Levi Fisher's ancestors farmed the fertile land of eastern Pennsylvania for more than 275 years while living a quiet, traditional Amish lifestyle.
But squeezed in recent years by encroaching suburbia, rising land prices and increasing tourism, Fisher sought a place that reminded him how things used to be. He found it in the rolling pastures of southwest Wisconsin.
Fisher moved here in 1999 with a dozen children. Soon after, his brother Henry and Henry's family followed.
Now the Fisher clan is building a cinder block house on its 118 acres for a third brother, Gideon, who moved here recently from Pennsylvania with his wife and six children.
"We don't like the rat race out East," Gideon Fisher, 38, said while installing a window in his new home.
This rural corner of Wisconsin is a popular destination for Amish fleeing the creeping congestion and secular prosperity in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
"Wisconsin is very hot right now for the Amish," said Donald Kraybill, an academic and author from Pennsylvania who is a leading analyst of Amish migration.
Drawn by low farm prices, fertile land, a longtime dairy industry and a state with generally liberal attitudes, Amish are gobbling up huge swaths of real estate in and around Grant County. The movement is so strong that there is a weekly shuttle service between here and Pennsylvania to transport Amish and their belongings on the 850-mile trek.
In the past four years, more than 300 Amish have moved into farms around Fennimore, according to local estimates and statistics compiled by national researchers. Amish residents have bought more than three dozen farms, and brokers are scouring the countryside for more land.
Farm prices have skyrocketed more than 50 percent, to about $1,800 per acre. But that still is a bargain when compared with the $10,000 to $15,000 per acre in their former homelands such as Lancaster County, Pa., west of Philadelphia, and the area south of Cleveland.
"I have buyers for more than 50 farms if I could find suitable land and people willing to sell," said Curtiss Freymiller, a real estate agent here who specializes in selling property to the Amish.
The Amish are not strangers to Wisconsin. The first influx came in the 1960s. The state and the Amish clashed in the 1970s over the Amish right to decide the schooling of their children. That led to a famous Supreme Court decision, Wisconsin v. Yoder, that ruled that compulsory state attendance laws do not apply to the Amish, whose religious beliefs halt their children's education at the eighth grade.
Amish traditionally do not send their children to local schools, leading to grumbling from cash-poor education districts whose state funds are calculated on the basis of enrollment. With about 12,000 Amish people, Wisconsin now has the fourth-largest Amish population, according to researchers, behind Ohio, with 54,000; Pennsylvania, with 50,000; and Indiana, with 36,000.
But the Amish surge in recent years toward this part of Wisconsin underscores an intensifying clash of urban vs. rural that cuts directly into the Amish lifestyle.
Known for their trademark beards for men and black bonnets for women, the Old Order Amish have long eschewed modern comforts. Unlike slightly more socially integrated groups such as the Mennonites, they do not drive motorized vehicles, they make do without electricity and phones, and they mostly live off the land and crafts trades.
In search of seclusion, Amish people have fanned out to 28 states, including Illinois, as settlements in historic Amish areas have run out of room or are being squeezed by modern civilization.
Wisconsin now ranks second in the number of Amish settlements, with 42, behind Pennsylvania, with 48, Kraybill said. And more settlements are on the horizon.
Hollywood has portrayed the Amish as shy, reclusive and backward. In reality, the Amish are proving to be sharp business folks.
"There is a certain tipping point for [the Amish], and when outsiders get too close, they move," said Richard Dawley, a writer who has chronicled the Amish in Wisconsin and conducts seminars around the state to teach residents about them.
"They are generally experts at buying low and selling high," Dawley said. "There is a calculated method to their moving. It's rather well thought out." Before considering a region to move into, they send advance teams to scout out the properties, evaluate the quality of the soil, gauge the receptiveness of the local people and calculate land prices.
"We liked what we saw," said Levi Fisher, 44, who first arrived on a scouting mission in southwestern Wisconsin in 1998 and put down less than $400,000 for his 218 acres a year later.
Since then, Amish have bought farms on the edge of Fennimore and have persistently tried to persuade nearby farmers to sell. With large families, Amish are expected to seek farms for years to come.
In Fennimore's lone supermarket, people in the town of approximately 2,300 complain about the body odor of the Amish, who tend to bathe infrequently. In the bars, they curse about the horse droppings on the street from the buggy animals. Behind the wheel of their cars, they honk at the buggy drivers, who tend to take up quite a bit of the road while moving slowly. Sometimes animosity spills over into hate crimes, such as in northern Wisconsin, where police in three counties have been investigating several incidents since last fall of people shooting at Amish neighbors.
Harvey Jacobs, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says that, despite negative perceptions, the Amish contribute far more than they receive.
"On the positive side, they take little," Jacobs said. "They take no welfare, no social services or [farm] assistance from county extension. . . . The communities are mainly taking from them."