Amish finding a home well off the beaten path in Nebraska’s Sandhills

Amish finding a home well off the beaten path in Nebraska’s Sandhills

Turn south onto the blacktop out of this Cherry County ranch town, and the Sandhills seem to roll on for an eternity.

“Wide-open spaces” aptly describes the endless prairie, where cowboys still work cattle on horseback and stargazers come to get away from city lights.

You’re lucky to encounter another vehicle on the lonely, one-lane road lined by yuccas and little bluestem.

But 15 miles down the narrow route, where the road descends into the Niobrara River valley, a group of Amish newcomers from Michigan and Kentucky are setting down roots.

“Itchy feet’
This isn’t traditional Amish country – that’s the eastern U.S., home to smaller farms, dairies, lush green pastures and castle-like barns, not the dusty Sandhills dotted with black beef cattle.

The bishop of the small-but-growing settlement south of Kilgore says his band is getting used to the omnipresent cockleburs and deer flies, the sandier soil and the dearth of nearby “Amish taxi” drivers who can give his people a lift to stores in Valentine, a 40-mile drive away.

Reuben Miller, the 46-year-old bishop of the Kilgore Amish community, said their draft horses aren’t quite acclimated yet to the drier grasses of the Sandhills, but they’re getting there.

“I’ve had itchy feet for a long time, and I like the West,” Miller said. “I wanted to get away from people.”

Dressed in the traditional, homemade trousers, suspenders and straw hat favored by the Amish, Miller described how he and his brothers sold a 160-acre farm on a busy corner near Holton, Michigan, and moved earlier this year to a 5,038-acre ranch along the Niobrara River south of Kilgore.

 The settlement, which includes Miller’s family of 13, may eventually grow to 15 to 20 families. That would be enough to rival the second-largest community in Cherry County: Cody, population 167.   

Miller said he was seeking a place with plenty of water and a place that wasn’t flat. He joked that a related Amish settlement in Lewiston, Montana, is so flat “you can watch a dog run for two days, and if you stand up on a bucket, for another three days….”

He said his group has been “blessed and pleased” by the friendly reception they’ve gotten from the local community. In Montana, it wasn’t so pleasant, Miller said.

Concerned about being ‘interlopers’

“That’s one of the concerns we had,” he said. “In a way, we’re interlopers – we’re bringing 15 to 20 families, and it’s going to change the landscape.”

Erik Wenser, who writes about Amish settlement and customs via the Amish website, said such communities are spreading and expanding across the country, even into remote locations like Nebraska’s Sandhills.

The traditional Amish homelands in Pennsylvania and Ohio are becoming too crowded, Wenser said, and fatal accidents involving Amish horse-drawn buggies are becoming too commonplace.

Miller said an accident that injured one of his sons played a role in his group’s move. 

Wenser said Amish settlements are now in 32 states, totaling an estimated 367,000 people.

At least six Amish groups are in Nebraska, he said, with settlements in Dawes and Frontier Counties among the newest, established in 2020.

Attempts by the Amish to make a home in the Cornhusker State date back to the 1880s, when a group settled near Bertrand in south-central Nebraska. But that community eventually was abandoned.

The Amish returned in 1977, establishing a community near Pawnee City, but that group also eventually left to avoid a court battle over its home schooling practices. 

Pawnee City, Verdigre areas

But since 2003, Amish groups have set down roots near Verdigre, again in Pawnee City and in the Ewing/Orchard areas. Signs alerting motorists to watch out for Amish buggies have gone up there, as well as along roads in Dawes County.

All told, Wenser estimates that nearly 450 Amish call Nebraska home. They vary in adhering to the old ways. Some conservative Amish avoid almost all modern conveniences and even taking rides in vehicles, while “new order” Amish are OK with using power tools and tractors.

“There are a lot of types and flavors of Amish that you put under this horse and buggy umbrella,” he said. 

The new Kilgore settlement, Wenser said, is part of the “Michigan Amish Fellowship” or “Michigan Circle,” a “reformist” network of 33 settlements that has expanded across Michigan, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Montana and Wyoming.

Their practices include allowing a telephone in their homes. Some also worship in a community hall, while other Amish groups hold church services in their homes. 

At the Kilgore settlement, tractors sit parked outside the bishop’s home — a former ranch headquarters a few yards from the Niobrara — along with a fat-tire bike that Miller uses to navigate the soft, sandy roads.

Miller said the tractors cannot be used to pull planters and other farm implements — that’s job for draft horses. The tractors are used for lifting heavy loads.

The bishop has a landline phone in his home, along with a fax machine that can translate faxes into emails. The settlement allows the use of power tools, but only if they are battery-powered. There’s also a solar panel on the barn near Miller’s home.

Nearby sits a hay baler (Miller says it’s the group’s only brand-new implement) and a rusty horse trailer that he says will earn a tidy profit once his group has it repaired and refurbished.

“We’re all about spending our money wisely,” he said.

No spending on vacations

The Amish eat food they grow and can from their own gardens and make their own clothes, which are washed by hand and dried on clotheslines.

There are no lavish vacations, Miller said.

“We don’t do stuff like going to the Bahamas — you’re not going to see us there,” he said.

“Same with that place in Nevada,” he added, referring to Las Vegas.

The group is not without money — they paid $9.65 million for the 5,038 acres of land they purchased along the Niobrara River, according to Cherry County records.

Wenser, who documents Amish life, said some Amish are quite wealthy, via regular saving and regular work. And the Kilgore group likely got a high price for its land in Michigan, where farmland prices average about $6,400 an acre.

Added Miller, “We go to work every day.”

The Kilgore Amish have established two businesses so far, one for saw sharpening and another for producing log-home kits. Brand-new sheds sit along the gravel road for one business, and on a high hill, workers prepare a log home for shipment.

Miller said his group has had to travel long distances for some jobs, but their ultimate goal is to provide jobs at the settlement, so they can be close to their families.

That is the ultimate goal for the Amish, according to Wesner — to be home, with their children.

“The Amish want their kids to have land and a farm,” he added.

That often translates, Wesner said, into purchases of land in scenic areas, like along the Niobrara, and in areas that provide good hunting.

Not Opposed to Society

Miller said that the Amish are opposed to “modernism” and that living a simple life is part of their culture.

There are no televisions at the settlement.

“The less I hear about (the outside world), the better off I am,” Miller said, though he added that the Amish “are not opposed to society.”

“We need them,” he said, holding a battery-operated drill as he spoke.

A century ago, Miller said the Amish and the rest of society used about the same technology, but when steam engines and other modern advancements arrived, the Amish stuck with traditional ways.

“Look what has happened to family, what has happened to integrity,” he said of modern conveniences.

Nearby residents said the Amish have been a welcome addition to the area, particularly due to their willingness and skill to do construction work.

They’ve poured concrete and built additions in an area that is short of such contractors, neighbors said. A local fencing crew recently hired an Amish worker, and the settlement recently got a job moving a barn in Stapleton, 140 miles away.

“They’ll do anything,” said George Johnson of Cody, one of a handful of local residents serving as drivers for Amish work crews.

“I like all of them that I’ve met. They’re good people,” said neighbor David Galloway.

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