“The novelty of farming these prairie lands [in North Dakota], where several four- to six-horse teams were needed, wore off after a number of years, and a desire for farming on a smaller scale grew more or less on some of us. The cheap cutover lands of northern Wisconsin appealed to me, and I made a trip there in the winter of 1906.[…] We had a most pleasant home in Wisconsin, with the buildings on the banks of one of the most beautiful lakes, of about 100 acres in extent. We had the best and kindest and most helpful neighbors imaginable. All in all, I still consider the six years we spent in northern Wisconsin the most congenial of my life.”
So wrote Eli J. Bontreger (1868–1958), an Amish bishop who moved to Sawyer County in 1909, the location of Wisconsin’s first Amish settlement. This community disbanded in 1927, but the Amish presence continued with the Medford settlement in Taylor County, which was founded in 1920. In the 1960s, Amish migration to the Badger State began to pick up such that today, numbering just over 21,000, Wisconsin has the fourth-largest population among 31 US states and four Canadian provinces. Wisconsin is also home to approximately 5,000 Old Order Mennonites, as well as smaller numbers of Kauffman Amish Mennonites, other Mennonite groups, and Old German Baptist Brethren.
Amish and Mennonites trace their roots to the Anabaptist movement, which began in Switzerland in 1525 during the early years of the Reformation. All Anabaptists practice believer’s (adult) baptism and nonviolence. The Amish branched off from the Swiss Mennonites in 1693, with members of both groups migrating shortly thereafter to colonial Pennsylvania. Later waves of Amish and Swiss-German Mennonites came to the US in the first half of the 19th century, with most settling in the Midwest. Today there are no Amish left in Europe.
Although many Amish families across North America no longer depend on farming as their main source of income, approximately 58 % of Wisconsin’s Amish families are involved in agriculture, and over half of them have dairy herds. Occupations connected in some way with Wisconsin’s timber industry are also common among the state’s Amish and Mennonite populations.
Amish in Wisconsin have occasionally become involved in disputes with local and state authorities over a variety of matters, including building codes, road safety, and most famously education. In 1960, the Medford Amish set up their own parochial schools after the local school district required all children to watch educational movies. Then in 1968, three Amish fathers in the New Glarus settlement were arrested for allowing their children to stop their formal education after eighth grade, which was in violation of the state law mandating school attendance until age 16. Four years later, the US Supreme Court, in the Wisconsin v. Yoder decision, sided unanimously with the Amish in what became a landmark ruling for religious freedom in America.
Additional Reading on “Amish and Mennonites”
Amish Studies website maintained by the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.
Who Are the Amish? Wisconsin Alumni Association presentation by Mark L. Louden, Professor of German, UW-Madison, November 2013.