Many people recognize Old Order Amish for their horse-drawn wagons and their 17th century appearance that includes mostly dark-colored clothing, beards for men, head coverings for women in public and a prohibition on zippers. Buttons? Those are fine.
“Will Alisha react to the internet, cell phones and computers in your home,” asked our friend Gerry from Long Island, joking that the dog may have Amish beliefs and practices. He wondered aloud if Alisha would be troubled riding in an automobile powered by an internal combustion engine rather than horses.
The Amish in America grew out of conservative Anabaptist communities that started in Switzerland in the 1600s. They follow the teachings of Jakob Ammann, who spearheaded a split with the Mennonites over the issue of excommunication. The Mennonites take a softer approach to excommunication.
As we arrived in Lancaster County, I felt refreshed. The clean air, rolling pastures and orderly, well-made buildings reminded me of bucolic countryside in Europe, such as in rural Germany or Switzerland, where the Amish originated. I also sensed a pleasant absence of marketing, technology and materialism. As we passed the schoolhouse, my 10-year-old daughter chimed in.
“Hey Dad, do you think this is where Pee Wee Herman made that balloon music for the Amish people?” she asked, referencing one of our favorite hilarious and heart-warming scenes from the 2016 film “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday,” in which Paul Ruben’s character charms a group of Amish people by demonstrating the joy of making a balloon squeal as a source of fun — a low-tech activity that then caught on wildly with that community.
The Old Order Amish are known for being separate from the dominant society and cautious of technological innovations, according to Edsel Burdge, Jr., research associate at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. And they area growing in number.
In 2020, about 340,000 Old Order Amish resided in about 560 settlements in the United States. Another 6,000 live in Canada and about 200 live elsewhere. The birth rate for Old Order Amish is more than triple the U.S. birthrate. Many Amish families have 5, 10 or more children.
As we pulled up to the Stoltzfus’ house, Esther came outside with Alisha and my daughters went bonkers for their new pet. They scampered in the yard, playing and bonding with the tiny puppy while I chatted with Esther and Isaac. Their own house dog, an older Yorkshire Terrier, pranced around the yard.
They told me they first started owning and breeding Siberian Huskies, a favorite dog for Isaac, in the early 2000s. “It kind of went from there,” he said. Growing up, he saw puppies selling for as little as $5 through bulletin boards and classified ads. But around the millennium, demand for small dogs started to take off and so did Lancaster County’s reputation for breeding small dogs and harboring some puppy mills.
“People just started filling that demand as demand went up,” Isaac said. “When we started selling dogs, I thought selling a puppy for $300 was a nice, good amount you know. That was pretty decent pay.”
The Stoltzfus family said they sold only Siberian Huskies up until 2019 when they started to see more city dwellers coming to buy puppies and realized the Siberian Huskies might not be best geared for life in a small apartment. So they branched into smaller breeds “for people who want a dog inside the house.”
The Stoltzfus family expanded their operation, building a kennel that can hold about 10 mostly female dogs. If each female bears 3-7 puppies per year and those puppies sell for between $700 and $1,200, the Stoltzfus family likely earns somewhere between $21,000 and $84,000 in revenue each year from selling puppies.
The big boom for their business occurred as apps began making markets between breeders and buyers. “That’s when puppy selling really went up, once we started putting them on the Internet,” Esther explained. “Usually, we would have just listed them in the local papers. We didn’t have people from all over like we do now. Most people now are from out of state.”
And the Internet and App economy also brings outsiders and Amish families together more often. I mentioned I saw they had recently had clients from Brooklyn, Ohio and many other places.
“Oh Yeah! A lot of people are from New York, New Jersey and Maryland,” Esther explained.
From their perspective, Petfinder and other apps that connect stray dogs and rescued dogs to owners is a wonderful service. They also know America has more demand for pets beyond the stray and rescue market. And the demand is very helpful for Amish families, trying to sustain their family, their farm and their faithful way of life.
“The plain people aren’t doctors and lawyers, you know, so their jobs are not as high paying typically as people with high education,” Isaac said. “So they supplement their income with selling a few dogs.” They also enjoy sharing this side business with their children, who often play with the dogs and take them for walks on the farm.
Isaac and Esther said they are glad to see the awareness of puppy animal welfare growing in the area. A non-profit group called PAWS includes a large group of Amish men who work with animal welfare advocates to educate people about the law as well as how to have decent care for dogs. “They are trying to cut down on that puppy mill idea and get that out of Lancaster County,” Isaac said.
Isaac and Esther gave us a tour of their farm, including the workshop where Isaac and his children fashion beautiful, hardwood furniture with clean lines and, sometimes, a distressed farmhouse look. They showed us the barn where they keep their horse and buggy.