Old Order Amish Immigration to Ontario

Until 1953 the only Old Order Amish in Canada were in Wellesley and Mornington Townships of Waterloo and Perth counties, respectively. They were descendants from the 1820s Amish migration to Canada. However, many people don’t know that between 1953 and 1970 at least ten small groups of Old Order Amish chose to immigrate to Ontario from the United States.

Dennis Thomson, a political scientist who examined Canadian government relations with the Old Order Amish, has identified at least four reasons for their attraction to Canada in those years: (1) cheaper and better land was available in Ontario than in desirable parts of the United States; (2) Canada did not have conscription in the post–World War II years, while the U.S. continued its mandatory conscription; (3) the U.S. was extending compulsory social security to self-employed persons, including the Amish; and (4) in Canada, fewer Canadian government agricultural subsidy programs threatened the Amish. Although Canada had its family allowance program, this was obtained voluntarily and thus was not an issue. Additionally, Ontario had not progressed as far in school consolidation as in some places in the United States. These combined factors made Ontario a more “promising land” than the alternatives in the United States as the Amish sought an undisturbed setting for their communities.

Pathway Publishing

Pathway Publishing building near Aylmer, Ontario in 1969. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

In August 1952 a small Old Order Amish settlement in Pike County, Ohio, found itself located within eight kilometers (five miles) of a proposed site for a gaseous diffusion plant that would produce weapons-grade uranium for the Atomic Energy Commission. The Amish immediately listed their farms for sale and looked for alternative locations. Four family heads explored southern Ontario in September 1952, and by December they had purchased farms near Aylmer. Seven families moved to Aylmer in spring 1953. This settlement was destined to hold a prominent position in the North American Amish world. In 1957 Joseph Stoll, a twenty-two-year-old Amish schoolteacher, began publishing Blackboard Bulletin as a mimeographed monthly paper for Amish schoolteachers. David Wagler opened a small bookstore several years later. Next, four men formed a nonprofit Amish publishing company in late 1963. The Pathway Publishing Corporation was initially composed of David Wagler, Jacob Eicher, and Joseph Stoll of Aylmer, and Levi J. Lambright of LaGrange, Indiana.

Joseph Stoll later referred to the Aylmer settlement as a “renewal movement” among the Amish, probably because of its clear stand against things like tobacco use and rumspringa. Some leaders in the community, however, became restless and disillusioned after fifteen years in Ontario. They did not like the compulsory Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and the seizing of their milk checks to pay the CPP taxes in the late 1960s. They also disliked agricultural programs that tried to manage what farmers planted because of grain surpluses. They again looked for alternative settlement locations, some within Canada and some outside. Eventually in 1969 a number of families left for Honduras, including Joseph and Laura Stoll and family; his parents, Stephen Stoll and family; and Laura Stoll’s sister and family. The Honduras settlement did not succeed and the Stoll families returned to Aylmer in the late 1970s.

An important convert to the Amish joined the Aylmer settlement in the late 1960s. David Luthy was raised as a Catholic and had almost earned a master’s  degree in English. While selling real estate in Northern Indiana one summer he encountered the Old Order Amish and eventually joined them after studying Anabaptist and Mennonite history briefly at Goshen College. He soon joined the Aylmer settlement and their publishing business, and became a significant editor for them. He also started the Heritage Historical Library, which eventually became a magnet for scholars doing research on the contemporary Amish experience. Luthy has also authored numerous books on the Amish, especially in his analysis of Amish settlements that have not survived.

Swartzentruber-Amish-Schoolhouse

Swartzentruber Amish schoolhouse near Chatsworth, Ontario. Photo by Sam Steiner.

Aylmer was only one of the new Amish hubs. In 1954, Swartzentruber Amish from Ethridge, Tennessee, part of the most conservative branch of the Old Order Amish, moved to the Chesley, Ontario, area. In the early 1960s others from the large Amish community in the Holmes County area of Ohio joined them. Their land was not as good as some other settlements, but the settlement thrived. The Norwich settlement (between Tillsonburg and Woodstock) also began in late 1954. The Norwich families also came from Holmes County, Ohio, with a few families from Conewango Valley, New York.

Smaller settlements began near St. Mary’s (1959), Tavistock (1960), Gorrie (1960), Wallacetown (1962), Mount Elgin (1962), Belleville (1967), Teeswater (1967), and Lucknow (1969). A least five of these settlements had failed by 1980, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the failure stemmed from lack of ordained leaders to form a congregation. Sometimes the surrounding non-Amish community resisted the settlement. Sometimes Canadian immigration policy kept families from joining new small settlements. The latter happened in the mid-1960s when some prospective Amish immigrants were arbitrarily asked to sign a document that stated they would become Canadian citizens, vote in elections, and send their children to high school. This policy prevented potential immigrants from joining the Wallacetown settlement, which ended within two years. The final straw for the Tavistock and Gorrie communities was the requirement in 1977 by the Ontario Milk Marketing Board to discontinue use of milk cans in favor of cooled bulk tanks.

Daughter settlements of these immigrant Amish have also sprouted in other parts of Ontario, though large-scale immigration to Ontario by Old Order Amish from the United States has ended.

To learn more about the Old Order Amish in Ontario read In Search of Promised Lands.

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