Pennsylvania Amish Communities That Failed (Maurice A. Mook, 1954)

In an earlier essay in which the ten present Old Order Amish communities in Pennsylvania were identified and located, it was stated that “No one knows how many times the Amish have unsuccessfully attempted to establish new communities … in the history of the Commonwealth.” Recent research at the Mennonite Publishing House Library at Scottdale has revealed evidence of more than a dozen now-extinct Amish communities in the state. These unsuccessful attempts of the Amish to establish colonies in Pennsylvania range from the early eighteenth century to the present year.

There are records of five Amish attempts to establish sectarian community life in southeastern Pennsylvania during he earliest years of their settlement in America. Only one of these communities survives to the present day. One of their first colonies was the “Northkill” settlement, established in the late 1730s near the present town of Hamburg, in northern Berks County. This frontier community, located some distance north of other settlements in southeastern Pennsylvania, was near a gap in the Blue Mountain range. The geographical isolation of its location and its proximity to the break in the mountain barrier exposed it to the Indian raids of the frontier fringe during the French and Indian War. Also the non-resistant faith of its Amish inhabitants made it an easy victim of such attacks. Had it not been for the Indian raids it might be quite confidently assumed that the colony would have been a successful venture. It was the largest southeastern Pennsylvania Amish settlement at the time of the Indian Massacre of 1757, which is usually regarded as having softened its success and prepared it for ultimate failure as a living community. Some of the Northkill families surviving these depredations are known to have receded southward to locations nearer the older, less isolated, and less exposed English and German settlements in the southeastern corner of the state.

There were several other small Amish local geographical groups south of Northkill during the middle years of the eighteenth century. I call them “geographical groups,” for there seems to be little evidence, other than tradition (unacceptable as historical evidence without corroborating proof) that two or three of these were ever organized as congregations, and it is uncertain as to whether these were sufficiently large or long-lasting to deserve the name “community.” There were, however, during these early years, small groups of Amish families in the Oley area, in Tulpehocken Valley, and on Maiden Creek in Berks County. There was also a larger group, formally organized as a congregation, near present Malvern, in eastern Chester County. The members of this community have the distinction of being the first Amish in America to build a “meeting house” for worship services, and its members also in other respects accepted “English” (non-Amish) ways. Today the group would be known as “Church” Amish, or “New Order,” to distinguish it from the more conservative congregations now commonly referred to as “House” or “Old Order” Amish. Characteristic Amish surnames are still decipherable on old tombstones in a cemetery near Malvern, and the foundations of the meeting house were still discernible in the late 1930s.

In addition to these unsuccessful community ventures, in the middle years of the eighteenth century the Conestoga congregation was established on the edge of the area the Amish still occupy in this portion of the state. This group grew in size and strength and developed into the thriving present Lancaster County Amish community. From the time of its origin and throughout the history of the Commonwealth, it has been the largest, strongest, and most vital of all Pennsylvania Amish settlements. It is, indirectly at least, the “mother colony” of all other historic and present-day Amish communities in the state, and it has been, moreover, the source of settlement of many Amish communities in other states of the United States. It is no longer the largest Amish settlement in the United States, as many articles still claim, but it remains one of the three largest local groups, the other two being the community in Holmes County and vicinity in east-central Ohio, and the settlement centering in Elkhart County, in northern Indiana.

Subsequent to the earliest southeastern settlements, the next congregations to be founded were three in present Somerset County, two of which are now extinct. The Amish joined the trans-Alleghenian westward movement, which resulted in a settlement in Somerset County which was started in 1767, and within approximately a decade three geographically distinct Amish communities were in existence in this area. These were the Conemaugh congregation in the northernmost section of the county, the “Glades” congregation farther south, and the Casselman River community still farther south, near the Pennsylvania-Maryland line. Of these three the latter group, now known as the “Meyersdale church,” is the only one to survive. It is currently a single congregation of some 200 members, which would indicate a community of from 500 to 600 inhabitants. It is the second oldest and third largest Old Order community in the state at the present time.

All three of these early Somerset settlements generously contributed members to newly established Amish communities in Ohio and the Middle West. The northern Somerset community included an individual who is perhaps the only Amishman to have his name embodied in the cultural geography of Pennsylvania. The city of Johnstown was in a sense founded by Joseph Schantz (later Yahns, Jahns and Johns), an Amishman who owned land where a part of Johnstown now stands, and who deposited a charter with county officers in which a town was laid out with land donated by him for streets and public buildings. Thus a man belonging to a religious sect strictly committed to a rural way of life chose the site of and provided for and stimulated the early development of one of our state’s larger cities.

Amish settlement in Mifflin County began in the early 1790s. This group grew steadily in size and also contributed heavily by emigration to Amish communities elsewhere. The pressure of population in this beautiful but limited valley led to the settlement of some Amish families on the Juniata River near present McVeytown, across Jacks Mountain marking the southern boundary of “Big Valley” (Kishacoquillas). The Amish congregation here was known as the “River Church.” Though only a few miles distant from the main body of Amish people in Kishacoquillas Valley, the trip over the mountain with team and buggy or wagon was difficult and time-consuming. This impediment to inter-community communication and visitation must have contributed to the failure of the river group as a separate community. Its church had an estimated membership of 29 in 1850; it had 79 members in 1900, according to a local resident; but it is now extinct as an Old Order community. Meanwhile the Big Valley group has increased from one church to eight church districts, which have a total reported membership of 606 for the current year. It is now and for some years has been the second largest Amish settlement in the Commonwealth.

The date of origin of the nineteenth century Amish community in Juniata County is unknown to the writer, but it may have been as early as the first decade of the century. In 1850 there were two organized churches, one in Lost Creek Valley, and one in Tuscarora (Creek) Valley, respectively north and south of the Juniata River in the vicinity of Mifflintown. In an Amish census for 1850, taken in 1900 and based upon the memory of Amish old-timers who claimed ability to remember back to 1850, it was estimated that there were 85 members in these two churches at mid-century. In 1900 one member of the church was listed for Tuscarora Valley and none for Lost Creek Valley. In 1950 the writer found several former farmer-neighbors of the Amish who could vaguely remember this Amish colony which apparently was abandoned in the late 1880s or early 1890s. It became extinct by deaths and by the removal of Amish families to adjoining Mifflin County and elsewhere. Several small old cemeteries north and east of Mifflintown have many weathered tombstones on which characteristic Amish first names and surnames can be distinguished. Joseph W. Yoder has given us an interesting picture of Amish life in Lost Creek Valley during the later years of the community’s existence (Rosanna of the Amish, chs. 3-6). It was the Lost Creek Valley community to which Rosanna and her mother moved from Halfmoon Valley in Centre County, and from which she and her parents later removed to Big Valley in Mifflin County.

Another Amish community that also failed in the late nineteenth century was the Buffalo Valley congregation, located in Union County a few miles northeast of Mifflinburg and northwest of Lewisburg. This congregation-community began in the 1830s and survived for some five decades, becoming extinct in the 1880s. Of all former but now extinct Amish communities in the history of Amish settlement in the United States, this is the best documented one in the literature of Mennonitism. Its church history, as well as the life and customs of its inhabitants, have been discussed in detail by Prof. John Umble of Goshen College, Indiana (Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. VII, 1933, pp. 71-96 and 162-190). Professor Umble’s forbears were members of this community.

Some sixty miles west of the Union County group and several decades earlier in time there existed during approximately the first forty years of the last century a small Amish community in Halfmoon Valley, twelve miles northwest of State College in Centre County. The Amish farms were near the present village of Stormstown. A small Amish cemetery (on the farm of Mr. Clarence Beck, R.D., Warriors Mark, Pa.) survives as one of the two material marks of the former community’s existence. On Mr. Beck’s farm there is also an old house with removable partitions between the rooms. It is reasonable to assume that it was occupied, and possibly built, by an Amish family, for this was an Amish practice by which the downstairs rooms of a house were connected with each other to facilitate worship services in the home. Dr. John A. Hostetler, himself of Amish derivation, has found well-known Amish surnames in the Centre County Court House records at Bellefonte which pertain to this group and which extend fro 1804 to 1840. These dates of deeds, sales of property, etc., probably approximately limit the period of Amish occupancy of Halfmoon Valley. Readers of Rosanna of the Amish may recall that Rosanna was born in this valley and that she and her foster mother moved from it to Lost Creek Valley toward the middle years of the past century.

In this another area of the state memory of two other now-extinct Amish communities has been brought to light by recent field work among surviving non-Amish residents of the region. During the depression years of the 1930s an Old Order Amish community of from 20 to perhaps 30 or even 40 families was located near Spartansburg in northeastern Crawford County. The community began in the early 1930s by families migrating from Ohio, and it ended in the late 1930s by the families returning to their areas of origin. This community, according to present non-Amish residents of the area (visited by the writer in the summer of 1951), expired largely as a victim of the Depression. It is possible also that certain personality conflicts among its residents contributed to its failure as a functioning group (cf. Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, March, 1954, pp. 33-46).

There was also during the same decade a short-lived small Amish community of five families and one adult, consisting of 24 persons in all, only 12 of whom were adult members of the church, located at Bear Lake in northwestern Warren County. All but one of the members of this community were relatives, which illustrates the kinship principle that has been so important as a factor in the genesis and growth of new Amish communities in the United States. A bishop (interviewed by the writer in Mercer County in 1952) led this group, which was a worship congregation throughout the difficult months of its existence. The small group was troubled by physical illness, as well as lonesomeness and homesickness, and after two winters and an intervening summer they abandoned their farms and returned to Ohio form which they had come in the first place. It is probably one of the smallest and most temporary colonies in the 250 years of Amish settlement in America. In addition to the psychological factors, inability to market crops and to pay for their farms during and due to the Depression caused the failure of this venture. (I have reported on the Bear Lake colony as a case-study in Amish community failure in the July, 1953 issue of the Mennonite Historical Bulletin.)

The final instance of failure to successfully maintain Amish community life known to the writer is a small group that abandoned its attempt in April of the present year. In August, 1949, a group of three families, two of whose heads were Old Order Amish church officials in the Enon Valley congregation in Lawrence County, moved to Brush Valley in Centre County, several miles northeast of Centre Hall. The colony never thrived and to my knowledge was never joined by additional families. Three families are not enough, of course, to successfully maintain congregational life. In April, 1954, two of these families left the area, thus terminating to date the historic series of unsuccessful attempts at new community colonization by the Amish people in Pennsylvania.

All recent attempts of the Amish to start new communities have not failed, however. Contrary to the experience of the recent Centre County group, two other Amish communities, started in the state within the past five years, are growing and seem to be firmly established, at least prospectively, as functioning groups. These are the Amish community in Snyder County, four miles west of Selinsgrove, and a new group which recently located in Juniata County, north of Mifflintown—in the very area where the nineteenth-century Lost Creek Valley community met defeat some 60 or 70 years ago.

Three of the ten Amish communities now in existence in Pennsylvania (those in Lancaster, Somerset, and Mifflin counties) have had a continuous history from the eighteenth century. These three are the largest and most solidly established Amish communities in the Commonwealth at the present time. Two more were established in the nineteenth century (New Wilmington and Enon Valley, both in Lawrence County), one of which has been a steadily growing group. The remaining five have come into existence since 1924. Seven of the ten have been established since 1800, which would contradict the assertion found in a recent article that “Not many Amish communities have been established since 1800.” Seven may not be “many,” but it is more than half of the total surviving group.

It is thus seen that there are more extinct Amish communities in the history of the state than there are successfully surviving ones. The extinct ones were, with two exceptions, small groups which lasted less than half a century. We thus see that in Amish community life the larger the group and the longer it lasts, the stronger and less susceptible to failure it comes to be. Size and age of the community present themselves as a kind of insurance against community decline and death. In Pennsylvania, at least, if an Amish community can survive its first half-century, it seems to develop a degree of immunity to failure. However, insurance is not assurance, of course, that a community may not ultimately fail.

In spite of the fourteen failures of the Amish to successfully colonize in Pennsylvania, one should resist entertaining an impression that the Amish type of Pennsylvania German culture is marked by debility and carries the germs of its own decay and death. As has been previously pointed out, there are more Amish communities, more Amish churches, and more individual members of Amish churches and communities now than ever before in the history of the sect in this state. The same is true of all other states in which the Amish are represented in appreciable numbers. The Old Order Amish way of life may be changing, perhaps with increasing rapidity, but their numbers are also steadily increasing, and there are currently certainly no signs of decrease in the rate of increase of this group.

Transcribed in 2022 by Richard Mammana from a 1954 typescript. Another version of this article appeared in The Morning Call (Allentown), on August 21, 1954. American Quaker professor Maurice Allison Mook (1904-1973) was a scholar of the Walapai tribe in Arizona, and wrote widely on American Indian history, Amish history, Quaker society, and Pennsylvania folklore. He retired from Penn State in 1968.

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Filed under Amish, Mennonite, Pennsylvania German

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