CAPTION: Hay bales in the highly reclusive Amish settlement of Ethridge, Tennessee.
Tennessee isn’t exactly a state that makes the top of most peoples’ lists when they think of “Amish country.” But as someone who studies Amish culture I’ve noticed that Tennessee is home to some more offbeat Plain communities and connections. I'm not sure whether this is just anecdotal coincidence or whether there's an undercurrent of offbeat that attracts a different sort of Plain to the Volunteer state. Some examples of some of the Tennessee Plain quirkiness follow:
COOKEVILLE, DECATUR, and DELANO, TN: This is where Amish leader Elmo Stoll chose to start his experiment of a Utopian “Christian community.” The idea was to draw disaffected Plain people from the Amish, Mennonite, and German Baptist churches along with Seekers from outside to live harmoniously in one settlement. The settlement was started in 1990 and disbanded after Elmo Stoll’s death in 1998. No trace remains of the settlement in Cookeville and I am town the people that remained in Delano eventually affiliated with the Scottsville, Kentucky Mennonites.
LOBELVILLE: this is a group of Amish that seems to have split off from the mainline church. Other Amish in Pearisburg, Virginia have split off from that group and affiliated themselves with the Lobelville group. The Lobelville Amish men have mustaches, something uncommon in the church and they do have some people in the congregation that drive a van. I've heard that this group has a similar philosophical outlook as Elmo Stoll's Christian communities and that outsiders are welcome to come to this church. Someone has a Flickr account with some fascinating photos from Lobelville. You can tell that this is not a typical Old Order settlement by the style of beard and head-coverings. Here is another blog where someone shared photos from Lobelville, again, shows a more hardscrabble settlment.
MUDDY POND: A reader with ties to the area shared most of this information with me. There used to be some Old Order Mennonites here but I understand they have resettled in the more established Scottsville, KY community. Some of the remaining Plain families in Muddy Pond came from Canada, the Waterloo area, Some of them have connections to Pennsylvania as well. One of the churches in Muddy Pond is affiliated now with The Charity Fellowship churches. Another is Holdeman. There were a few smaller groups meeting in homes, too. The status of those groups is unclear. I’m told that some of the people there do use cell phones, computers, and even televisions. Some do not want their photos taken, while others are OK with it. Some still use wood cookstoves but also have a modern kitchen. Some have electricity in their houses yet they also still use oil lamps. As recently as 10 years or so ago, there was still one older couple who drove a horse and buggy.. This community has websites etc and they produce sorghum and go to a multitude of festivals etc to promote their product. The bandana head-coverings are common. I had heard of Muddy Pond before but it came back on my radar this past weekend when I posted a video link to 90-year-old Katie Troyer yodeling.
BEEVILLE, TEXAS: the quirky, isolated Amish settlement outside Beeville, Texas was founded by Truman Borntrager who came to the area from...guess where? Tennessee. The Beeville settlement has struggled to attract many people and today largest consists of the extended Borntrager family.
ETHRIDGE, TENNESEE: This is in many ways a typical Swartzentruber Amish community, but the ideology is so conservative here that photos even of gardens or horse-drawn buggies are typically forbidden.
BANGOR, MAINE: the bizarre tale back in 2007 of Danl and Ruanna Yoder showing up in Bangor, Maine claiming to be "Scots Amish" and wanting to start a settlement there has its roots in,yes, Tennessee.
My guess is that all of the above is partly just coincidence, but I also think that geography is playing a role. Tennessee is sort of the southern edge of the large Amish/Mennonite diaspora. The state is accessible and close, but just off everyone's radar enough that people with Plain persuasions can go down there and sort of experiment. Land in rural Tennessee is cheap and the climate is agreeable, all factors in Tennessee's "quirky Plain" claim.