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Urbanization wreaks havoc on
Amish culture in Pennsylvania.

By J. Zane Walley
Amishman John King © J. Zane Walley
Amishman John King has quietly stood his ground for property rights for 30 years. His family has lost its battle to keep its woodworking shop in urbanized East Lampeter Township. © J. Zane Walley
There isn’t much country left in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County. The rolling hills and charming farms of the once verdant county have largely become a repugnant sprawl of stamped-out tract homes and townhouses. Many of the magnificent old homesteads for which this county is famous have been ungraciously converted into “Green Acres” bed and breakfast accommodations for the millions of sightseers who flock to enjoy the “country” ambiance. Most tourists visit Lancaster County to gain a glimpse into the lives of the most famous residents, the Amish.

Clearly, the “plain folk” as the Amish refer to themselves, are highly unhappy about becoming a tourist attraction. Amishman Elmo Stoll in Brad Igou’s book, “The Amish In Their Own Words,” explains their view of why they have become so popular. “The world is desperate for something to satisfy its hunger, some answer to its search for meaning in life, wanting something external to base faith upon, something to see and touch and handle. While they focus upon our beards and buggies and bonnets, they miss entirely what our faith is all about.”

As subdivision-driven real estate values have soared, so have the reprehensibly high Pennsylvania property and death taxes. Farming is placed beyond the reach of young Amish people who want to remain in the community. Stoll fully understands the harm that urbanization wreaks on their culture. “The high cost of living, or perhaps it would be more correct to say the cost of living high, makes it difficult to start farming today and to keep on farming. As far back as we can go in the history of our people, we find they were an agricultural people. In the Old Testament the Israelites, too, were an agricultural people, as can be seen by the many laws and commandments which were given them, nearly all based on a rural people.”

With the numbing leap in land prices, many Amish have turned to shops and home businesses simply because the cost of farming was too high. An acre of land devoted to a craft store can raise more cash than an acre of field corn. They may agree that farming is still the best place for a family if possible, but if not, a business at home is certainly better than a factory job.

In the maelstrom of the commercialization of Amish culture, the plain folk struggle to remain steadfast in their convictions. To Amish, the idea of separation from the modern world and nonconformity to its ways are stated clearly in the New Testament: “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed.” They believe that “worldliness” keeps one from being close to God, so they choose to live without modern conveniences and technology, such as cars and television. Rather than use electricity, they have bottled-gas stoves and refrigerators and travel largely by horse and buggy.

It isn’t a pastoral Currier & Ives scene. The buggies precariously dodge in and out of thick traffic or wait their turn in bumper-to-bumper lines of automobiles while harried by camera-wielding tourists and impatient urban commuters.

Along with massive urbanization and a transition to new occupations, products, and markets, the Amish have been faced with a new breed of trouble that they are ill-equipped to deal with because of their religious doctrine of “nonresistance.” The nonresistance belief springs from many verses in the New Testament, notably: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

A prominent Amish-American writer, Philip Mauro, in 1917 warned his people of coming problems, quoting Matthew 24:9: “They shall lay hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons.” Mauro could have never theorized that the threat would come from something as benign sounding as a zoning board.

The zoning board in Lancaster County’s Lampeter Township is rigorously inflexible in creating a stately and charming milieu in their dominion of authority. As Amishman John King found out, woe to those who do not obey their dictates.

King’s family has lived in Lancaster County almost 300 years. The first Amish arrived in the early 1700s to take part in William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” of religious freedom. They called the place “Penn’s Woods” or “Pennsylvania,” and among them was Jonathan King, John King’s forefather and namesake. The Kings came to America from Europe to escape religious persecution where they were hunted down, asked to recant, had their children taken, were threatened, exiled, tortured, sold into slavery, branded, burned at the stake, drowned, or dismembered.

All John King’s ancestors tilled the fertile soil of Lancaster County. Its farmland beauty was heightened under almost 300 years of careful husbandry by the Amish and other plain folk religious sects. It was the number one agricultural producer among all nonirrigated counties in the nation, with its 4,930 farms pouring out $930 million in dairy, meat and grain products.

King spent his youth working his father’s farm with a team of mules. After marrying Sarah in 1959, the couple purchased a small place in what is now Lampeter Township. Even in those years, land was becoming high-priced and scarce, so John and Sarah opened a small woodworking shop in 1960 and began crafting cabinets in the barn. They toiled hard and they prospered. As King says, “It is our way. We work long hours six days each week and we reserve Sunday to honor the Sabbath and worship the Lord.”

As John and Sarah’s business grew, émigré suburbanites began filling the land around them. The urban sprawl eventually encircled their home and shop. By this time the business had several employees. Delivery trucks brought material needed to make the furniture and hauled the finished products to distant markets. The Kings’ shop outgrew the barn and they began storing manufacturing materials outside behind the building.

The newly arrived city refugees began grumbling about the shop’s appearance and activity and complaining their properties were being somehow devalued. They ignored that the shop was right before their eyes when they made their investment.

The Kings’ three-decade nightmare began after East Lampeter Township enacted zoning laws in 1970. The Kings’ woodshop was supposed to be legally exempted or “grandfathered” because it was in place before the zoning was implemented. But in ’72 the ordeal started with a small wall and an enclosure in front of the barn/shop. John King believed that he had complied with the regulations, but after he completed the construction a zoning officer told him the permit was not legal and he had to tear down the wall. King dutifully agreed to do so.

In 1975 he received an order not to use his land behind the barn for materials and storage. He spoke with a township supervisor who disagreed with the order and told King he could use it. However, another “discontinue use” notice arrived and again King began to clean up the storage area. Seemingly ignoring the fact that he was discontinuing use, the township took him to court and fined him.

Thus began years of legal actions by the township in which he was bounced between township meetings, township supervisors, attorneys, and zoning officials. The incessant legal battles slowly transformed the Amishman from one who did not even believe in appearing in court into a citizen determined to stand up for his rights. He differed with the township’s rulings against his property and livelihood and due to his nature he ignored them and got on with his work. For this, he was charged with “a flagrant, callous, and willful disregard for the authority of the court.” The gray-haired old gentleman was to be ordered “imprisoned until he purged his contempt by complying with the Orders of the Court.” He complied merely to get out of jail.

In 1976 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources and OSHA stormed the tiny business. King believes the raid was set up by the township. In King’s own words, “They wanted to put us out of business.”

The dispute became so bitter that the township even alleged that King was not Amish. That occurred after he filed a discrimination civil rights action against them, in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. He contends, “The Constitution and civil rights

The township’s
unlimited finances
eventually ground
Amishman John King
down. The tariff has
been severe. Almost
three decades of standing
up for what he sees
as his constitutional
rights have ruined
him financially
and physically.
Amishman John King © J. Zane Walley
John King visits Pennsylvania’s capital to seek justice. He contends, “The Constitution and civil rights laws have been ignored and bypassed by the Lancaster County Court and East Lampeter Township officials and zoning boards because of retaliation, grudges and hate. They lied and lied in court. They singled us out because we are Amish. Because of our nonresistance belief, they believed they could run us over.”

laws have been ignored and bypassed by the Lancaster County Court and East Lampeter Township officials and zoning boards because of retaliation, grudges and hate. They lied and lied in court. They singled us out because we are Amish. Because of our nonresistance belief, they believed they could run us over.”

These sound like the words of an embittered man, but the credibility of King’s allegations against the Lampeter system was strengthened because of remarkable recent events in Lancaster County that cast enormous doubt on the honesty of those courts and law enforcement.

“Lancaster County made a Faustian bargain. By trying to execute an innocent woman, it lost its soul,” wrote Federal Judge Stewart B. Dalzell.

In December 1997, Dalzell, an eloquent, erudite appointee of former President George Bush, freed convicted murderer Lisa Lambert. He stated that her trial had been “extravagantly corrupted by prosecutorial misconduct.” Judge Dalzell said in his decision that Ms. Lambert had been a victim, in 25 proven instances, where prosecutors and the police had fabricated, hidden and destroyed evidence, tampered with witnesses and offered perjured testimony. The crucial evidence against Lambert, to which Judge Dalzell referred, was produced by the chief detective of East Lampeter Township.

More stories casting doubt on the integrity of Lancaster officials began to surface. In March of 1999, Daniel Groff, a member of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union and junkyard owner publicly committed suicide when zoning officials sent a contractor to haul his merchandise away and a conflict ensued. His suicide occurred after a two-decade battle against zoning officials in Lancaster County. He, too, claimed harassment by zoning officials. Unbelievably, Groff had been arrested, charged and convicted of arson in that county for burning his own car on his property. Like King, Groff contended that he was “grandfathered” because his business existed before zoning regulations.

Other reports concerning a mentally challenged brother and sister who committed suicide rather than be forced from their “nonconforming” mobile home in Lancaster County are currently being investigated by Pennsylvania property rights groups.

The decision by the King family to resist, to stand up for their rights has taken a dreadful personal toll on the family. With downcast eyes, John dispiritedly says that he has “separated” from the church because members of the Old World Amish group thought “poorly” of his actions. He still practices the Amish ways but he and his family seem to be outside of the principal Amish community.

John King has been forbidden by court order to conduct business on his property. Recently he and Sarah filed bankruptcy and he has suffered several heart attacks and a nervous breakdown. Adding to the troublesome burden the elderly gentleman carries, East Lampeter Township has asked to be exempted from the bankruptcy, leaving the Kings to face the possibility of losing all that they own.

None of us will feel the depth of hopelessness that John King feels as he sees his world crumbling because of others who do not share his view of constitutional rights and those who refuse to stand up. Because of the silent, nonresistive nature of the Amish community there is no way to measure the impact of forcing the property of all to fit the mold of sheltered uniformity.

John King remains a man of powerful faith and rests the case with his God. He thumbs through a worn Bible and reads from Ezekiel: “The prince must not take any of the inheritance of the people, driving them off their property.”

Author’s Note: I was honored to visit with John King. While others have made noise about standing for property rights, he has, with no support from anyone, quietly stood his ground for almost 30 years. He is cut from the same peaceful but sturdy cloth of his forefathers who would not renounce their faith in the face of imprisonment or worse. When a man like John King loses his rights, we all lose some of our freedom. He inspired me to break out the good book and do a bit of reading on my own. To his gentle reading from Ezekiel, I would add a stout one from Kings, Chapter XXI:19: “Thus saith the Lord, Hast thou killed, and also taken possession? And thou shalt speak unto him, saying, Thus saith the Lord, In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine.”

This article was supported by a grant from Paragon Foundation, a constitutional nonprofit organization with emphasis on property rights and public education. To receive more information on Paragon including the monthly newsletter and how you can help continue the battle for our rights, please call toll-free 1-877-847-3443.

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last page update: 04.03.05