Idaho Amish family embraces modern ways

Idaho Amish family embraces modern ways
JoAnna Miller helps her daughter Marilyn bake goods for resale at their home in Winchester, Idaho, on Jan. 26, 2012, as they and their large family expand outward from the usual Amish traditions. (AP Photo/Lewiston Tribune, Steve Hanks)
WINCHESTER, Idaho (AP) — In many ways the Miller family is as Amish as the people they left back home in Wisconsin 10 years ago, carrying on the traditional ways.

Father Harley, 40, is a master carpenter who has constructed the sprawling, ski-lodge-style house the family now lives in. Mother JoAnna, 40, with the help of her nine children, ages 8 through 21, cooks, sews, tends a garden and the family's large flock of goats and teaches the younger children their school work.

But in so many other ways the Miller family is helping to define a new generation of Amish people who dress in regular clothes, work outside the home, use computers, cellphones and DVDs and drive cars.

"I think we've kind of come out of the box," JoAnna Miller said one recent morning with the sun streaming through the windows in her cabin's vaulted ceilings. The rays lit up the blonde hue of the log interior, decorated with animal skins, flower arrangements, crafted candles and baskets filled with wine bottles.

"In one way, we look at it being kind of a healthy thing," she said. "We're not just closed up and totally sheltered, but I think, in a sense, we were just trying to protect our families."

After growing up and starting their own family in Wisconsin, Miller said she and her husband began to have misgivings about some of the things happening within their Amish community.

"We were getting revelation and certain things that were happening inside," she said. "And all of a sudden we found ourselves — we don't have any place to go with this. And so we just felt we needed to do something else."

They packed up their children and moved to another Amish community in Libby, Mont., where Harley had relatives and started work as a log home builder.

"It has been a tremendous change for us," Miller said. "When we ventured out from Wisconsin it was a bittersweet thing."

The family lived in Montana for seven years and that's when their community began to question the way the Amish had lived their lives for centuries.

"The community that we lived in felt that there's nothing wrong with driving a car," she said. "Because some people think if you drive a car, they kind of consider if you go outside their rules and regulations that you've just totally lost everything. And we discovered that that's not the case.

"So, as a community, everybody got a vehicle and it really was quite a change. I knew that would be the cutting edge for me as far as our families because I knew we were going to be shunned from that point on, which is what happened.

"They're discovering there's life beyond this. But a lot of people are catching themselves going into the other ditch, as far as experiencing everything that's out there and we're trying to keep the good things and the values of the way we were raised."

Their embrace of modern ways has put the Miller family outside the pale of their Wisconsin relatives, but opened doors that would never have been available before.

"We're not trying to throw everything away. We're trying to keep family first — that's really, really important for me and my husband. And that doesn't mean that we're trying to keep them all at home, but we're trying to have a healthy atmosphere and keep the work ethic. ... So we've learned that it's not just driving horse and buggy and wearing these certain type of clothes. That's not the only way of life."

Miller said their connections with the Montana group remain healthy, but she and her husband grew dissatisfied there as well and decided to move to Winchester about two and a half years ago, where Harley had worked once as a carpenter.

As far as they know, there are no other Amish families in the area. But the Millers have made connections with other like-minded folks and get together with them often to socialize and worship.

Some of the older children are beginning to work outside the home, as well. Daughter Susan, 21, works at a nursing home. Dora, 19, works at a gas station in town.

Marilyn, 18, is a waitress at the Lake City Inn in Winchester where her homemade pies, cookies and doughnuts are beginning to attract a wide following.

Like the rest of her siblings, Marilyn has been schooled only through the eighth grade, which is an Amish tradition. All of them, however, have budding interests in learning trades and she hopes to expand her talents and business as a baker and cake decorator.

"I really do like it," she said of her cake decorating. "I think it's something I'd like to do."

JoAnna and Harley accept that their children will be exposed to the wider world as they move beyond the family boundaries. As in their own experience, they trust that the values they have tried to instill in their children will ground them as they move on.

"I guess that's why we feel strongly to connect as a family when we're at home," Miller said. "We talk a lot and I'm hoping that we put a good influence into our children's lives so that when they go out they have that foundation and they can live out of that.

"We tell them that we're not going to continue just controlling them. They're adults and they can make some of their own decisions. But for now I guess they all feel right at home just being at home with us. And we really enjoy it. We have a lot of good times as a family."

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Information from: Lewiston Tribune