Still Called by Faith To the Phone Booth

In St. Mary's County, Md., Old Order Amish and Mennonite families don't believe in home phone lines. They traditionally have used public phone booths. But as society migrates to cell phones, telecom companies like Verizon are moving to take out unprofitable phone booths.
In St. Mary's County, Md., Old Order Amish and Mennonite families don't believe in home phone lines. They traditionally have used public phone booths. But as society migrates to cell phones, telecom companies like Verizon are moving to take out unprofitable phone booths.

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By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Off the side of a dirt road in Southern Maryland stands an odd answer to the swiftly changing telecommunications industry.

It's a rusted metal chamber, nearly eight feet tall. The door is padlocked. Trees surround it, with no houses in sight. It looks like an old bomb shelter.

Inside is a telephone. Built by several nearby Mennonite families, the oil tank-turned-phone booth connects them to the rest of the world -- sort of. And sort of -- when it comes to the estimated 1,600 Old Order Mennonite and Amish residents who still ride horse-drawn buggies down the roads of St. Mary's County -- is the point.

In the past several years, they have quietly erected at least 12 similarly hidden, private phone booths, posting them behind barns, in the woods and, in one case, inside a former chicken coop.

The phones allow them to conduct business -- crucial to surviving amid the region's development pressures -- while holding on to prohibitions against home phone lines and cellphones. Called "community phones," they are the latest example of how the groups in Maryland and elsewhere have been cutting deals with technology for the past century.

It used to be that Old Order Mennonite and Amish families in St. Mary's relied on public, coin-operated pay phones. But as people migrated to cellphones, telecommunications companies took notice. On average, they remove more than 1,000 pay phones a year in Maryland, according to state records. Verizon, for example, plans to take out two pay phones along heavily-Amish Thompson Corner and Budds Creek roads in St. Mary's.

So the Amish and Mennonites are adapting.

"Business is business," said Elmer Brubacher, a Mennonite standing over a pallet of tomatoes at the Loveville Produce Auction that he helps run. "If they have to pull them out, I understand that."

The new phones hold advantages. The Amish and Mennonites don't have to carry around fistfuls of quarters or buy costly calling cards. Families divide monthly bills. Because the phones are hidden, locked and -- in the case of a metal chamber booth, which was fashioned out of a tank salvaged from a junkyard -- reinforced, the phones are less likely to attract vandals and drug dealers.

There are rules. Families can't post phones too close to homes, and they can't outfit them with amplified ringers that effectively would make them house phones. Some Amish don't cotton to voice mail, but Old Order Mennonites seem more accepting of the feature. For both groups, the idea is to limit forces they think will distract them from faith and family.

"The telephone, and the use of the telephone, is not something we're opposed to. We just don't want it to be the main part of our lives," said Ethan Brubacher, 31, a nephew of Elmer, who owns Quiet Valley Structures, a shed-building business in Loveville. He and 11 neighbors share a community phone booth that is screened off by a row of 20 evergreen hedges.

Community phone calls can be sad: A 39-year-old Amish bishop walks a half-mile through the woods to call to check on his mother, who is in a Washington hospital with cancer. The calls can be scary: A Mennonite races to the metal-chambered phone after a relative was bitten by a black widow. And the calls can be funny: An Amish man, having accidentally locked himself inside his phone shanty, cannot call any brethren because they aren't near phones. So he calls his veterinarian.


CONTINUED     1        >

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