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Amid RV Layoffs, Amish Turn to Home Business

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December 31, 2008 by   Leave a Comment

The enclosed back porch of Marion Bontrager’s home east of Millersburg, Ind., once served as a storage area, laundry room and summer kitchen.
As reported by the Goshen New, the are us now filled with a table saw, an assortment of woodworking tools and an array of pieces of furniture in various stages of construction.
One corner still contains the washing machine and a load of laundry, but the rest has been given over to Bontrager’s new business, Southedge Furniture.
Like many of his Amish brethren, Bontrager is trying to make ends meet after being laid off from his RV job. Bontrager had been a group leader in the cabinet shop at Ameri-Camp in Syracuse.
The layoff in August became permanent in October when the company ceased operations.
“I looked for work,” Bontrager said, “but I couldn’t find anything.”
With some tools already in place, he turned what had been a sideline into a full-time business.
“It was something I thought I had the skills to do,” he said. “I started it as a sideline but when it was the only thing I had left I just pushed it harder.”
According to the Goshen New, Southedge Furniture is just one of a number of new businesses popping up almost daily in the Amish community. And it’s a trend that many people would like to see continue.
The Economic Development Corporations of Elkhart and LaGrange counties have formed a committee that includes Amish and non-Amish business leaders to promote that entrepreneurial spirit.
“The bishops really want the males to be home as much as possible,” said Gary Zehr, director of the LaGrange County EDC. “It will be sort of like the old days on the farm. We’re trying to help them take the next step.”
With the RV industry reeling and projections that it will never come back as strong as it once was, jobs are a growing concern among the Amish. Because Amish youth leave school after eighth grade, the need for jobs begins at a younger age.
Noah Bontrager, owner of The Country Woodshop east of Goshen, said it is a big concern.
“There are 500-600 turning 16 every year,” he said. “Where are they going to work?”
Woodworking is a natural alternative. Many men in the Amish community have both a talent for and love for working with wood.
The Goshen New reported that research shows there are already 330 Amish woodworking shops in the Elkhart-LaGrange county area, although it is probably a conservative estimate. Some of those supply products used in the RV industry while others make furniture or materials used in producing furniture.
But a problem arises when there is little organization. Many small shops making nearly identical product flood an already crowded marketplace.
“It’s a struggle to sell something in this community,” Marion Bontrager said. “I’m trying to sell more outside the area but there’s a lot of competition from others doing the same thing.”
Zehr and Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the Elkhart County EDC, are helping the Amish think of ways to organize and to reach out to new markets.
“Amish craftsmen can provide the outside world with almost anything you want,” Zehr said. “But the Amish are not sure how to take their marketing to more of the outside world.”
The committee has found that the word Amish no longer seems to be a selling point. Instead, they are emphasizing craftsmanship.
Northern Indiana has long been the RV capital of the world, and the committee’s vision is to have people make the same connection between this area and quality furniture.

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