The Amish have attempted five times during the twentieth century to develop communities in Arkansas. All five began with high expectations of other Amish joining them and establishing roots in the state nicknamed the “Land of Opportunity.” Although Amish were once scattered throughout the state, only a few Old Order Amish live in the state in the twenty-first century.
The Amish can trace their roots back to the 1500s and the Anabaptist tradition. The Anabaptists were separatists who developed their own communities, believed in adult water baptism, and practiced pacifism. The men wore beards while the women wore long dresses and head coverings. One of their more controversial practices was that of shunning, the practice of avoiding and not speaking to a disobedient member.
The Amish speak a mixture of German and English, commonly referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch. The majority of Amish are farmers and live in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, although the Amish have communities in twenty-two states and total approximately 150,000 members. They tend to have large families with between six and twelve children who help in the families’ work. Since the Amish typically reject modern machinery as well as electricity and telephones, in addition to government assistance like Social Security, they depend heavily on the strength of their community for support and inner socialization. Their belief that modern conveniences tend to separate the family unit and that interdependency on one another is crucial to their survival have helped the Amish to retain their distinctiveness and allowed them to continue to grow numerically.
The Amish primarily live in Northern states but at times have ventured to Southern and Western states and have several communities in countries in South America and elsewhere. In Arkansas, there were five separate efforts from 1927 to the 1980s to establish communities of Amish.
The first attempt at settlement was in the area of Stuttgart (Arkansas County) in 1927 when a number of Amish families moved to an area where there were already many German-speaking families. Several things drew the Amish to Arkansas, but the primary attraction was inexpensive land. Since the Amish are primarily farmers, and since population growth throughout America raised the cost of land, especially in Northern states, the Amish were forced to look to other areas where they could raise their families. Arkansas’s warmer climate, abundant water and land, and generally more conservative populace seemed to provide an ideal place for the Amish to start new communities.
The first attempt at Stuttgart experienced problems from the beginning. The land in Arkansas was not as fertile as the Amish were used to, and learning new farming methods took time. Rice was a new crop to the Amish, and during their first year there was a severe drought, along with several tornadoes that destroyed some of their buildings. Perhaps the final measure that ended the short-lived community was coming of the Great Depression. The First State Bank of Stuttgart closed, and along with many others, the Amish lost most of their savings. These factors as well as the death of their religious leader (referred to as a bishop) led most of the families to return to their homes in the North. However, one family moved from Stuttgart to Nettleton (Craighead County), near Jonesboro (Craighead County) in the northeastern part of the state. This area had better land and promised a better opportunity for a community. However, in spite of several attempts to get other Amish to move to the area, only a couple of others relocated there, and by 1934, the community had died, lasting less than two years.
The third community was near St. Joe (Searcy County), in the Ozark Mountains, and began with eight families buying land and moving to the area in the early 1950s. This community had a mixture of Amish families that were not all from the same area and held some different beliefs and practices from each other. While this community lasted nearly twenty years, it was never the close-knit community common to the Amish. Some in the group tended to hold more Mennonite views (a more liberal sect of Anabaptists), wearing mustaches (rather than just beards) and allowing some of their children to attend public school. Eventually a number of this group returned to Northern states, but some families moved to Belize and British Honduras in South America in search of inexpensive land and less encroachment from the outside world. By the early 1960s, no traces of the St. Joe community could be found.
The fourth community, at Vilonia (Faulkner County), was perhaps the most successful. Sixteen families from Iowa eventually settled in Vilonia from 1959 to 1965, and a number of children were born to this community. The Vilonia Amish interacted with the community, even allowing some of their children to attend the public school (with strict guidelines), while some of the men worked in the area as carpenters. Most members of this group were related to each other, which, along with several years of bad crops and the lack of eligible young people for marriage, resulted in most of the families moving back to Iowa. The only reminders of the Vilonia settlement are the grave of one baby girl who died there, located in the city cemetery, and one Amish house that still stands on a country road.
The fifth and last attempt at settlement in Arkansas occurred in McRae (White County), about forty miles northeast of the Vilonia settlement. One of the members of the Vilonia settlement decided to return to Arkansas in 1975 and chose a rural farming area near McRae. Several families moved to the area and had good relationships with the community. For about thirteen years, the settlement was active and had its own school and church. This settlement encountered similar problems as the Vilonia settlement, and most of the McRae families returned to larger Amish communities in the North. One of the Amish women in McRae left her husband and remained in the community, eventually marrying a non-Amish person.
Groups of Amish made several attempts at settling in Arkansas, but, in the end, social isolation from other Amish, concern for the future of their young people, and natural hardships proved problematic. As of 2010, however, three Old Order Amish live in Fulton County, Arkansas, having moved from Tennessee.
For additional information:
Heide, John J. “The Amish Settlement at Vilonia.” Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings 41 (Spring/Summer 1999): 23–29.
Hostetler, John. Amish Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
McKnight, Ruth. “The Quaint and the Devout: A Study of the Amish at Vilonia, Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 23 (Winter 1964): 314–328.
Nolt, Steven M. A History of the Amish. Rev. ed. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2003.
Crowder College and Drury University
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