Meeting the Anabaptists in Colorado
At a Carbondale rodeo, I sat behind a family in old-fashioned garments, the bearded dad garbed in a broad-brimmed hat and suspenders, the womenfolk wearing prairie dresses, white aprons, and starched bonnets. Solemnly pledging allegiance as a rhinestone-bedecked rodeo queen lofted the Stars and Stripes, these seven visitors could have been just another vacationing family celebrating America’s agrarian roots.
But I suspected that these folks, sitting with their three remarkably fidget-free, tow-headed boys and two modestly-behaved teenage daughters, might be Amish.
Do the Amish take vacations?
Indeed they do. Over the past few years, Glenwood Springs has become a favored destination for them.
Merle (last name withheld for reasons of religious privacy), who grew up Amish but now practices a more modern lifestyle, is a New Castle resident who belongs to Glenwood’s Defiance Church, which is aligned with the MCUSA or Mennonite Church USA. Merle came here from Ohio in 1982 for a Redstone hunting trip, accompanied by two Amish and two Mennonite friends. Two of those friends now live in Colorado, and Merle frequently reconnects with back-home Amish friends who vacation here.
Both Amish and Mennonites are Christians who trace their history back to 16th-century Anabaptists in Switzerland. The name “Anabaptist” references re-baptism, a belief that one should be baptized into their faith only when they’re old enough to make an informed decision and commit to living up to the Lord’s teachings. Various Mennonite and Amish groups interpret those teachings differently. The more conservative among them live according to an “ordnung,” a set of rules that govern how Old Order Mennonites and both Old Order and New Order Amish live. Most Amish are at least bilingual, speaking a German dialect also known as Pennsylvania Dutch; the word “ordnung” is German word meaning “rule” or “discipline.”
We outsiders—the Amish often call us “the English” regardless of where our roots lead—usually can’t distinguish between Old Order Mennonite and Amish sects. While both are pacifists and many opt for “plain dress”—a trait they share with fundamentalist Mormons as well—the Amish are reclusive. They avoid modern technology and generally dodge outsiders. Most Amish won’t allow themselves to be photographed, believing that photos of people are “graven images” forbidden by the second commandment. Most Amish don’t connect to the electric grid and they don’t own or drive cars.
Old Order Mennonites, in contrast, live in English communities and use technology. Rather than separating themselves from the world, they take a missionary approach to improving it. The Mennonite Central Committee, founded in 1920 to assist Mennonites in the Ukraine during a famine and operating in the U.S. from headquarters in Pennsylvania, has become a worldwide, pacifist, disaster-relief organization that helps people from all backgrounds. It lends a hand during famines and helps refugees. It promotes fair trade and states online that it bears “witness against forces that contribute to poverty, injustice, and violence.”
With a personal history spanning both cultures, Merle remains friends with Amish families in Ohio, a state that’s now home to more Amish than Pennsylvania, site of their original communities. While practicing Amish won’t speak to reporters, Merle is willing to share his knowledge of the community. Asked why the Amish choose to vacation here, he replies, “Glenwood is a good place for people who don’t drive. You can get here on the train, and the motels are within walking distance of the station. You can take the bus to places like the Maroon Bells and the Carbondale rodeo, too.” He adds, “The Amish don’t drive or own cars because they believe that they disrupt community life. They don’t see anything evil in automobiles, but they believe that their community is stronger without them. They feel the same about TV. They’d rather spend the evening playing games and reading to their children.”
Merle says that while Amish visitors don’t like local pot shops, “Glenwood seems to be a clean town, with not a lot of crime.” The locals are welcoming and the area includes plenty of family-friendly activities: hunting, fishing, and hiking among them. Merle says the Amish love the rides at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. Plain dress aside, they’re not limited to sedate activities; one can see them on the giant canyon swing, on bicycle outings, and on river rafts. “When the girls go horseback riding or paragliding, they sometimes wear sweatpants under their dresses,” Merle confides. “One way to tell whether they’re Amish or Mennonite is to check out the women’s dresses. If they’re wearing printed fabric, they’re Old Order Mennonites—not Amish.”
With some exceptions, apparently. I recently struck up a conversation with a plain-dressed woman at the Qdoba Grill in Glenwood Springs. Despite her pattern-free dress, Sarah said she was Old Order Mennonite, not Amish.
“Are you vacationing here?” I asked.
“A little. We’re on our way back after spending a few days in Denver. We,” she replied, gesturing to her suspendered-and-bearded husband, “live in Hotchkiss.”
“Hotchkiss! I love that town. We,” I gestured toward my own beardless husband, who was wearing a turquoise, Western-styled shirt, “We go there every August. We bring back peaches and apricots and freeze them.”
“We do that too. From our own orchard.”
“Hotchkiss is fairly small. I would guess you’d recognize most of the local Mennonites here in town?” (The online Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia notes that Hotchkiss is home to a 54-member Amish-Mennonite congregation.)
“I do indeed,” Sarah replied. “But I see lots of folks here who aren’t local. I’d guess they’re visiting from Ohio or Pennsylvania.”
In 1991, the U.S. Amish population numbered around 123,550. By the 2010 census, it had swelled to 249,500, causing crowding and rising land prices. For many, that sparked a move out of their original Pennsylvania and Ohio communities. The Amish diaspora now lives in 28 states, Colorado among them.
Both Amish and Old Order Mennonites attempted to establish communities in Colorado’s San Luis Valley before World War I, but most didn’t last. However, because Colorado was home to five Civilian Public Service Camps, centers established by the 1940 Selective Service Act to enable conscientious objectors to provide public service during wars, many more pacifist Anabaptists came here during World War II, the Korean conflict, and Vietnam.
Many stayed and established communities. Colorado’s Amish and Old Order Mennonite population probably now numbers around 4,500 souls.
Last summer, having been charmed by a rocking chair I found at a San Luis Valley bed and breakfast, I sought out its maker. He lived near Monte Vista, Colorado’s oldest, and now largest, Amish community. After following the horse-and-buggy signs down Route 285, I was welcomed by Ab Yoder, who showed me his greenhouse, let me sample heirloom tomatoes, and admire his buggy, which sports a Broncos sticker! (That and his cellphone made me suspect that Yoder is New Order Amish. They differ from Old Order Amish by allowing solar power and cellphones, but disallowing tobacco use.)
After viewing Yoder’s huge woodshop, which accommodates both carpentry and community worship, we trekked to a storage shed and I picked out a rocker.
It’s a treasured connection to these gentle and principled people, both those who visit and those who have chosen to live in my home state.