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Life 'Off The Grid'

Story by Sheila Gibbons Hiebert
Photography by Robert Tinari

Mennonite and Amish farmers have been a valued community presence since they began arriving in Charles and St. Mary's counties in 1939, eager to leave crowded communities in Pennsylvania where land prices were rising and acreage was growing scarce.

In "History of St. Mary's County, Maryland, 1634-1990," Regina Combs Hammett wrote: "Through a land agent, the Amish families had been able to acquire extensive acreage in the northern part of St. Mary's County in the Charlotte Hall and Mechanicsville areas. In contrast to the $500 per-acre price for land in Lancaster County, the first seven Amish families (who arrived in St. Mary's County in 1940) were able to buy 1,950 acres for less than $30,000."

Their descendants continue to occupy land purchased by the first arrivals 70 years ago and added to by subsequent generations. The Amish reside in northern St. Mary's County and southern Charles County, with the Mennonites clustered in and around Loveville.

While best known for farming and selling farm products, Amish and Mennonite families also make and repair furniture; build homes, sheds and storage units; operate sawmills; and repair and maintain machinery and agricultural equipment. Quilts, crafts, baked goods and preserves made by Amish and Mennonite women are eagerly sought after. Two quilt auctions are held in Mechanicsville in the fall. The first is an auction on Oct. 17 at Summerseat Farm, off Route 235; and the second quilt auction, now in its 18th year, will take place on Nov. 21 on Grove Farm Lane off Thompson Corner Road (Route 236).

The success of these Southern Maryland neighbors has been attributed to their self-reliance, work ethic and collective efforts to advance not only the interests of their individual families, but their greater communities as well. Children join in the effort during school breaks and after completing eighth grade, when they are no longer required to attend school. It's not unusual to see youngsters sitting on a horse-drawn wagon, dropping tobacco seedlings into the ground during planting time, learning commerce at their families' farm stands, or, as they grow older, astride a plow.

Most Mennonites and Amish families in Southern Maryland live "off the grid" - no electricity or telephone lines connect their homes to other homes. Transportation is usually by horse and buggy. Mennonites use bicycles and one branch of Mennonites living in St. Mary's County actually drives motor vehicles, but the Amish do not. The Amish and Mennonites' chosen life - intentionally plain and modest - reflects their similar religious and cultural roots.

Days begin before dawn for many. It can be dark when they're milking cows on the Stoltzfus dairy farm on Woodburn Hill Road in Mechanicsville, or collecting eggs laid by free-range chickens at the Stauffer farm on Route 5 in Loveville, where customers help themselves to eggs kept in propane-operated refrigerators and deposit money in a large plastic jug nearby. In the fall, signs advertising holiday turkeys go up and the energy level intensifies as orders flow in to poultry farmers whose customers return year after year for their Christmas and Thanksgiving birds.

The Amish and Mennonites typically raise large families, so they are always looking for affordable land for family farms. Prices for land in Southern Maryland have soared since the 1940s, so some local families have been leaving for Illinois and New York, said Donna Sasscer, agriculture and seafood manager for St. Mary's County.

However, the Loveville Produce Auction has provided a market that may slow the Amish and Mennonite migration. "It really has helped that community to be able to raise local produce in their communities, crops that makes an income on small acreage and provide a higher income per acre than corn or soybeans. It helps keep them in the community," Sasscer said, adding, "They're a great asset."

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As such, some of the information in this particular article may no longer be current.

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