Wrinkle in time 

Mission Valley Amish slowly look ahead

Ed Beachy still tallies his sales at Montana Bird and Garden on a handheld calculator. His wares, nestled in a garage beneath the Mission Mountains outside Saint Ignatius, include seeds, animal feed, and fertilizer. Beachy also occasionally relies on the honor system, trusting customers to record their purchases in a spiral-bound notebook. The store doesn't have a website because, as a member of the Mission Valley's growing Amish community, Beachy isn't online.

The Amish have a saying: "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get." To Beachy, that applies well to rapid technological advancement. Mere acres away lies a world of computers, pickup trucks, barcodes, and iPhones. But here, change happens slowly and methodically.

"We have our standards, and it's a standard we all agree on," he says. "When we moved [to Saint Ignatius], we did not have fax machines. And we decided as a group that we needed fax machines to help us make a living in Montana. So now we have fax machines."

That gradual approach to change goes for community dynamics as well. Beachy moved to the Mission Valley in 1999, two years after the area's first Amish family had relocated from Rexford. As the years passed, the community grew, opening up shops, trades, even a restaurant—the Dinner Bell Bakery and Banquets. Buildings became too small for gatherings like weddings and funerals. The number of families has nearly doubled in the last six years.

So earlier this year, the Amish split into two districts, a north and a south. Each has approximately 15 families, Beachy says. They continue to share a single community center, built years ago to accommodate the expanding Amish population. The division just makes events easier to host. But even with this recent change, it's becoming clear that the Mission Valley has a limited carrying capacity. Property values have increased dramatically since the first families settled, as have the number of subdivisions in the area. There's less farmable land. It's reached a point where continued growth for the Amish community in Saint Ignatius doesn't appear feasible.

click to enlarge Ed Beachy of the Mission Valley’s Amish community keeps an eye out for grizzlies. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN

"The area's been subdivided considerably, and there's a lot of five-acre pieces, 10-acre pieces which we didn't have 15 years ago," says Saint Ignatius Fire Chief Ray Frey, a Mission Valley native. "Farming in the valley is dwindling pretty fast...There used to be a dozen dairies in the area; there's only one left now. There used to be two or three good-sized potato farms; there's none of them left. And as far as the stockgrowers, you could count them on one hand anymore."

The Mission Valley Amish have adapted to that altering economic landscape, and not just by getting on board with faxes. In stark contrast to the nation's large, agrarian-based Amish communities in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio, Beachy's community recognized a need for certain concessions a decade ago. They've phased-in electrical generators for commercial needs, turned primarily to trade-based business as farming has faded, and even opened the door for cell phone use among their construction crews, who mostly work jobs miles north in Polson.

"The one thing that is different here is you're kind of by yourself," says Beachy, who was raised Amish near Berlin, Ohio. "You don't have the interaction with other Amish people around you, because they aren't there. We're still basically abiding by the same principles we did back there, but in a small community, there's one thing we like about it: You learn to depend on each other more."

These adaptations have not come easy. Western Montana's Amish population has had to contend with the same environmental conflicts farmers and ranchers in the state have faced for more than a century. Grizzlies are their biggest problem to date, Beachy says as he scans the tree line at the base of the Missions through a pair of binoculars. The butcher here, Leroy Miller, keeps a coop for broiler chickens out in his field. At dusk, grizzlies will roam down from the mountains in search of easy food. Miller's tried numerous deterrents. But wildlife biologist Stacy Courville with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes says the majority of bear conflicts they had in the Mission Valley last year were in the Saint Ignatius area, at Amish homes.

The community has experienced its brushes with controversy as well. Dinner Bell Bakery and Banquets shut down in the fall of 2004 when the Montana Department of Environmental Quality linked the restaurant to a salmonella outbreak. The owners of the establishment were the seventh Amish family to settle in Saint Ignatius.

One major aspect that hasn't proved problematic for the Amish community is striking an accord with the local society. While they primarily remain detached in the interests of limiting exposure to the ills of the outside world, Frey says they do "mix and mingle." This July will mark the ninth annual Mission Valley Amish Auction, an all-day affair open to the public, one of a number of summer auctions hosted by the Amish.

"A lot of people in the community hire them to do work, quite a bit actually," Frey says. "They've actually melded into the area quite well."

That the Amish in Saint Ignatius have become a recognized segment of the valley's population doesn't diminish the uncertainty of the future, however. The Mission Valley is "economically maxed-out," Beachy says. There's no space for new carpenters, new butchers, new concrete mixers. It just doesn't pencil out. Having recently split, the community is now in the process of identifying a new location in the West to branch out to.

Yet as with all things, the Amish here are in no hurry.

"We have time," Beachy says. "Whether it takes one year, two years, we have time."

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