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Economy Sends Some Amish Back to Their Roots

Freeman Wingard is Amish, one of the so-called plain people, but he was living large.

He took his family to dine at restaurants every week, made trips to Chicago and vacationed in Florida.

Wingard was earning $40 per hour working in a factory that made recreational vehicles.

RV sales slowed as the economy stumbled. A few days before Christmas, it all came crashing down. Wingard was laid off after 10 years on the job.

"Kind of a shock," he said.

With their beards, buggies and rejection of modern conveniences, the Amish typically separate themselves from the non-Amish world. But in Northern Indiana, home to the nation's third-largest Amish settlement, with a population of 20,000, they are very much affected by the economic malaise.

In popular culture, the Amish often are characterized as farmers, their plows hitched to enormous draft horses. But only a minority of the Northern Indiana Amish work the land; more than half the breadwinners work in the RV factories - or did until the downturn.

"Nowhere in U.S. Amish history has a down economy affected the Amish so much," said Steven Nolt, a professor at Goshen College who has studied the Northern Indiana Amish and written books about them. "It's a pivotal time for them."

In some ways, the downturn is threatening Amish culture. Some Amish have taken the state's general educational development test. Passing the GED makes it easier to get a job but goes against the Amish custom of eschewing worldliness by ceasing formal education after the eighth grade.

Some Amish have filed for unemployment insurance money, which helps keep them afloat but goes against the Amish custom of avoiding entanglements with government.

In other ways, however, the financial pressure is triggering a return to Amish core values of church and family as relatives come together in their scramble to make up for lost income.

Wingard, who has a wife and five daughters younger than 13, added jellies and jams to the quilts and other crafts he and his family sell from their home.

None of the new enterprises has come close to replacing the RV incomes. But the Amish are unanimous in saying their lives are emotionally richer now and more in keeping with the self-reliance they say they relish.

"The factories can make a robot out of you," said Harvey Bontrager, who left the grind 20 years ago to go into business for himself. He grows flowers and vegetables and sells them at the huge flea market in Shipshewana. He also makes and sells ice cream.

"This is much different than living on a weekly paycheck," Bontrager said. "Here, you need a business plan. You have to think more."

When the Amish came to Northern Indiana from Pennsylvania in the 1840s, they came as farmers. But these days, only 14 percent make their living off the land. There simply isn't enough land, as Amish populations grow at a far greater rate than their land holdings. Many more Amish, in Indiana and elsewhere, work in construction and in other skilled trades.

When the RV factories opened in Northern Indiana in the late 1960s, the Amish flocked to them. They were quickly hired.

"The Amish tend to be capable and hardworking," said Thomas Meyers, a Goshen professor and expert on the Amish, "and they don't form unions."

By the 1980s, RV factories had replaced farming as the region's chief occupation among the Amish.

The RV jobs made for a lifestyle plush by Amish standards. Travel to the Grand Canyon and California by airplane and in rented vans with professional drivers was common. Many Amish bought motorboats.

Each Amish community has its own rules, and as affluence pervaded the LaGrange/Elkhart community, its rules became more relaxed than most.

Now, however, many Amish say the factory slowdowns are a blessing. "I felt like a lot of talent was going to waste at the factories," said Marion Bontrager, who was laid off in August.

Wingard wonders what he'd do if he got called back. He is happier since his layoff and he enjoys working alongside his wife and children.

"I like my life now, but I had to be pushed into it," he said. "I wouldn't have left (the factory) on my own."

So what happens if, as the economy picks up, the factory beckons?

Carol Wingard said she hopes her husband never has to face that option, "because then we'd have to make a decision."

She fears what the decision would be.

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