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December 16, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
*CORRECTION: Clark is about 23 miles north of Columbia, not Boone County, as an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated.
A paved road stretches past houses, fields and stores just half an hour north of Columbia. The view from this narrow two-lane highway is one that would make TV artist Bob Ross salivate. The pale sky is dotted with clouds, the seas of golden brown crops are yearning to be harvested, and a pattern of white country homes and blazing red sawmills is sown throughout. Miller, Ginerich, Borntrager and Yoder are common names on several black iron mailboxes. Homemade signs advertise small family businesses selling furniture, baked goods and hardware. Rugged men in wide-brimmed hats and suspenders and women in black and dark blue dresses travel along the road by buggy or by foot. It is a land untouched by modernity where electricity is foreign, a place 1,200 Amish call home.
In the Clark Amish community, homes and businesses sit around a long stretch of highway. Gravel roads branch off Highway Y, and plumes of dirt sail in the air from passing cars and horses. A short trip on a particular gravel road leads to Miller’s Lumber, a small Amish-owned lumberyard and hardware store. With purple suspenders, strong hands and a gentle face, Samuel Yoder, 28, diligently takes notes on dimensions and makes quick calculations on a scrap of paper. His hat casts a shadow on his bearded face as he laughs animatedly.
Eli Miller, 32, brother-in-law to the owner of Miller’s Lumber, leans against a high-rise table and speaks jokingly with Yoder. Miller’s green jacket and blue jeans are a stark contrast against the Amish’s traditional clothing of suspenders, overalls and light brown hats. Although their clothing is different, Sam Yoder and Eli Miller share a similar story. They were both raised in the surrounding Amish community, went to similar Amish schools and decided to leave. Less than a year after leaving, Yoder returned. After two years of deliberation, Miller left permanently.
The Clark Amish community, a 10-minute drive east from Clark, is Yoder and Miller’s childhood home. About 23 miles north of Columbia*, this community, at the intersection of Randolph, Audrain and Monroe county lines, was founded in 1953 when Amish from Iowa sought better education for their children in Missouri. However, with a new Amish community in Gibbs, a small town near Kirksville, the population has dwindled. Yoder says that if there was no migration, the Clark settlement would have more than 2,000 residents. According to National Geographic Channel, which recently produced a program on ex-Amish, Columbia is the “world’s largest haven for people that were raised Amish” and left.
The entire Amish population here stretches approximately10 miles down Highway Y and spreads 4 to 5 miles across. A little smaller than the settlements of Seymour and Jamesport, the Clark settlement consists of Old Order Amish, which is the sect most traditionally depicted in media and films, such as Witness, For Richer or Poorer, and the less accurate Kingpin.
To tell the complete story of the Amish lifestyle is impossible because there are thousands of Amish communities, each with its own set of rules and values. Although their lives appear simple, their culture is varied. To non-Amish people, the term “Amish” can refer to a language, a religion or a culture. A full account would require a 500-year trek through time to the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland. For centuries, the Amish community has lived beside modernity, but not all its members wish to live in technological silence.
Dusk peers through the windows as Yoder grabs a white gas lamp and fastens it to a wooden column. “There, that should give us some light,” Yoder says while the gas hisses quietly. The dancing light illuminates Yoder’s friendly features. Sweat still clings to his hair as a measure of a 12-hour workday. A small white and black-spotted puppy squeezes in the open door and jumps up against Yoder’s knee. Yoder picks up the puppy, and she licks his face with affection. “She has no name at the moment,” Yoder says. “I’m going to let my daughters name it.”
Yoder was born in Columbus, Ohio. He has 19 brothers and sisters. His mother died of a blood clot after his birth, and his dad remarried and moved to the Clark community when Yoder was 2 years old. Yoder attended a small Amish school with 20 to 30 other students, where he, like all Amish children, learned Pennsylvania Dutch, a German dialect. Students also learn English. The Amish conclude their education by ninth grade but do attend school only on Fridays in ninth grade in order to practice German. At 15, Yoder started working at the sawmill and cut wood with gas engines. Two years ago, he began working with Miller’s Lumber.
In 2003 at 21 years old, Yoder left the Amish community. With a tone of regret, Yoder describes his decision as a product of being young. “I guess I wanted to get a whiff of the world,” Yoder says. “As a kid, I wanted a vehicle. I tell you what, I wanted a truck.” But it was more than a truck that guided Yoder’s decision to leave
Growing up, Yoder knew stories of Amish men leaving their families in search of another lifestyle, but he decided to leave the community before he got married. Yoder worked in the Columbia area doing construction and roofing for several months before deciding to return to the Amish community. “I like frontier like this,” Yoder says. “I like being back in the woods. I’m a hunter. I like to be in the quiet. I just couldn’t make it in the city.”
With distaste for urban life, Yoder also discovered how expensive it is to maintain an American lifestyle. Although Amish pay taxes, the cost of insurance and rent often lead young Amish back to the church. Yoder, a self-proclaimed family man, was also concerned with the outside community’s rate of divorce. With mounting debt and hopes to start a family, Yoder returned to the Amish community with relative ease. Now with a wife and three children, he seems content with his decision.
Yoder’s choices are influenced by his strong faith. The Bible is the source of Amish custom and portrays their sense of charity. “If somebody gets hurt and he gets a hospital bill that he can’t handle, nobody is going to let him take care of it himself,” Yoder says. “Everybody takes care of everybody. God says to help each other. ” The Amish don’t have health insurance, so hospital bills are overwhelming expenses for the modest-income population. The church raises money, and individuals also donate to the family to help with bills — an example of Amish philanthropy. The Clark Amish help others in their community as well as Amish in other states.
Despite the Amish’s romantic, independent appearance, Amish economy is dependent on the non-Amish. Although Amish are a part of Yoder’s clientele, he says almost 90 percent of his customers are from the outside community, and he frequently works with non-Amish contractors.
When money is scarce, the Clark community can decide whether to advance technology to increase productivity. These decisions are made by a bishop, a spiritual and political leader for the Amish community. In Clark, gas engines are used in sawmills and for pumping water. “Some places are advanced a little further, and some places are lower than we are,” Yoder says. “We can use a gas-powered motor as long as it isn’t electricity.”
But there is a difference between using technology and owning technology. “I can go work with an English fella and use his power tools, but I can’t own the power tools,” Yoder says, using the term “English” to describe the non-Amish population. In order to travel out of state, Amish also hire non-Amish drivers to avoid several days of travel by horse. These paid drivers take Amish to other communities or into local cities, such as Columbia, to sell products or conduct other business. They also help haul crops and lumber.
At 8 p.m., Yoder creaks across the floorboards with a lamp in hand. The once-lively Amish community is now pitch black. Yoder’s lamp shines on the wooden steps, onto the gravel road and is eventually swallowed by the surrounding darkness.
Eli Miller remembers hearing the engines on Saturday nights. The sound was faint but distinct, and the roar invaded the quiet darkness of the Clark community. He remembers leaving the town when he was 18 and going to the Moberly raceway about 15 minutes away. He remembers running to the track, hearing the engines roar and seeing cars spraying mud over the high concrete walls. He remembers as a kid trying to get jobs with non-Amish drivers so that he could hear the radio and listen to music. It wasn’t until Miller went to his first concert outside of the community that he discovered what a guitar or drums even looked like.
“Why?” was a question that Eli Miller asked frequently during his childhood in the Clark Amish community. He questioned why others drove cars and used electricity while he couldn’t. “They’d say, ‘It’s just because Grandma and Grandpa didn’t teach us that way,’” Miller says. “That answer wasn’t good enough for me.”
Miller grew up in much the same way as Yoder. He attended similar schools, did similar chores and had a similar life. Although Yoder saw the Amish lifestyle as comforting, Miller saw it as suffocating. Amish schools and family didn’t acknowledge the choice of leaving, and in Clark, there was no Rumspringa, a period for young Amish to experience the outside community. “Mom and Dad don’t encourage you to do it,” Miller says. “They don’t want you to do it, but they know it doesn’t matter what they say — you are going to do it anyway.” When Miller’s best friend, who left a week before Miller, offered him the chance to leave, he took it.
For older teenagers, Sunday nights in the Clark Amish settlement are spent singing songs and meeting other Amish teenagers at church. It is a way to socialize and to meet others to begin dating. It also prepares them for their life as Amish adults. But for the recently ex-Amish, this church was a place to coerce young Amish to leave the community. Ex-Amish would travel to the church at night and offer rides into the outside community. Older Amish would go to chase off the ex-Amish, but they often returned the following weekend — annoying the older Amish was just as fun.
These Sunday nights were Miller’s opportunity to have some of his questions answered. “We figured we would leave for maybe a month,” Miller says. “I just wanted to see what it was about.” When Miller was 18, he decided to leave for the first time. He knew if he told his family he was leaving, they would convince him not to. So he left a note, grabbed $30 he had saved and left.
Miller didn’t party much with the ex-Amish in Columbia and never joined them on a trip to convince young Amish to leave the community. “My mom said, ‘I hope you never try to get someone else to leave with you,’” Miller says. “I have always held true to that.”
But it wasn’t a clean break. Miller returned to the Amish community twice because of family. For two years, he wrestled with the decision to leave the community permanently. When he was 20, Miller decided the outside community had more to offer, but leaving this time would prove harder than the last.
“People think it is as simple as getting up and running through a field and meeting your buddies,” Miller says. “This is it. You are leaving your family. Just imagine leaving your family. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Miller quickly found a carpentry job and began a new life among the non-Amish. Miller also discovered another passion after leaving the community — bull riding. For years, Miller traveled around the nation and participated in bull-riding competitions. But riding bulls or flicking on a light wasn’t the reason that Miller left; it was a difference of philosophy. “There are some Amish that have said I am going to hell for what I’m doing,” Miller says. “I’m just living the way I want to live.”
Miller settled near Sturgeon, only 13 miles south of Clark. He still knows many people within the Amish community, including his family. Miller’s brother-in-law, Ervin Miller owns Miller’s Lumber, the lumberyard where Sam Yoder works. He visited his parents once a month until they left for the Gibbs settlement in Missouri four months ago. Although his relationship with his family might be strained, he was lucky he was able to visit at all.
“Some won’t let the kids come home to visit,” Miller says. “It’s because they have younger brothers and sisters, and they don’t want to influence them.” However, Miller, the youngest of seven children, was allowed to visit more regularly. Despite his efforts, Miller’s family still will not sit at the same table with him in accordance with Clark’s community rules.
Shunning not only differs within each family but also within each community. Miller’s friend who left from the Jamesport community visits his family, eats with and stays with them. In Clark, eating with an ex-Amish or riding in the same car is forbidden. “If Sam were to ride in my truck, he would be in big trouble,” Miller says. “That is part of the shunning. That never changes.”
Miller now has a wife, Nicole, and a 1-year-old daughter, Maddie. He has been out of the Amish community for 12 years and does carpentry work around mid-Missouri. In May, Miller and his wife helped coordinate an ex-Amish gathering in Columbia. More than 250 people attended the event and came from Iowa, Indiana and other surrounding states. The ex-Amish reunion is a tradition that was established even before Miller left the community.
Despite Miller’s wealth of friends and a new family, there is still one thing he misses about being Amish. “I miss my family,” Miller says and pauses as the weight of those four words soak in. “All that other stuff I could have if I wanted it, but family is the only thing you can’t get.”
With family still in the Amish community, Miller doubts he will ever be considered a close uncle or a son. But as Maddie sits on her father’s knee, Miller’s wide smile shows no sign of regret. V