Bullish on Amish-Built

The modern housing market meets old-fashioned craftsmanship at Hertzler Modular Homes, an Amish-owned firm that makes 10 to 12 houses a year.
The modern housing market meets old-fashioned craftsmanship at Hertzler Modular Homes, an Amish-owned firm that makes 10 to 12 houses a year. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007

When Joyce Greenfield decided to build a house in the Southern Maryland town of Chaptico, she knew she wanted a single-story rambler with at least three bedrooms and fancy bathrooms. At 49 and inching toward retirement, she needed something affordable -- a modular home.

She turned to a community not widely known for home-building: the Amish.

Relatives recommended an Amish man in St. Mary's County, John Hertzler. She drove out to his farm in Mechanicsville -- he has no phone, being Amish -- and described what she wanted. She was thrilled with the price he quoted, $90,000, but was stunned to hear this:

The waiting list was two years long. Even though the houses take only five weeks to build.

Hertzler's family business is believed to be the region's only Amish modular-home outfit -- and it has been booming. With no advertising (not even a listing in the phone book), Hertzler Modular Homes has cultivated a following among people looking for a customized and less-expensive alternative to the cookie-cutter models that dominate residential developments.

Hertzler can build only one house at a time in his warehouse, and he has been producing at maximum capacity, about 10 to 12 a year. When asked why his houses are so popular, Hertzler was modest, as is expected by the Amish community. "I don't know," he said. "I'm sure it probably is word of mouth."

Hertzler's business is an example of a recent shift in America's Amish. As farming becomes more expensive, Amish families are turning to making things and selling them to the general public.

"In the last 15 years, there's been quite a rapid development of small businesses, micro-enterprises in the Amish community, owned and operated by Amish people," said Donald Kraybill, a leading scholar of the Amish and a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, who wrote the 2004 book "Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits."

About 2,000 Amish and Mennonite people live in Southern Maryland, where their ancestors migrated from Pennsylvania in the 1940s. Several of the families make furniture, sew quilts and build barns and sheds for sale.

Hertzler's business is tucked away among the farms of Mechanicsville, the heart of the region's Amish population, where horses draw buggies slowly along country roads. Down a dirt and gravel driveway off a two-lane highway sits Hertzler's warehouse, where he and a half-dozen other bearded Amish workmen labor in suspenders and straw hats.

They measure and saw, hammer and trim. Since the Amish do not believe in using electricity or many other modern conveniences, they power tools using what Kraybill calls "Amish electricity." A diesel engine pumps compressed air through hoses to power the tools. The Amish hire electricians to wire the homes.

A typical 1,500-square-foot home is constructed in two long units, which are less than 14 feet wide so they can be transported on roads. Insulation, doors, carpets and cabinets are all added in the warehouse.

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