Amish, Mennonites came in 1939 in search of farmland

Communities settled here just before Navy arrived

Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008

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The Associated Press photographed two Amish men working on land just bought in St. Mary's County in 1939. That year, Amish and Mennonites made national news when they started moving here in search of cheaper land and fewer restrictions on education.

Amish and Mennonite families began moving to St. Mary's County from Pennsylvania in 1939 for cheaper land and fewer restrictions on how they educated their children.

However, when the Navy began constructing a military base at Cedar Point just a couple of years later, the influx of people coming to St. Mary's began eating away at the agricultural landscape here.

The Amish and Mennonites still carry on their agricultural traditions and are a valued part of the local economy, but the struggle to find land for their families that brought them to St. Mary's has followed them here.

The Amish live in Charlotte Hall and Mechanicsville, while the Mennonites live in the Loveville area.

The Associated Press reported in November 1939 that nine Amish families had moved to St. Mary's, buying almost 2,000 acres. In that year, three of the Amish families sold 188 acres back in Pennsylvania for $44,000 and bought 1,135 acres in St. Mary's for less than $25,000.

By 1944, 130 families held title to 6,000 acres here.

On Nov. 26, 1939, the AP reported the first of seven Amish families were looking to move to Southern Maryland with the assistance of T.B. Symons, extension director of the University of Maryland.

John F. Stoltzfus said of the move, "We can no longer afford to give farms to our children and build new homes and barns for them. Four of my children have no homes yet, and I can't help them here, but down there I can."

"It is no secret that Southern Maryland has been giving the farm experts at College Park grave concern. Soil erosion and depletion have been worse there than in any part of the state and it is the only part of the state whose prosperity depends on one crop — namely tobacco," said an editorial about the Amish moving to St. Mary's in the Dec. 8, 1939 Enterprise.

State Sen. Philip H. Dorsey said later that month, "They're wonderful farmers. They're thrifty and solid citizens. But doggone it, they're all Republicans."

Besides the cheap land, St. Mary's offered fewer restrictions on education. Amish one-room school houses in Lancaster County, Pa., were consolidated into one school in 1936 with funds from the New Deal Federal Works Administration. The Amish rejected that because it was borrowed money and would require the students to ride on a bus.

The Cumberland Evening Times reported on Monday, Nov. 27, 1939, "One difficulty similar to a situation that vexed the plain people in Pennsylvania already confronts the first seven families to migrate to Leonardtown; St. Mary's schools were built with the aid of a bond issue and the Amish are opposed to borrowing.

"J. Claude Johnson, a St. Mary's County commissioner, said the Amish probably would have to use the county schools for awhile but, ‘if they want to run a school and maintain good standards, we will gladly allow them this privilege.'"

The Maryland governor, Herbert O'Conor, commented, "After the seventh grade, their children will be free to till the soil as the fine tradition dictates."

When they moved into Maryland, their children did not have to stay in school past the age of 14. But the state later insisted they remain in school until 16. The Amish and Mennonites resisted and by the start of the school year in 1967, they were allowed to operate their own schools in their own facilities.

Robert King, the superintendent of St. Mary's County public schools, wrote in 1965, "When the last Amish buggy has disappeared from the dusty byroad, it will mark more than the passing of a sect of people overwhelmed by time and change. It will mark also the passing of a freedom: the freedom of people to live their lives undisturbed by their government so long as they disturb no others."

It wasn't long after they moved to St. Mary's that their community faced difficulties.

The Aug. 8, 1941, edition of the Beacon reported the death of Stephen Stoltzfus, 77, one of the men who first brought Amish families to St. Mary's. He died of Rocky Mountain spotted fever from a tick bite. He was the seventh victim of the year in the county.

The Associated Press reported on Aug. 19, 1946, that the John Stoltzfus family had lost three children to traffic accidents. Their last child, 18-year-old Rachel, was struck and killed by a car in Mechanicsville.

On June 7, 1970, a passing motorist took a shot at a horse pulling a Mennonite family in their buggy on Loveville Road. John Brubacker's horse, named Prince, was shot in the stomach and had to be euthanized. The family was not injured in the shooting.

There was another, far more rare from of violence on Feb. 2, 1995, in Charlotte Hall. Sixteen-year-old Thomas Ballard, who was not born Amish, but was brought into the fold, killed Hannah Stoltzfus and beat her three children. He then killed himself.

But it hasn't been all toil and suffering.

The Amish farmers market in Charlotte Hall has been a successful venture for selling produce, crafts and baked goods.

"That's been a blessing," said Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R). It's been generating about $600,000 a year for about two dozen vendors.

The Amish and Mennonites don't accept public funds or handouts. "They take care of their own families," he said.

Another success story has been the Loveville produce auction house, which is used by Mennonites, Amish and independent farmers. "That produce auction house has been a large benefit," he said.