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BROWNINGTON, Vt. — On a darkening December day several years ago, the temperature dropping to 10 degrees, a van with out-of-state tags pulled off I-91 and up beside the Sunoco station near this rural town. The passengers were 10 men carrying the whiff of barns and cattle. Most had bushy, untrimmed beards. All dressed plainly, as their faith demands — coarsely woven dark suits and broad-brimmed straw hats.

These soft-spoken men hailed from Pennsylvania and Ohio. The driver was a hireling, not one of them, in keeping with their refusal to operate motor vehicles.

They were looking for land. Derelict farms. Abandoned pasture that might once again provide goodly graze to sheep and cows. Decent soil to be turned by horse-drawn plows and planted with oats and hay.

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“They just sort of showed up,“ recalled Daniel Maclure, owner of Century 21 Farm & Forest in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, a three-county region tucked under Canada.

Maclure was home that cold afternoon when the phone rang. A delegation of Amish had arrived in the region — no forewarning — and were keen to start the hunt. He yanked on a winter coat, jumped in his Ford truck, and headed to the Sunoco station.

“They wanted to see a particular place,” Maclure recalled. “I told them it was getting awful dark. Let’s wait until morning. They asked if they might camp in a field or barn.” They’d brought sleeping bags.

Maclure wouldn’t hear of it. “I said, ‘No, you’re not sleeping in a field.’ "

He invited the strangers home. “They seemed nice, decent people. They’d come a long way.”

That was 2013. The next year, Amish bought a couple of properties in Brownington. Barely anyone noticed.

By 2015 — the real “Year of the Amish” for Vermont — some 16 families, usually including a passel of kids and a grandparent or three, had acquired more farmland and moved to Brownington and Barton, an adjoining town, according to a tally of names and real estate records.

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Today, the Brownington Amish — Vermont’s sole Amish church district or settlement — have become a colorful fixture, their revived farms giving a boost to the region’s flagging agriculture even as their energies and skills give sharp competition to local building contractors. Amish excel at carpentry whether repairing your sagging front porch or making exquisite cabinetry.

“They’ve become integral to our rural community,” said Molly Vesley, executive director of the Old Stone House Museum, a granite 1830s former boarding school that leases some of its land to an Amish farmer.

“I see their arrival as a gift,” Vesley said. “It’s amazing to see them farming with traditional tools and methods that our museum tries to display.”

Black Amish buggies rattle along rural roads in the area. Their laundry snaps from clotheslines in the winds whipping down from Quebec. The horseshoes hanging in their barns aren’t for good luck but to nail on horse hooves.

A pair of Amish, in falling snow, hired to help with the Christmas tree harvest at Windswept Farm in Barton, VT.
A pair of Amish, in falling snow, hired to help with the Christmas tree harvest at Windswept Farm in Barton, VT. Colin Nickerson

At one farm, 10-gallon cans of milk fresh-squeezed from the udder sat in a cooling tank fed by icy spring water. Outhouses rise behind rehabilitated farm houses from which electricity has been disconnected and modern plumbing removed.

Profoundly pacifistic, educating their own young, dedicated to lives of quiet humility, the Amish might seem an odd fit for the Kingdom, where guns, American flags, and under-mufflered, oversized pickups are embedded in local culture. They’ve taken mild razzing from a few rowdies.

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But their unwavering work ethic, plus their refusal to accept any form of government assistance, has won them grudging admiration. These aren’t hippies playing at farming or religious zealots howling about sin and Jesus. Central to the Amish creed is non-judgment of others.

“They are quiet neighbors and fine tenants of the land,” Maclure said. “They are determined to be self-sufficient and prosper.”

Deeply taciturn — speaking of oneself or one’s community suggests “pridefulness” — the Amish politely but firmly decline to discuss what propelled them to the Green Mountains.

“It’s enough to say we’re happy to be in Vermont,” said Moses Kauffman, who raises sheep and has begun a small woodworking shop, from which his wife also sells soy wax candles, hand-sewn aprons, and in-season vegetables from the huge kitchen garden. “Our hope is for a peaceful life and to make a living.”

According to Amish watchers in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the migrants are mainly seeking “breathing room” — land at reasonable prices with good prospects that their children and grandchildren will eventually also find affordable land in close proximity. Buggies don’t travel far. Keeping small communities close-knit is crucial to Amish survival. More Amish have scouted other Vermont towns.

“The Amish lifestyle and faith are totally intertwined, you cannot separate one from the other,” said Donald B. Kraybill, professor emeritus at Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College and author of more than a dozen books on the Amish.

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At the core of Amish identity is belief that leading a simple, righteous, quasi-communal life — one centered on family and daily interaction with other believers — is more important than arcane religious theories and liturgies. They pay taxes but otherwise have little use nor liking for government.

“They are not into theology or deep discussions of religion,” Kraybill said. “Their interest is in living their faith and preserving their communities.“

According to an Amish newspaper, The Diary — which reports on crops, births, deaths, weddings, and migrations in the form of letters from Amish faithful — 16 households have moved to Vermont. About 150 people. All hail from Erie County, Pa., and Ashtabula County, Ohio.

Small numbers. But it’s good news for a state whose officials are deeply alarmed by population decline, a fast-aging workforce, and a fertility rate that ranks among the lowest in the country. Vermont’s famed dairy industry — the state flag even features a cow — is in distress with farms going under every year.

“Anything that keeps farmland open and producing food is fantastic,” said Scott Waterman, spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

Amish plain clothes dried on a rope in Orleans County, VT.
Amish plain clothes dried on a rope in Orleans County, VT. Colin Nickerson

Meanwhile, the appearance of the Plain People in northern New England points to a broader and surprising demographic. North America’s Amish population is growing fast: gaining 97 percent in the new century, from 177,885 to 350,665, according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, the historic heartland of the Amish.

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There are about 2,600 official church districts, or settlements, in 31 states and four Canadian provinces, according to the website Amishamerica.com. Modern Amish are “Old Order” Amish who in the 1720s started emigrating to Colonial Pennsylvania, drawn by its promise of religious tolerance. They are often called Pennsylvania Dutch, a misnomer based on “Deutsch,” or German; most Amish still speak a German language variant — one influenced by English — when conversing among themselves.

The Amish arose in the 1600s in Switzerland and other German-speaking realms, part of the older and much-persecuted Anabaptist movement of the Protestant reformation. The Amish would split from the Mennonites, who have similar religious beliefs but have generally embraced modern lifestyles and technology.

In the tradition of Anabaptism, the Amish baptize young women and men as adults after they make a considered decision to devote their lives to God’s word. In Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries, Anabaptists were burned at the stake, drowned, or beheaded by both civil and religious authorities, partly because of their “standoffish” ways, but primarily because of their refusal to swear oaths of allegiance to a king or state-sanctioned religions — as well as their refusal to undertake military service.

Aside from two communities, in Bolivia and Argentina, all Amish live in North America.

In the United States, Amish are most densely concentrated in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. New England’s only other Amish live in three enclaves in a remote part of Maine. The growth of the faith is entirely due to the fecundity of the faithful — the average Amish family has five children. And some 85 percent of Amish children stay with the church, according to Kraybill. Amish don’t evangelize and rarely accept converts.

Amish live simply and separately from non-Amish, undertake Sunday worship in a house, barn, or workshop — no church buildings — and abjure most modern conveniences (no home use of computers, motorized transport, TV, flush toilets, electricity, or any form of phones, for starters).

Best known for buggies, quilting, and farm methods dating to the 19th century, the Amish also possess a strong entrepreneurial streak. Kraybill, the professor, estimates there are 20,000 Amish businesses nationwide, including furniture-making, manufacture of pre-fabricated structures (such as sheds or gazebos), toymaking, and bakeries.

In Vermont, as they build their own small businesses and farms, Amish men hire out as construction hands — metal roofs and pole barns are a specialty. Some of the women work at a non-Amish commercial hydroponic farm that produces vegetables year-round for sale across New England.

Adam Parke, a non-Amish Christmas tree grower, last year cautiously hired his first crew of Amish to help bring in the annual harvest.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. Now he’s hooked: “They are obliging, diligent folk — a day’s work means a day’s work.”

The downside: Amish have to be driven to and from jobs. And no iPhones, so recruiting is a matter of cruising back roads and visiting their farms, discussing with elders whether any young men might be spared from chores.

In Brownington, a one-room schoolhouse has arisen on a gravel road where the Amish, with no state help, educate their children in the three Rs through eighth grade. At age 16, the young quit formal schooling and start apprenticeships in a trade or craft, often with a parent, uncle, or aunt.

“A craft must be learned,” said Jacob Kauffman, a cabinet maker who set aside work on a fine hickory piece to talk. In life, he said, Amish “take what is useful. What is not useful, we have no need for.”

Property is held in private, but when a new barn needs raising, the community of believers gathers to hoist posts, beams, rafters, and roof — a “frolic,“ Amish say, combining hard work, hearty food, and laughter.

Come nightfall, especially during growing seasons, one can see the twinkle of lights dancing like fireflies in fields and barnyards — it’s Amish wearing battery-powered headlamps, a rare concession to modern times. The interiors of their homes are lit by kerosene lanterns. Of a winter evening, after supper, Amish families will gather around the wood stove.

“Perhaps we are reading” stories from the Bible, said a young man who asked that his name not be used. “Perhaps we are talking about the day’s work. Perhaps we are enjoying the silence and the peace.”

Colin Nickerson can be reached at nickerson.colin@gmail.com.