Let’s clear our minds of snow, closed interstates, raging creeks and rewind to a simpler time — a time that still exists. It’s pocketed in sleepy east central Ohio, where the land sways like gentle waves on the sea.
Holmes County, Ohio, has no four-lane highways, no railroad lines and no factories. The Amish make up 18,000 of its 44,000 people. The Amish don’t drive cars. They farm with horses. They light their homes with gas lanterns. They don’t have TV or phones. Women wear plain dresses and bonnets. Amish children attend school only through the eighth grade.
The county also includes 10,000 Mennonites, who follow similar religious beliefs but use electricity, drive cars and use modern farm machinery.
Yet business is booming in Holmes County, according to a recent story by reporter John Caniglia in The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s daily. After reading about all the wealthy folks who paid hucksters thousands to get their children into prestigious colleges, Holmes County and Caniglia’s story are as refreshing as the cries of the sandhill cranes after a brutal winter.
Caniglia writes, “Old World values have quietly fueled years of job growth, and the third-lowest unemployment rate in Ohio for the past decade.” Bearded Atlee Kaufman, the owner of Bent Wood Solutions in the village of Mt. Hope, told Caniglia that the county has “entrepreneurs who wake up early and go out and get things done.”
Mark Partridge, an economics professor at The Ohio State University, believes success lies in the population’s “We can do this” mindset. He writes, “Holmes County doesn’t try to hit home runs with big business. Instead, it hits singles with smaller businesses and keeps things moving around the bases.”
The county seat is Millersburg, a town where hitching posts are as common than parking meters. Tidy Amish farms and grazing Holsteins still dot much of Holmes County, but off-the-farm jobs have soared 200 percent since 1980. These are all small business jobs.
For example, Atlee Kaufman buys his lumber from a sawmill in Millersburg. His company dries the wood and steams it so it will bend to become a tabletop. The wood is then shipped two miles to a shop called Country View Oak, where its 14 employees turn that curved wood and other parts into a table. The table is driven to a nearby finishing shop and finally trucked to a furniture store in Cleveland or another large city.
Another area business, Crow Works, makes furniture for Starbucks and for LEON Restaurants in London, as in England.
Tourism is growing in Holmes County, too. When I lived in Cleveland, we’d escape to Holmes County several times a year. We’d get off the freeway and find wee two-lane roads and see farmers driving horse-drawn teams, and Amish laundry flapping on the clothesline. In the fall, we’d see corn shocks dotting the fields. In the late afternoon, we’d pull in to a little Amish restaurant in the village of Charm for the most scrumptious fried chicken and apple pie I’ve ever had.
About 20 years ago, when Hub agriculture reporter Lori Potter visited me in Cleveland, I took her to Middlefield, a heavily Amish area of Geauga County east of Cleveland, so she could interview an Amish farmer. He told her, with regret, how more and more young Amish men were leaving the farm and seeking jobs in town. It’s a cultural stab in the gut, he said.
Amish youth go to school through the eighth grade. Then they work side by side with their fathers, farming, building barns and other so-called menial work and absorbing lessons from their fathers that schools can’t teach.
Thinking about that and the educational bribery scandal, I think the rest of the nation has something to learn.