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Wednesday, August 11, 1999

Amish family breaks ground in Bee County

23-member Borntrager family building home on 175 acres of land near Clareville

By Darren Barbee
Caller-Times

 

George Gongora/Caller-Times
A buggy hurries into the area where an Amish family, the Borntragers, are building a home in Bee County.
CLAREVILLE - The Amish man's feet had scarcely touched the ground when his horse and buggy lurched and the animal took a dusty, tree-lined road in an unprovoked charge.
   Running after the furiously galloping horse, Simon Borntrager leapt to the swaying, hearse-black buggy, his straw hat swept off, and, after a few more yards, had the animal's reins and its obedience.
   He swung back around - without a harsh word to the horse - and nonchalantly drew the buggy back around to the edge of his father's land.
   "She didn't want me to ride her," he said simply, grinning.
   The Amish are coming to Beeville, and a flurry of interest, if not excitement, has greeted them since they began arriving a few weeks ago.
   The family, numbering 21 (soon to be 23; two more are on their way), resides in Clareville, located about 10 miles west from Beeville. There, its members practice the intensely private Amish lifestyle known for its pacifist beliefs, fierce work ethic and avoidance of modern conveniences, including electricity and plumbing.
   "If you never have something, you don't miss it," said Truman Borntrager, the family's patriarch.
   They do, however, use gasoline-powered tools such as saws and lawn mowers and even have a phone - set off in separate building - for business calls.
   "We change with the times, naturally," Truman Borntrager said.
   Arriving from Tennessee
   In the latter part of July, the first of Borntrager's broad-shouldered boys arrived here in Beeville, coming from Tennessee in a rented van.
   "We came here for the climate," he said. "It's humid in Tennessee."
   Tennessee also was crowded.
   "There's too many people milling all over," he said. "Subdivisions all around us."
   For this, and perhaps other reasons of their own, the family last year bought 175 acres of scrubby and lush rural land near Clareville.
   To make a living, the family builds and restores horse-drawn vehicles, farms, cooks and shoes horses.
   Recently, the family started selling baked goods on a street corner in Beeville about a mile from the local H-E-B.
   Local residents were surprised at seeing the modestly clad family selling pies, breads and jellies on a street corner. The fascination soon gave way to shopping, their wagon full of goodies selling out in a few hours.
   Carol Scotten, a claims manager at Beeville's Brooke Insurance, bought two coconut custard pies from the Borntragers.
   "It was very, very good," she said of the pie. "It was like a buttermilk pie, except it had coconut in it."
   Scotten said the fascination with the Amish is easy to understand: They're different.
   "People should appreciate them choosing our community," Scotten added.
   The plain life
   What catches the eyes about Truman Borntrager - who at 50 is a stocky, robust man - is not his Lincoln-esque beard, the tattered cobalt blue pants or the straw hat with a flat brim.
   It's the sense of humor in his brown eyes.
   Asked if people in Tennessee missed him, Truman replied, "They said they would," before laughing.
   Still, the clothes are a curiosity.
   "Most of the clothes we make," Borntrager said, but removed his hat and added, "My hat was made in New Mexico."
   The women, meanwhile, wear black dresses and bonnets.
   The traditional Amish garb, worn in the same style of the 1700s Netherlands, is strictly regulated by the church, said Charles Holzinger, professor emeritus of anthropology at Franklin and Marshall University in Lancaster, Pa. So secular are those guidelines that even the number of pleats in a woman's prayer bonnet is precisely laid out in church regulations.
   "The costume and the plain life is on the basis of a church belief in humility," Holzinger said. "A very powerful ethical force that you must be humble in your lifestyle and in your manner of dress and speech."
   Characteristically Amish
   Characteristically, the Amish have withdrawn from society since coming to the continent in the early 1730s, Holzinger said. Abjuring government - though paying taxes, Borntrager said - they reject, among other things, Social Security. Instead, church charities take care of the aged and infirm.
   As for school, children are taught at home up to the eighth-grade level.
   "They believe modern schools wreck their children," Holzinger said.
   Land issue
   Along with a change in temperature and humidity levels, dwindling eastern lands and rising land prices may have brought the Borntragers to Texas, Holzinger said.
   Since the Amish tradition of fathers giving their sons their own land is increasingly difficult to fulfill, some Amish, like the Borntragers, have turned from agriculture to other pursuits, such as carpentry.
   The Smithsonian Institution, for instance, employs an Amish carriage maker to restore horse-drawn vehicles.
   The Amish, Holzinger said, are Anabaptists, a tradition arising from the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s.
   "It's a group that was an offspring of the Reformation - an extraordinary offshoot that had a set of very specialized beliefs," he said. "They are God-fearing, law-abiding people who work like demons. They believe they are called by God to an Amish way of life, which means farming or working your head off."
   Farm dangers
   The family's blue-colored dog looks up with a bloody third eye on its forehead awakened by the kick of a mule. The wound is a reminder of how dangerous a farm - Amish or agnostic - can be.
   The Borntragers are building a house on their property, a staircase already leading up to a nonexistent second floor. They do the work themselves, hammering small, insulated sections of walls together, leaving space for plenty of windows.
   Working with a mechanical saw, John Borntrager steps gingerly around wooden beams. He has a long cut along the top of his bare foot. A weed opened it while he was riding a horse barefoot.
   'Just like everyone else'
   Truman Borntrager said he realizes his lifestyle is a difficult one. He and his sons work nonstop throughout the day, usually beginning before first light. For now, they sleep in a barn that was on the land when they bought it.
   "It doesn't always come easy," Truman Borntrager said. "We have to work a lot at survival. So far, God has always provided."
   His sons don't seem to mind the work - or at least do it without complaints.
   "I try to keep cheerful," said Albert, 21. "Everyone has a way to play."
   "It doesn't hurt you any to work," added John, 16.
   And how does he relax and unwind without television, movies or nightclubs?
   "I sit under a shade tree," John said.
   Simon Borntrager, sitting at the edge of his land in his buggy, said he is usually either working or sleeping. He says that what unites the Amish with other people is that they're all the same. They just go about doing things differently.
   "We're just like everyone else," he added, guiding his spirited horse named April back home. "We like to be left alone. We're common people. There's nothing special about us."
   South Texas heat
   He said the ride and the heat aren't bad.
   "Not with a breeze blowing," he said. "One thing I've realized is that people driving their cars have air conditioners and their houses have air conditioners, so when they get out it's a lot hotter," Borntrager said, "instead of getting used to it."
   And in anachronistic scenes replayed along the rural roads of Bee County, Simon Borntrager's horse trots on the same path that sports cars zip down.
  
  




Staff writer Darren Barbee can be reached at 886-3764 or by e-mail at barbeed@caller.com

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