UNITY, Maine — Fresh-faced young women wearing pristine white caps, long plain cotton dresses and flip-flops bustled around the kitchen Wednesday morning, the insistent, delicious smell of frying doughnuts surrounding them like a cloud of dense perfume.
It was doughnut day at the Amish-owned Community Market & Country General Store on rural Thorndike Road, and the women were hard at work cutting, frying, glazing and filling more than 700 of the treats, which filled the bakery bags of customers such as Gwen Manson of Burnham and her family.
“We love them,” she said. “We made a special trip to come and get them.”
When asked if the doughnuts would make it all the way to their home, she laughed and said she couldn’t guarantee it.
The doughnuts — available on Saturday mornings, too, and in varieties including raised-glazed, pumpkin cake, maple cream, chocolate cream and jelly — have attracted folks from all over.
“I would say there’s no secret recipe involved,” Caleb Stoll, one of the co-owners of the store, said. “The thing that’s unique is getting them fresh. There’s no preservatives. By tomorrow, these doughnuts won’t taste half as fresh.”
The burgeoning doughnut business is one sign of the way the Amish families that put down roots in western Waldo County within the past decade also have settled into the world of the non-plain people that surrounds them. Horse-drawn buggies and Amish children bicycling to their school share the area’s country roads with cars and tractors.
“I would say that almost without exception we’ve been welcomed,” Stoll, one of the community’s ministers, said on the wooden porch outside the market. “We’ve certainly been glad for the good relationships with the people of Maine. We hope that can continue.”
Mary Leaming of Unity said that the Amish have found a comfortable niche in her town. She loves getting doughnuts at the market and waving at the smiling children riding in the buggies.
“At this point, they’re just part of the community, honestly. I don’t even see them as separate,” she said. “I just think it’s really cool. I think Unity is a really special place — we have a raceway, we have [the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association], we have Unity College, we have cool little businesses, and now we have the Amish. It’s special.”
‘Blessed and privileged’
Stoll, 44, and his family moved to Unity from Ontario in the fall of 2008. They were sponsored by the Amish community in Smyrna in Aroostook County, he said, and leaders of the northern Maine group asked the newcomers to live within 150 miles of them. They looked at a map and found western Waldo County, where fallow farmland abounded and where land prices were affordable.
“We wanted to be as far south as possible,” Stoll said. “One hundred fifty miles away, we gain two weeks in the fall and two weeks in the spring.”
Over the years, the Waldo County Amish community has grown, now numbering between 15 and 20 families, he said. It has even attracted several families that were not originally Amish. Two of the young women industriously making doughnuts, dressed in an old-fashioned way, come from such outside families, and Stoll said he was interviewing an interested father from another prospective family later that afternoon.
Becoming Amish is more than just donning long dresses or eschewing electricity. The group traces its lineage to the original Anabaptist settlers who came to America from Switzerland, France and Germany in the 18th centuries, seeking tolerance for their religious beliefs. They are a Christian people who believe and practice the precepts of the Bible, and they are strongly family-oriented, with the fathers acting as the heads of the households. Amish communities aim to be self-sufficient and sustainable and are very selective about what changes and modernities they allow into their world.
For example, their homes and the store are illuminated by propane. There are no televisions, video games or computers, and their school stops after the eighth grade. They don’t drive cars and they often plow their fields with horses. Yet the Amish have a pragmatic approach to some aspects of the modern world. They find local folks to drive them places they need to go, and in the bakery, the dough is made with an electric mixer that has been converted to compressed air.
“It’s not that we’re against change or that we see change as evil,” Stoll said. “But we feel that it’s out of control, and we try to limit those effects. You can’t not change. Finding that balance is probably the biggest challenge we face.”
Stoll’s daughter, 19-year-old Cara Stoll, came outside to enjoy a cup of coffee and eat a pumpkin cake doughnut, a hard-earned breakfast after a long morning at work in the kitchen. She said she’d been helping in the family doughnut business for about four years.
“I enjoy it,” she said. “If they sell and we don’t have too many leftover, it’s a good feeling.”
Her older sister recently married a man from the Amish community in Smyrna — the young man asked Caleb Stoll for permission before he began his courtship in earnest — and when asked what her own future plans entailed, Cara Stoll smiled.
“I think living for the moment and enjoying life is most important,” she said.
She said she enjoys life by by playing volleyball, going on bike rides and taking buggy rides. She and her friends lift their voices in four-part harmonies and like to gather around campfires, and she was looking forward to climbing Mount Katahdin this week with relatives visiting from the midwest.
“I think we’re blessed and privileged to be born into this community,” she said, adding that the group is not a monolith. “There’s all kinds and sorts of Amish.”
Riding a wave of popularity
Caleb Stoll said that the Amish in general have been riding “a wave of popularity” for the last 20 years or so. Perhaps particularly in Waldo County, home to lots of young farming families and the Common Ground Fair — ground zero for the state’s hippies and homesteaders alike — their differences seem less pronounced than they would elsewhere. Some of the Amish farms are certified organic, just like many of their neighbors’ farms. And Snow & Nealley axes are for sale in the general store, and lots of Mainers are excited when they learn that an Amish family in Smyrna has purchased the venerable toolmaking firm and is working on bringing production of the ax heads back to Maine from China.
But Stoll said that popularity might not be so great for the Amish, who avoid having their photographs taken because they teach their children that outward appearance is not the most important thing.
“We might start getting an inflated opinion of ourselves,” he said.
And not everyone understands their tax status, which can make other Mainers feel that the Amish have an unfair advantage in the world of business. They are exempt from paying Social Security taxes and other insurance-type programs, which they do not use, and they draw from a dependable labor pool that will not sue them.
“To me, that popularity could ebb away if people start to resent us,” Stoll said.
Penny Picard-Sampson, a Unity selectman, said that she has heard people in the town question whether the Amish pay property taxes.
“They absolutely do,” she said. “They’re good citizens. They pay their taxes. They don’t get in trouble. The worst thing that has happened is that a couple of times their horses have gotten out and gotten killed in traffic. That’s not a good scene.”
The group’s conflicts with the outside world are not limited to accidents on the roads. Stoll said that Amish beliefs are “not that tolerant.”
“We are horrified at what’s happening with gay rights,” he said. “And I was reading an article about assisted suicide. I was dismayed. There were good arguments [in favor of assisted suicide]. They will carry the day. But to me there is something so sad about it.”
It’s possible for the Amish to exist, and even thrive, within a culture that is so different. After all, that has been the case for hundreds of years. Stoll sounded a philosophical note when discussing the trends happening in the world around them, saying that Americans can be tolerant of everything except intolerance.
“We are just extremely grateful for the tolerance that’s here,” Stoll said.