One of the most enduring myths concerning Plain City is that the “Plain” refers to the “Plain People,” the Old Order Amish, who have been such an important part of our town’s history. The fact is that the town’s name was changed from Pleasant Valley to Plain City in 1871, some 25 years before the Amish arrived. There was at least one other “Pleasant Valley” in Ohio, and the misdirection of mail and shipments led to the change.
In the summer of 1895 three men from Holmes County, Ohio, came down to central Ohio to scout out the possibilities of establishing an Amish community. They were David J. Farmwald, Moses M. Kauffman and Eli J. Miller. They looked at land in Champaign County, where there was an existing Amish settlement, and then stopped to inspect the plains of Darby Township. The land was very much to their liking, and good roads and the proximity of the railroad were additional attractions.
On March 5, 1896 seven Amish families from Holmes County arrived by train in Plain City. They were Eli J. and Veronica Miller and their three children; John J. and Gertrude Miller and children; Dan J. and Katie Miller and two children; David J. and Elizabeth Farmwald and four children; Moses M. and Susan Kauffman and three children; Moses J. Schlabachs; and Albert Spiesinger and family and his mother Barbara Lillich.
In the spring of 1897 10 more families arrived from Holmes County, one family came from Geauga County, and two families came from Reno County, Kansas. Several other families arrived in 1898, 1899 and 1900.
These first families settled south of Plain City in the Gillivan and Plumwood areas. In time, land closer to Plain City and its railroad was purchased. In the beginning farmers often rented land until they could afford to purchase a farm outright. In 1903 the church was divided into the South or Gillivan District and the North or Plain City District. (An Amish church district is made up of 25-30 families who meet every two weeks at the home of a member.) In 1925 the North District was divided into the West and East Districts.
In 1933 the first Mennonite church, Sharon Mennonite, was organized. In 1938 the Beachy Amish organized their church. The Conservative Mennonite Church dates to 1944.
Many people believe that the Mennonites are an offshoot of the Old Order Amish, but historically the opposite is true. The Mennonites began in the Netherlands in the 1530s as part of the Anabaptist movement within the Protestant Reformation. They rejected the concept of infant baptism and sought to separate themselves from the “world” and the state. They were pacifists in a time when this was considered treasonous.
Strict as the Mennonites were, some within their church felt that they should be even more so. In 1693, a man named Joseph Ammon of Berne, Switzerland, formed a church that became known as the Amish. He introduced the use of hooks and eyes on clothing rather than buttons, which were a prominent part of military uniforms at the time. The Amish also practiced shunning (the avoidance of any who had gone against their beliefs). There were other theological differences between the two groups as well.
Both the Amish and the Mennonites were persecuted in Europe and were frequently on the move seeking a place where they could follow their beliefs in peace. The Mennonites came to America in 1683 and the Amish in the 1730s. Both found a haven in William Penn’s colony, which offered both religious freedom and ample farmland. As the Northwest Territory opened up, families moved into Ohio, most notably the area that became Holmes County.
The Amish and Mennonites around Plain City began as farmers, but eventually some pursued other occupations, carpentry being a favored one. Because the Amish do not use electricity, milk from their cows did not meet the requirements for sale to the big dairies, so the Amish created the Cheese Factory on U.S. Route 42 and produced award-winning cheese for many years. The Cheese House now occupies the site.
Although the Old Order Amish do not have church buildings, they created several cemeteries around the area. They also had several one room school houses, in some cases taking over old public school buildings that were no longer in use. The Plainview Christian Day School began in 1949. Some called it “Amish College.”
In the 1960s, the lack of available land and soaring prices as well as the increasing difficulty of maintaining their distance from the attractions of the “world” led to the beginnings of an Amish migration from the Plain City area to Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and other states in that area. By the late 1970s most of the Old Order Amish were gone from Plain City.
For those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, having Amish friends at school (through the eighth grade), seeing buggies on the highways and hitching posts around town was just an ordinary part of life. (We tended to snicker at out-of-town visitors who were amazed at such things.) Going for a drive on a summer Sunday evening to admire the beautiful flower gardens at Amish farms was a treat. We miss our old neighbors who enriched our lives in so many ways.
Some of the material for this column came from “The Amish at Plain City Ohio 1896-2011,” a book compiled by Allen Bontrager and LaVern Yutzy that contains a wealth of information.
Rosemary Anderson is the vice president of the Plain City Historical Society.