts during the Protestant Reformation. The Anabaptists later splintered into two groups -- Amish and Mennonites, which both adopt a strict religious code of manner and dress.

Seeking religious tolerance, the first Amish emigrated to the United States in 1730, settling in the area now known as Lancaster, Pa. Since then, Amish communities have been developed in 24 states and one Canadian province. There are an estimated 180,000 Amish in North America.

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