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Wooster Digital History Project

The Struggle with Modernity (Part 1): Resistance

Amish Horse-drawn Tractor

Horse-farming is still predominant in Amish agriculture.

The second half of the twentieth century marked a turbulent time for the Amish. The period witnessed major changes in the face of American agriculture, away from small-scale, family farms into the era of corporate-scale mechanization. The Amish, a people known for their determined resistance against changes, did not emerge from this difficult time unscathed.1

Two particular innovations that the Amish strongly resisted are tractors and electrification. In the 1940s, when most American farmers had switched to tractor-farming, the Amish were still sticking to their famous way with horses. However, their opinion was not unanimous when it came to other new farm technology. Agricultural implements like the steel plow and garden tiller were highly controversial.Many church bishops were not sympathetic with this trend. Some cited the transparency of farming as the reason. Because farming practices were visible to the community, all the values and regulations governing Amish agriculture would also be public, rendering it even more resistant to change. Any modifications of these core values were a threat to the Amish identity.3

Amish Horse and Buggy

The horse and buggy, an Amish trademark. The use of different materials like rubber tires and LED lights sparked much tension among different Amish affiliations.

The combination of economic and demographic pressures of the last century squeezed many Amish off the farm. The population explosion left families with scarcely any farmland for their children. Urbanization caused skyrocketing land prices, making farming an expensive enterprise, even on a small scale.4 In the Wayne-Holmes settlement, more than two-thirds of Amish men have left the plows behind.5 Forced off the farm, they had to seek employment in various other fields like factory work and business management.6 Working off farm is a negotiated choice for many Amish women. Some churches are opposed to women leaving home for work. In families that still work together on the farm, when the husbands took off-farm jobs, the wives were often required to make up for their work; meanwhile, if the women left home for work, their on-farm responsibilities remained unchanged.7 For a highly conservative group like the Amish, modernization brings inevitable changes that threaten not only their means of livelihood but also their cultural identity, what has long been shielding them from the outside world.

1 John A. Hostetler, Amish Society, 4th ed (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 129-131.
2 Donald B. Kraybill and Marc Alan Olshan, eds., The Amish Struggle with Modernity (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994), 71.
3 Donald B. Kraybill, Karen Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt, The Amish (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 277.
4 Ibid., 279.
5 Ibid., 281.
6 John A. Hostetler, Amish Society, 4th ed (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 136-137.
7 Kimberly D. Schmidt, “‘Sacred Farming’ or ‘Working Out’: The Negotiated Lives of Conservative Mennonite Farm Women,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 22, no. 1 (March 2001): 83.