Amish counting on hard work in hard times

DALTON, Wis. — Here, the economic news travels slowly, by word of mouth and horse and buggy.

It filters through Mishler’s Country Store, where bills are totaled on battered manual adding machines and kerosene lamps light the aisles when the sun goes down.

It circulates through the Salemville Cheese Cooperative, where families cart in fresh milk, straight from the farm.

And it spreads to Raymond Bontrager’s Maple Lane Woodshop, where a wood fire warms craftsmen who turn planks of oak, maple, cherry and pine into exquisite pieces of furniture.

“We hear about it all the time from the customers,” Bontrager says.

The Old Order Amish who live in this patch of central Wisconsin are dealing with America’s economic woes the only way they know how: with hard work.

They stick close to the land and close to their faith, following a way of life that has sustained them for generations.

The Amish are not isolated, and they are not completely immune from the effects of America’s economic problems.

Home construction is down. So are milk prices.

But simplicity, frugality and self-sufficiency trump a recession.

Wisconsin has the fourthlargest Amish population in the country, behind Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. An estimated 15,525 Amish live in 50 settlements across the state.

More than 200 Amish families have carved out a community here in an area that rolls across parts of three counties — Columbia, Green Lake and Marquette.

The first Amish families arrived in this part of the state from Indiana in the mid-1970s.

They farm, raise dairy cattle and operate more than 40 businesses that include sawmills, furniture makers and greenhouses, catering to both Amish and non-Amish. Tourist cash helps fuel the local economy.

It’s a world without high-voltage electricity, TVs and SUVs.And it’s a world that demands versatility on the job, whether it is milking cows or building fences, cutting firewood or handling a team of horses pulling a manure spreader.

“I can build a house from the ground up,” says Bontrager. “I can always do something.”

Bontrager is 46. He has a thick beard, no mustache, and dresses simply in black hat, blue coat, blue pants and black shoes.

He rises at 4:30 a.m. for farm chores. By 6:30 a.m., he’s in the wood shop with his oldest son Nathan, 22, and two other workers, turning out furniture on machines that run with belts and pulleys instead of motors.

Bontrager notices a slowdown in one part of his business. It has been hard to move gift items such as toy trains, baskets and cutting boards.

But the custom-furniture business is still going strong, buoyed by wealthy customers in search of items that are literally signed by the craftsmen.

“If they want to spend, they want quality,” Bontrager says of those in search of custom dining sets that cost from $1,500 to $3,000 for a table and six chairs.

Bontrager says some carpenters in the community have been forced to readjust. With the housing market collapsed, carpenters take jobs such as roofing or renovations.

“You just have to keep going,” he says.

The drive to keep going is part of the rhythm of life, timeless and beautiful. Here, farm wives till gardens and hang wash while children gather in one-room schoolhouses.

Businesses are home-grown.

“It gets the family together,” says Glenn Schwartz, a father of six, who runs the Salemville Greenhouse.

Schwartz wears a straw hat, blue coat and pants, taking in a beautiful, sunny day.

“The way things usually are, if you’re willing to work with your hands, there are jobs available,” he says.

Schwartz has dirt beneath his fingernails.

“We planted more vegetables,” Schwartz says.

“There has been more of a demand for that in recent years.”

Another business barometer in the community can be found at Mishler’s Country Store, where tourists peruse aisles filled with such items as chocolates, cake mixes and noodles.

Harry Mishler, who has owned the store in Dalton for 20 years, says regular customers are making fewer trips to the store and are buying staples in bulk, taking away things such as 50-pound sacks of potatoes, flour and oatmeal.

“We’re trying to keep prices down, but they seem to be creeping up,” he says.

Mishler says business slowed in January and February, but now, warmer weather is here.

The trickle of tourists has begun. Come late spring and summer, more will arrive, bringing their cash.