‘New immigrants’ with black buggies fitting in

Varick Chittenden

For most of us who live in the north country today, having people from other countries and cultures move nearby hasn’t been a very common experience. They may speak another language among themselves, go to a different church, eat different food, celebrate different holidays or have different values. Getting used to each other is a challenge. For a century or more, most new arrivals adjusted to local ways pretty quickly, quietly kept their own ways, or left.

What was once one of the fastest growing parts of the state is no more and hasn’t been for a long time. Jefferson County today—especially the area right around Fort Drum—is the exception. In the first waves of settlement in the early 19th century, for example, St. Lawrence County’s total population was among the highest of rural counties in the state. In the 1850 census, a half century after New England farmers began the first wave of white immigration to establish small farms and villages, 68,617 people were counted. That was 10,000 more than Westchester County, more than twice as many as Broome (with Binghamton) and four times as many as Rockland (a relatively short distance from the city of New York).

By 1890, St. Lawrence County had 89,083; in 1950, 98,897 and, in 2000, 111,284. Growth in the past was attributed at first to new immigrants from foreign lands: French Canadians who came to work in the Adirondack lumber woods, Irish to be tenant farmers or domestic workers, Italians and Armenians to meet the sudden needs of industries like Alcoa in Massena or Watertown, Polish and Slavs in iron mines of the Champlain valley, Jews as pack peddlers, selling essential goods to far-flung country homes.

But the changes in American life–the growth of cities, the increasing mechanization of physical labor, greater mobility as transportation became easier and more people becoming formally educated, for example–caught up with places like Northern New York as time went on. The Golden Age of the north country was slipping away. Young people left for better employment opportunities or military service, travel introduced many to other places they might like to live, and small farms–the bulwark of local life?were disappearing, giving way to agribusiness, corporate-style.

In the early 1970s, however, that all began to change here, especially in our rural areas where farming has always been the dominant way of life. “New immigrants” started arriving, one family at a time, with their black buggies and horse-drawn farm wagons. These were the Old Order Amish coming in mostly from Holmes County, Ohio, one of the largest Amish settlements in America. Of course, the Amish are hardly new to America. The first families began arriving in eastern Pennsylvania by the mid-1700s, having left Europe because of religious persecution.

Today, most Amish still want to keep a small farm and land here is cheap by others’ standards. Abandoned farm buildings on rural roads make our local counties an ideal site for the Amish to relocate. In the years since they have continued to move in significant numbers. Despite the long, cold winters and short growing seasons, they find this place works for them. By now, there are at least eight communities scattered through our four northernmost counties, with a population of at least 2,500.

The first to arrive came to Norfolk in 1974, followed the next year by Swartzentrubers from Ohio, who settled around Heuvelton. More recently, communities have settled in Lowville (1999), Burke/Malone (2002), Hopkinton/Nicholville (2003), Lafargeville (2005), Bombay (2010) and Philadelphia (2011).

[Editor’s note: This is a truncated version of this story. For the full version, please see NNY Living in print or subscribe.]

Varick Chittenden is senior folklorist and director of special projects for Traditional Arts in Upstate New York and Professor Emeritus of Humanities at SUNY Canton. A version of this column previously appeared in Voices: A Journal of New York Folklore. Reprinted with permission of the New York Folklore Society.