Hi, and thanks for your comments on the previous section. In the latest excerpt from Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America – (Penguin 2010), I visit an Amish community in Kentucky. Look forward to your comments:
Possibly the best-known off-gridders in the United States today, besides Daryl Hannah, are the Anabaptist Christians, also known as the Amish or Mennonites. Every morning TV show, at one time or another, has featured these quaintly dressed, anachronistic Americans going about their business in a horse and buggy, or making cheese the old-fashioned way.
America has more than 350,000 Mennonites, and the number is growing quickly, because Mennonites have large families—after all, they need all the workers they can get. Mennonites divide into many sects because they are forever having schisms over the correct interpretation of the Bible. The off-the-grid sect, known in Mennonite circles as Old Order Mennonites, who eschew electricity, are the ones you see in nineteenth-century costumes. Their code is simple: Dress plainly, without adornment; renounce vanity.
Leon does ride in cars, and he does live on the grid. His family is part of a faction that has divided the usually tight-knit Mennonite community in this area in middle Kentucky, outside the town of Liberty. The Martin family came from the Philadelphia area at the same time as the Weaver family, whom I was due to meet shortly, and all had belonged to one church. But then a breakaway group, led by the Martin family, had decided that they would not be any further from God merely by taking advantage of modern amenities. Having electricity did not imply they would listen to rock music, or watch bad programs on TV, or even watch TV at all, they argued
Leon agrees that the off-the-grid families are in the majority. “It’s kind of a young-versus-old thing,” he said in a languid, lisping, almost Andy Warhol kind of a voice. “They are the breakaway faction. Where we all came from, in Pennsylvania, we were all on the grid. I know a lot of young people who are part of the off-the-grid church, and they want to join our church, but their parents won’t let them.” I was in the area to meet one of those parents, Ammon Weaver, the fifty-six-year-old head of the Weaver clan, which, although I had no idea at the time, is the biggest, wealthiest, and most devout Mennonite family in the neighborhood.
I thanked Leon, who went back to work, but now with many stares from the others, all curious to know what we had been discussing. I continued toward Ammon’s place. All I had known when he agreed to meet me was that he runs a horse-drawn “sweep” to power his home and a neighboring machine-tool workshop. I was aware that he is a Mennonite. I didn’t know exactly what a sweep is. I had driven through on a rainy May morning, and as I neared the eighteen hundred acres Ammon has accumulated over the years, the sun blazed on immaculate lawns, smooth as putting greens thanks to the gentle nibbling of the horses. Nature seems at its most profuse here. There is every variety of tree, from hardwood oaks to soft cedars. There were dark blue jays, bright red northern cardinals, and yellow grosbeaks darting through the trees.
As I turned in to the front gates I saw an empty courtyard in front of me, a large factory building on the left, and a house set back across a lawn on the right. Everything is tidy and in its place. I parked between a long hitching post and a small wooden cabin about the size of an outhouse. I was to see several of those cabins in the next forty-eight hours as I toured the Mennonite community. It turned out to be a phone booth, situated close to the office and far from the house. The door was open, and inside was a woman of about thirty, wearing a long dress down to her ankles and a white bonnet, talking and taking notes. This was Ammon’s eldest daughter, and she placed the call on hold long enough to send a younger sister off to fetch their father, who was having lunch in the house. Ammon is a kindly-looking man with a mop of gray hair and a face like a squashed potato, his mouth at a slightly crooked angle because he has less than a full set of teeth. I cannot take a photo of him because Mennonites “do not pose for photos.” This was my first lesson in the Mennonite belief system. Later I put the various things I was told together: They do not pose for pictures because the Mennonites reject any form of adornment or artifice. They sing in church, but there are no musical instruments, because music can be used to play the Devil’s tunes as easily as the godly ones. (They must sincerely believe the old saying that the Devil has all the best tunes. And all the best TV shows, movies, and radio programs, not to mention Web pages.) Radios, along with the Internet and TV, are banned from this Mennonite community because of the temptation to which they might lead. Automobiles, as Ammon calls them, are prohibited for the same reason. They have phones because “it is not fair on others to be unable to contact us.” Old Order Mennonites rarely phone each other, however. They visit by horse and buggy, or by bicycle if only one person is traveling.
We sat in the anteroom of the machine shop, the office’s reception area. If I squinted my eyes so as not to see some new books on the shelf to my right, it could have been the nineteenth century, with two bookkeeping daughters behind a high mahogany desk and Ammon at a round, veneered table with fi ne old bookcases behind him. Ammon had been up early that morning for a meeting with two businessmen from Detroit, who had arrived by private jet to ask for a quote on a gadget to allow them to prototype a new kind of mass-market washing machine.
I was amazed. I had not expected this level of sophistication. Ammon said later that one of his machine customers is a manufacturer of titanium prosthetics, requiring the highest standards and razor-sharp accuracy. He explained why he had come to Kentucky. “I chose to live a simpler life,” he said matter-of-factly. He’d had a business in Pennsylvania in the eighties and early nineties, making steel parts for the manufacturing industry, as he does now. The business did not survive the downturn. He could have declared bankruptcy. Instead he slowly repaid all his debts over the following years, starting with the small creditors. He blames his business problems on three things: borrowing— or over-borrowing (I could not work out which); not living a simple lifestyle and instead being seduced by overhead costs, such as cars and electricity; and being dependent on a hopeless unionized (non-Mennonite) workforce.
The problems began in the 1980s when Ammon expanded and moved the business out of his immediate community in Pennsylvania so that he could draw on the Pittsburgh workforce. “I had led a sheltered existence. I did not realize that there are people who think they are doing you a favor by turning up for work.” Ammon complained that they spent their weekly paychecks in a few days, and would fight over borrowing money until the next check. After he shut down his plant and laid off his workers, several committed suicide. He said he saw this as a sign of their weakness. So his answer is never to borrow again, never to employ outside the Mennonite community, and to stay off the grid. He is therefore dependent on none but himself and his community.
I can see why he does it, and it has worked for him. He now has annual revenues of over three million dollars, has voluntarily paid back the debts that forced him out of business, and has started borrowing again from the bank, just small, short-term loans when his working capital is tied up preparing large orders. The Mennonites are probably among the richest members of this rural community. Kentucky has sixteen of the poorest counties in the United States, outnumbered only by the much larger Texas, with seventeen. It is no surprise, then, that the Monticello bank in Liberty has a gazebo specifically for horse-and-buggy parking.
A sweep, I learned later, is contained in a circular area about the size of a fairground carousel, but with real horses. The animals clip around smartly, attached to a central spindle, and the movement generates power. “It’s real green energy,” Ammon told me. “The horses eat grass, and they turn it into energy.” The Weavers are nothing if not cautious. And although the whole reason for my visit was to see the sweep, I didn’t get to do so until the second day, when I was about to leave.
Ammon himself had taken me on a horse-and-buggy tour of the area, and when we got back to his property he issued a few commands in Pennsylvania Dutch, at which point one of his six sons scurried off to hitch up the horses. First he showed me the one-horse version—a very different design from the sweep. The horse stands on a treadmill, an upward-sloping machine made of wooden boards with metal reinforcements between the boards. There are rails on each side, so the horse cannot fall off, and the whole affair is covered, so rain or sun won’t affect the animal.
Once the horse was moving at speed, Ammon brought me through his house to the room where the motive power of the horse is transformed into mechanical power, via a spindle running from the treadmill and into the building. I watched as Ammon switched off the power, which meant shouting “whoa” and drawing on a pulley that set a brake on the treadmill. When he wants to switch the power back on, he shouts “giddyap” and yanks on the other pulley to release the brake. He showed me how he can run a washing machine, a corn thresher, and an “ice bank,” as the family calls their primitive refrigerator, a Coleman cooler filled with water that is charged (by the horse) three times a week for four hours, until there is enough ice in the bottom, and then recharged when all the ice has melted. It stores milk and meat to feed the family. The horses do not generate electricity. Instead the energy is linked directly to the actual driveshaft of whatever machine it’s powering.
Forswearing electricity, the Weavers buy ordinary electronic devices, remove the electric motors, and run them on the mechanical power from the horses. I describe the Weavers’ horsepower arrangements in such detail not because they are relevant to a discussion of off-the-grid lifestyle as it relates to godliness, but because they show how we could all live in comfort without electricity. Ammon Weaver’s machine-tool company is run entirely on mechanical power, supplemented by compressed air.
When I called him a few months later, he had just taken his largest order ever, and was about to see his annual revenue jump to four million dollars. I heard a similar story, if on a smaller scale, at the lumber business run by Ammon’s son, whom I visited next. Arriving at Timothy Weaver’s, I drove past a phone box on the edge of the property and into a huge yard. In one corner is a hundred-foot wooden tower. This is Timothy’s solar kiln—built to dry his wood very slowly, making it high-quality lumber that is less likely to warp or snap. He had bought a set of plans for twenty dollars (not via the Internet), adapted them, and built a sharply angled ninety-by-sixty-foot roof, which he painted black. On top of the roof he attached some clear plastic sheeting.
The roof has air ducts in it, so air is trapped between the black roof and the sheeting and heated by the sun. It then passes through and around the building into one of four kilns of different temperatures, where the wood is dried slowly and naturally. Timothy has some big customers for this wood, especially the hickory, which commands a higher price because it is dried more slowly than wood from normal commercial operations. And the time spent drying the wood costs Timothy next to nothing. It simply sits in the kiln, being heated by the sun and the movement of the air—no energy required.
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