The Amish settlements of Nappanee and Shipshewana are less than an hour apart and a three-hour drive north of Indianapolis. The flat, almost treeless landscape is home to horse stables and barns, white wooden houses, antiquated farming equipment, and nearly 30,000 Amish. Regardless of the decade, these communities seem to remain constant in appearance.
Permissible technology for the Amish varies by community depending on the bishop—the local religious leader who determines the rules. Some, like Northern Indiana’s Amish, allow gas to power washing machines and indoor lighting, or business owners to use cell phones and email at work. Generally, though, modern technology beyond work purposes is prohibited, and no matter how progressive the community, operating a motor vehicle, even for work, is out of the question.
But there’s more than meets the eye, and it doesn’t take much time in the area to take notice—the number of RVs such as motorhomes, fifth-wheel trailers, and travel trailers.
According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), RV manufacturing is a $50 billion business in the United States, employing nearly 300,000 Americans. Most of the RVs in the U.S.—over 80 percent—are made in Northern Indiana.
The Amish in this region don’t just live near the RV epicenter—they’re building the vehicles. According to Steve Nolt, Senior Scholar at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, most of the Amish men under 65 work in factories. The majority of these manufacturing plants either assemble RVs or supply parts such as cabinets or windows.
Unlike other Amish communities across the U.S., Northern Indiana Amish have always had some relationship to the outside world. After they came to the region in the 1840s, they didn’t live in such close proximity to non-Amish as they do now, but they were never isolated.
When most Amish men were farmers, it was common for them to work seasonally with non-Amish in town, on more traditional things like cabinet making or carpentry, or even making cigar boxes, boats, and band instruments.
So when Milo Miller started the first RV manufacturer in Elkhart County in 1933, it wasn’t out of the realm for Amish to begin participating in the seasonal work it offered. And there were a numerous opportunities to participate in this industry. Miller’s company quickly started to attract more suppliers and manufacturers to the region.
By 1948, Elkhart County had already been dubbed the “RV Capital of the World” and continued to supply America’s post-war demand for affordable recreation.
But, how did the RV situation shift from a seasonal job for some of the Amish, to employing over half of the men in the Northern Indiana Amish settlement?
The big reason was a shift in the 1980s that pushed the Amish—and other farmers across the U.S. and Canada—from the farms into the factory. By the time the 1980s Farm Crisis hit, Amish families had already grown larger and larger, and there were fewer opportunities for them to own land. Today, most people who own farms inherited them. Buying land and farming is not only out of most people’s price ranges, but it’s a tough business to compete with America’s mega-farms.
The strong RV industry provided jobs for Northern Indiana’s Amish once farming was no longer a plausible option for many men in the settlement. Year-round, Amish men go into work at 4:00-5:00 am, riding into town on a bike or in a buggy, and working until they complete their day’s quota. The faster they work, the sooner they go home.
In Newmar’s Nappanee factory, for example, once workers finish eight RVs, they’re done for the day. Some might not even have to work a full eight-hour day, and wages are relatively high—reported to be around $4,000 a month and up.
The RV industry in northern Indiana has long been a benefit to the local communities, Amish and non-Amish, as well as depended on the strong workforce the region provided. The Amish factory workers, who otherwise would never have contact with motor vehicles, are doing fast-paced physical labor and reaping the economic benefits, but not without a cost.
Less time on the fields means more time with families and more money means the ability to buy expensive land—something that the community is grateful for. The critics, though, are quick to point out their skepticism. They have to ask, “Where’s this going to end up at?”
The Amish are islands of sanity in a whirlpool of change.
—Nancy Sleeth, Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life