As the Amish move into Essex County, local officials are mindful of respecting their religious beliefs while also alerting motorists of their horse-drawn buggies — especially at night.
Photo by Pete DeMola
REBER — Midnight is dark in this remote stretch of fertile landscape, where country lanes creep through fields ringed with misty mountains.
Motorists must combat a thicket of possible difficulties that only magnify at the crepuscular hour, including snowdrifts, wild animals, single-lane bridges and hairpin corners along unpaved roads with low visibility.
There are undermarked railroad crossings where horns cut a lonely wail across the landscape.
There are few streetlights, with moonlight and stars often acting as the only guidepost.
Add another variable to the mix:
Buggies moving between fields, and along country highways, with nothing but a kerosene lantern to illustrate their ghostly paths.
That’s the scenario in east-central Essex County as winter melts into spring and the longer daylight hours sees the newly-transplanted Amish community whir to life and start making their way from field to field in their horse-drawn conveyances.
Farmers worked in frost-spiked fields on a recent weekday morning.
At one residence, a group was hard at work clearing fields, dragging piles large of bramble to burn as colorful traditional quilts hung overhead.
A woman, dressed in simple clothing, waved at a reporter.
A few miles south, a farmer made fast work of clearing out a barn, his ink-black buggy parked in front of a brick farmhouse.
Dairy cows are coming next week, the man beamed, and he seemed pleased when told that the arrival of the Amish in the community was heralded with warmth from their new neighbors.
While the Amish prefer to stay out of the spotlight, he said, the farmer did not object to a report detailing traffic concerns from local officials and alerting motorists to their presence.
In the small pocket where the Amish have planted roots — at least three settlements in Westport, Essex and Reber — numerous signs warn motorists of variables: deer, snowmobiles, horseback riders, tractors, firetrucks and diesel trucks.
But there are no warnings for the buggies, which are jet black and are not outfitted with headlights or the orange triangle displayed on other slow-moving vehicles — only the lanterns.
The Town of Willsboro has launched an awareness campaign alerting motorists of their presence.
The town is working with county officials for signage on town and county-owned roads — including Mountain View Drive and Sunset Drive — which officials hope will be installed imminently in conjunction with campaigns on social media and the local public access television channel.
“We’re going to have some kind of accident,” said Supervisor Shaun Gillilland. “We want to be welcoming, but absolutely don’t want to have a tragedy.”
State Department of Transportation officials said signage alerting motorists of buggies on state roads must be sparked by local residents who initiate a traffic survey over “unusual circumstances.”
“We could then conduct a study and our findings would then be communicated,” said Bryan Viggiani, a DOT spokesman.
“I would more than welcome a traffic study,” Gillilland said.
But further deepening the perilousness of the buggies is that this new farming nexus lays along the route that sees dozens of heavy-duty trucks daily making their way to and from the NYCO refinery plant in Willsboro and their wollastonite mine in Lewis.
NYCO Plant Superintendent Skip Parker said they were unaware of the Amish presence, but noted they have just one haul truck that runs between the plants, and the rest are sub-contracted with several local trucking firms.
St. Lawrence County has been home to Amish communities centered around the towns of Heuvelton, Dekalb and Gouverneur since the mid-1970s.
Small pockets also exist in Franklin County, transplants from Penn Yan along the Southern Tier and Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The Amish are now slowly making their way east to Essex County — especially the fertile stretch that hugs Vermont, within view of the Green Mountains — and are drawn to the availability of open land and existing farming communities, said Cornell Cooperative Extension of Essex and Franklin County Director Rick LeVitre.
“They are moving into the area, they are building houses and they are farming,” LeVitre said, noting he saw a buggy pass during a recent field visit.
But while their presence is welcome — a Facebook post by the town of Willsboro sparked dozens of comments recounting friendly encounters with the transplants — their embrace is also leavened by concerns over their safety.
The Swartzentruber Amish are among the most conservative subgroups, which means they eschew even the orange slow-moving triangle on the back of their conveyances, which are virtually invisible after dark.
Accidents are not uncommon, according to a website, Mission to Amish People, that tracks vehicle-buggy crashes, including a nighttime collision in Heuvelton last summer that required the buggy operator to be airlifted to Syracuse after suffering a broken neck when he was hit by a driver who had allegedly been drinking.
Safety concerns in St. Lawrence County mounted to the point where lawmakers attempted to broker a resolution with Amish leadership in 2015 after a petition drew 1,000 signatures from the public.
“We had attempted to convince the Amish communities to put the orange slow-moving signs on the back of their buggies and wagons,” said St. Lawrence County Legislator Larry Denesha (District 6). “And we weren’t successful. They cited religious reasons.”
Denesha was quick to point out the Amish are an asset to the community, and pay their taxes. But, he said: “The signage is more for their protection than it is for the motoring public — especially at night.”
A 1984 treaty known as the DePeyster Agreement has codified a set of traffic guidelines for the Amish in order to spare them tickets and prison time.
Shortly afterward, a new set of state regulations required every vehicle drawn by animals to either display the slow-moving vehicle emblem or a lighted lantern with a red lens at least four inches in diameter, among other specifications, including at least 72 square inches of a “high quality white or whitish-gray reflective tape.”
The Swartzentruber Amish use the lantern and the minimum amount of tape, but balked at the other suggestions offered by county legislators, including an increase in the amount of total reflective material to at least 144 inches, as well as requiring the tape to be applied to more than just the back of the buggies.
Other proposed measures would have required using the “best available” red lens for the lantern, as well as painting the interiors of the lanterns white and keeping them maintained.
Working with an Amish bishop, the committee outfitted a buggy with double reflective material as an experiment.
“It made a huge difference, and we thought it was a workable solution,” Denesha said.
State Sen. Patty Richie, who represents the district, also got involved. But other Amish bishops shot down the final ideas, and the measure was defeated.
“We felt like we were meeting them halfway, and they were not receptive to it at all,” Denesha said. “So we are back at square one.”
Despite the struggles in St. Lawrence County, a recent state-sponsored slow-moving vehicle symposium made headway on addressing these issues, said state officials.
“There’s been a lot of fatal crashes around the state, whether be buggies or other slow-moving vehicles,” said Chuck DeWeese, Assistant Commissioner of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee.
The event, held in February in Syracuse, saw state agencies and local law enforcement meet with stakeholders, including farmers and Amish representatives, to reduce the number of crashes.
DeWeese said the Amish participation was “remarkable” and “unusual because they don’t usually come out and meet with government officials.”
“In my mind, the most important thing is these vehicles are seen,” DeWeese said. “If you’re in these rural areas, don’t be surprised when a buggy comes over the hill.”
And their presence is expected to grow in Essex County.
A 2012 Atlantic Monthly report said Swartzentruber Amish are slowly being squeezed out of St. Lawrence County due to subsidized growers moving into the region and buying up the coveted clay-loam soil.
In contrast, land in Essex County is relatively cheap, and regenerating once-fallow farms remains attractive for upstarts moving in from Vermont and elsewhere to start their operations.
LeVitre said from his experience, Amish tend to start in 50-acre chunks of land before expanding their family-run operations, passing them along to their children.
“I think you’ve got a farming community, you’ve got open land — I predict there will be more down here,” he said.
But with the newcomers will inevitably come growing pains.
Denesha’s advice to county officials?
“Prepare to be frustrated,” he said.