INTERCOURSE, PA., SEPT. 24 -- -- Amish farmers, who usually avoid politics and controversy, have been stirred to action by a proposal for a four-lane highway through their farmland.
"I can't buy an argument that puts traffic ahead of farms," Dave King, an Amish farmer from Gap, said at a hearing Wednesday, dropping the normal rule of public silence.
The state is considering six possible routes for a $100 million, four-lane highway east of Lancaster, and three of them would cut through 800 Amish farms around Intercourse.
A leaflet circulated in Amish church districts during the last two weeks suggested that the Amish attend the hearing and let their silent presence show their concern.
About 1,500 Lancaster County residents, two-thirds of them Amish, turned out, filling a high-school cafeteria and spilling into the corridors.
Some participants said it was the largest crowd of county Amish ever gathered in the area. Unlike previous hearings on public issues, where Amish brought non-Amish friends to speak for them, the Amish spoke up Wednesday.
"This could cut down the tourist element," one Amish man joked. "First, they ruin the community, then the tourists won't come," he said to laughter.
"To run a superhighway through the farmland could be very unhandy for the Plain People," said another man, who asked not to be identified. "It's bound to bring more tourists and more businesses, and more traffic." One old Amish man voiced concern that the highway "may drive us out."
The Amish sect originated in Switzerland in the 1690s and came to America in 1728. Members try to remain separate from the rest of the world, refusing to go to war, swear oaths or hold public office.
Their old-fashioned dress and reliance on horse-and-buggy transportation has become an attraction for thousands of tourists.
Many participants at the hearing, which also included smaller group meetings between citizens and highway officials, said they recognize the need for improved roads east of Lancaster because of chronic traffic congestion on winding, two-lane routes through the region.
But most urged that the new highway go around, not through, their community.
"We're rural now, and we'd like to keep it that way," said Walter Martin, a dairy farmer in the Mennonite sect from the Blue Ball area. "But we need help with our traffic, that's for sure."
"The department will by no means shove this project down the throats of citizens," promised Robert R. Mueser, from the state Transportation Department.