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Whitehall's Amish have impact on farmland, taxes, tourism

Whitehall's Amish have impact on farmland, taxes, tourism

From the Amish in Whitehall series
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On a sweltering June day on county Route 12 in Whitehall, women wearing long dresses and white caps were picking strawberries in their gardens, a teenage girl was hanging loads of clothes on a triangular clothesline and some boys and girls — none older than 5 — were hauling wood scraps with a little wagon from a sawmill into their home.

In the fields, men and older boys wearing light blue shirts and dark blue trousers were being pulled by horses on antique-looking equipment that cut and fluffed hay and placed it into rows.

Everyone was working.

This same scene, with variations that included sawmill and dairy farming chores, was playing out across town on county Route 18, Hatch Hill Road, Abair Road, county Route 10, Beckwith Road, Upper Turnpike Road, Beckett Road and Wade Road — on farmland that until a few years ago was overgrown.

At each farm, you could also see hand-painted signs offering everything from sawdust, strawberries, maple syrup and baked goods to furniture, sheds and slab wood.

While the Amish presence in Whitehall may seem to passersby to be relegated to the occasional horse and buggy on Route 4, if you travel the back roads past their farms, their presence is striking, and their impact is being felt throughout town.

In addition to beautifying the countryside, the Amish settlers, who come primarily from the Fort Plain, New York, area, are buying food at Green Mountain Food Service and Dollar General, wood and hardware from MacLeod’s Hardware, and antiques — for use — from Fort Ann Antiques.

“To them, I’m not an antiques store, I’m a supply center,” said store owner Stephanie Safka.

Safka also hosts an Amish kiosk outside her store where her new neighbors sell baked goods each week.

Non-motorized hand tools and a 50-gallon cast iron pot for laundry use were recent items purchased that Safka could recall.

Their Whitehall origin

Former town Supervisor Vernon Scribner said he was on the ground floor of the Amish decision to settle in Whitehall. In early 2013, Scribner said, he was asked by state Sen. Betty Little and Whitehall farmer John Hollister if he’d be willing to meet with an Amish group from Fort Plain to talk about available farmland in town.

“They showed up in two vans, about 12 of them, I believe,” he said. The conversation dealt mostly with the quality of land but was also about the town and its people, Scribner said.

Weeks later, the visitors were back, this time with their wives, he said.

“The women sat in the kitchen talking with my wife, and the men and I talked in the garage,” he said.

Later that summer, the moving-in started, after the Amish bought their first farm on Hatch Hill Road. It had been owned by former Hampton Supervisor Leonard Reed.

Three years later, Amish families occupy 15 farms in Whitehall and one in Hampton, adjacent to the home of current Hampton Supervisor Dave O’Brien.

“And they’re looking for more land,” O’Brien said.

The impact

Town Assessor Bruce Caza said the town’s assessment has increased by $1.6 million since the arrival of the first Amish families.

They have built or renovated 17 homes eight barns and numerous outbuildings — and the building is far from over. A few of the families are living in converted portions of barns as temporary homes until they build new.

And although there’s a misconception that Amish homeowners don’t pay taxes like everyone else, they do. They do get sliding-scale agricultural tax breaks on new barns and outbuildings built to facilitate the dairy farming process, like any other farmer in the county. But they pay the full rate on their homes, and those additional dollars are helping the town, Caza said. With a town tax rate of $20 per $1,000 of assessed value, the new development would amount to $32,000 in tax revenue, although agricultural exemptions whittled that down initially, Caza said.

The families also pay school taxes, even though they send their kids to one of three schools in town they built.

“They pay school taxes for schools they don’t even use,” said Ruth Scribner, Vernon’s wife.

Town Supervisor George Armstrong, who shared a photo of himself and his grandson wearing freshly purchased straw Amish hats, said he wishes the new town residents would send their kids to public school to bolster the dwindling enrollment and add diversity, but he said he knows that won’t happen.

That said, Armstrong said he feels “blessed” they settled in town.

“The town just bought two sheds from them, one for the Rec Center and one for the park, because they were significantly cheaper than we could buy someplace else,” he said.

Linda Lemnotis, owner of Green Mountain Food Services, said Amish families are regulars in her store. They buy a variety of items for the baked goods they make, as well as food for their families. She said she loves how “honest, courteous and polite” they are and added that she tries to help them out however she can.

She knows they make banana bread a lot, so she offers bargains on bananas when they get a little ripe.

“I say, ‘Hey, 29 cents a pound and take them all,’ “ she said. “When it’s really hot out, I’ll give the kids sodas.”

Down the street at Dollar General, Kristy Clemons said Amish families are frequent customers there too.

“There’s a bunch in the store right now,” she said during a recent telephone interview. “They buy mostly baking products, but odds and ends too.”

Are they making a difference in the store’s bottom line?

“Oh definitely,” Clemons said. “They spend $100 to $150 every time they come in and we’ll have three or four families come in at a time,” she said.

The families spend their money throughout the region. Ruth Scribner said she sometimes shops out of town for her Amish neighbors or gives them rides so they can shop for themselves.

Their farms are also producing milk for the local market, including more expensive organic milk. And the sheds, baked goods, quilts, hats and furniture they make are attracting tourists.

“A lot of people are coming from Vermont,” Scribner said. “I’ve never seen so many Vermont cars in my life since they came and started selling stuff.”

Caza, the assessor, said the Amish farmers buy local hay and feed for their animals, although they do buy building materials for major projects, like new barns, from other Amish vendors outside of the area. Windows and metal for roofing are often ordered from Pennsylvania, he said, which Bart Bartholomew, owner of MacLeod’s Hardware in town, is very aware of.

Bartholomew said he has developed a relationship with some of the new Amish residents, selling them sheathing, roofing, trusses and hardware for homes and barns, but he’d like to be doing more.

“With them coming in, the injection of people and projects has created some vibrancy here,” he said. “It’s nice to see these farms prospering. We’ve developed some good relations with many of them, but we’d like to invite more in and sell more to them.”

Coming Monday:

A look at Amish beliefs and customs

Coming Tuesday:

A look at how the Amish have been received and their future in the region

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