Marvin Miller arrived by car to give a furniture building demonstration at Classic Furnishings in Innisfail this week.
Nothing seems out of the ordinary with the previous statement, until you find out that Miller is Amish — a group of Anabaptists Mennonites who came to Pennsylvania from the German-speaking parts of Switzerland in the early-18th century, and are known by most people for their refusal to use electricity.
“People think that we’re quite different, but as more modern things come along, and as the world advances, we just try to stay where were at,” Miller said on Thursday.
“We don’t have doctors, we don’t have dentists, we don’t have bankers, so we have to depend on the outside world for some of our services,” Miller explains when asked about his community’s changing way of life.
For the Amish, change is done at a much slower pace, but Miller said many things have indeed changed drastically for his community since he was young.
The 59-year-old Amish wood master from Arthur, Ill. (250 km south of Chicago, which he pronounces “Sha-cog-ah”) has spent most of his life building furniture, a skilled trade that is synonymous with his people.
But it wasn’t always this way, he said.
“Woodworking for us, was a substitute for farming,” Miller said.
“We were running out of farmland and it was getting so expensive; it’s hard for us to make a living farming.”
Miller said his Amish community of a few hundred people made a decision in the mid-1970s to shift its economy toward woodworking, as they could not compete with industrial farming practices.
“We do our farming with horses and we couldn’t keep up with the tractors,” Miller said.
Since 1992, his wood shop has been making furniture exclusively for Simply Amish Furniture, which was started by a formerly-Amish entrepreneur in 1987, and uses the services of more than 50 different Amish wood shops across the U.S. to fill its retail orders.
“As time goes on and more technology comes along, Simply Amish handles all the orders, be it through email or fax,” Miller said. This relationship allows Miller’s people to retain their religious values while making a good living in the global marketplace.
The machines Miller uses in his shop are all powered by hydraulic motors, a decision made to further preserve the Amish way of life, he said.
“There is nothing wrong with electricity, but if we start using it in the shops, we’d have to keep a real strong conviction about not using it in our homes — no TV, radio and such,” Miller said.
“The electricity just brings more modern things into the picture that we’d rather live without.”
The shop Miller owns employs 22 people, 16 of whom are still with the church. The other six are former-Amish, he said.
“People have their own lives to live and you can’t make someone stay if they don’t want to,” Miller said.
Members who leave the church for the outside often return, and it is these “new” Amish people (who have a foot in each way of life), who allow Miller and his community to utilize cars and electricity in a limited capacity. Whether or not this practice will lead to a slow erosion of the Amish belief structure that has held firm for more than two centuries is up to God, Miller said.
“We hope to keep our convictions and function the way we have for so many years,” he said.
“But I suppose we do change a little bit as time goes on; you can’t just totally stand still.”