After a decade, South Dakota's Amish are moving on
Mar. 24—TRIPP, S.D. — About two miles west of Tripp, past a yellow warning sign with a horse and buggy and down a dirt road muddied from snow melt, sit a set of red barns and white homes, all with green roofs.
The structures dotting the rolling landscape house South Dakota's lone Amish community, a nine-family, 60-person settlement that started in 2010, widely believed to be the religious group's first venture into South Dakota.
But come this summer, they'll be gone — some of their homes are listed on
and an auction is scheduled for April 28.
"We wanted there to be an Amish community here, but seems like everybody Amish is more from Ohio or Pennsylvania, where there are more trees," Rudy Borntreger, the community's bishop, or elder, explained. "I think it's so open, nobody wants to join us. Now more people decided to move back to Iowa and Minnesota, so kind of for unity's sake."
Though their time in the state will be cut short — and an aversion to technology, deep focus on family and generally reclusive nature limited their socializing potential — they left a lasting impression on the Tripp area and beyond, community members say.
"We love 'em here," Marion Ymker, the owner and manager of Ymker Greenhouse and Landscaping in Armour, where some of the Amish have worked for about a decade, said. "We're disappointed they're moving."
That feeling is mutual.
"Good country. Good area. Good friends," Borntreger said, speaking in a tone of finality on his time in South Dakota, where he's spent around half of his adult life. "Lot of things change in 13 years. Most businesses in Tripp all changed hands. Old friends passed on."
The Amish are part of the Anabaptist Christian movement, closely related to the Mennonites and more distantly connected to the Hutterites. They first arrived in the United States in the 1720s, initially landing in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which remains the largest single community of Amish in the nation, numbering around 30,000.
Most of the Tripp Amish come from Tomah, Wisconsin, a settlement formed in 1969 that numbers more than 8,000. Borntreger said his family and some others plan to go back to a different region in Wisconsin.
Faith sits at the center of their lives: Bortntreger reads the Bible daily and attends church every other week. The children attend an Amish parochial school on the farm.
Likely the most well-known characteristic of the Amish is an eschewing of modern conveniences. However, there is a somewhat wide range of technology usage among Amish communities, and most of those decisions come down to the discretion of the leadership of individual church districts.
Borntreger described himself as a more conservative bishop. His family's large, white home has no electricity, though they do sometimes use propane lamps. The community also shares a pay phone.
For shorter-distance communication, a large bell sits in front of the Borntreger home; as the reporter arrived on the property for an interview for this story, his wife, donning a white bonnet and blue dress, shook the instrument to hail him from a distant barn.
In the chilly March air, Borntreger wore a black hat low over his forehead. Opposite the round brim, jointly framing his square jaw and forehead, is a dense, curly black beard.
His black coat and dark blue pants are handmade by his wife from spools of thick denim. Completing his stringy, 5-foot-10 frame is the only purchased portion of his outfit: grime-stained, brown boots nearly up to the knee.
Next to him is his youngest child, who carries a bright yellow, orange and green turtle toy, a pop of color in the otherwise drab landscape.
The humble lifestyle — from clothes to horse-and-buggy transportation — is about keeping a focus on God and family, explained Erik Wesner, who publishes
an Amish news website.
"They adopt certain technologies, but the way they approach technology is really trying to be thoughtful about how it's used," said Wesner, who became acquainted with the Amish by selling the population educational materials. "What are the effects of that technology, whether they're intended or unintended? What are the potential negative effects of that technology? Does the benefit that this tech brings us outweigh the negative side?"
Wesner used the example of a car to illustrate the point. While ownership of a personal vehicle does offer ease of transportation — and the Tripp Amish community has a slate of drivers who often bring them back to Wisconsin for familial engagements or around the state — it also has the potential to "fragment and disperse the family."
Borntreger shared some of these views, tying the root cause of many social ills to a breakdown in family structure.
"It's important to have parents that are willing to work together to raise their children," Borntreger, a father of 14, said. "If we look at overall situations, I think some are neglected; they have questions and their parents don't have answers so the children may look elsewhere."
While discussing family values, he mentioned a fondness for Gov. Kristi Noem, whose speeches he sometimes reads in local weeklies.
However, the Amish do not vote.
"We leave that to the rest," he said.
The Tripp Amish uprooted from their home in Wisconsin partially for "elbow room," which also served as the headline for a
in the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan announcing their arrival.
South Dakota as a landing spot was a budgetary decision.
"There's a corn belt between here and there that's more higher-priced ground," Borntreger explained. "But it's good ground, we like it."
It wasn't always easy: he recalled extreme drought in 2012 and the 2022 derecho, which took down some of their buildings. But that didn't factor into the choice to relocate; instead, the problem was an inability to attract and retain population.
A set of six families, referred to as the "Founding Six" by Jim Mize, who sometimes serves as a driver on trips to Wisconsin, rolled in during the first two years. Of that group, only one, Rudy Borntreger's family, remains.
A total of around two dozen families lived in the community throughout the years, though the settlement never numbered more than 90 people.
While Borntreger chalked up the churn to familial ties being elsewhere, Mize surmised that the inner workings of the group were not always the best.
"They won't tell you specifically why, but you can read between the lines; they made a couple of comments that Rudy was hard to get along with," he said. "In Amish practice, the bishop controls where they can work, how much they can work, the type of technology."
Leaving that aside, the impression the Tripp Amish left on local businesses was overwhelmingly positive.
At Ymker Greenhouse in Armour, where mainly younger Amish work a few days per week, they showed exceptional skills in repairing buildings or working in the greenhouse.
"When it comes to craftsmanship, you won't find better people to have," Marion Ymker, who owns the shop, said. "You don't have to worry about foul language. You don't need to worry about back talk or anything like that."
Matt Mehlhaf, the owner of the sale barn in Menno frequented by the Tripp Amish, had similar comments.
"They're good people as far as I'm concerned. And they're good customers, too," he said. "They're willing to work and work hard. And that's what it takes to raise livestock."
In the end, those takeaways are essentially all Borntreger would like to leave behind.
"When we first moved here, people probably figured we were a little different. And I guess we are different, but we're just trying to be friendly people, make an honest living, raise our families," Borntreger said. "That's what our mission is, I guess. Serve God, and don't forget to pray."
Jason Harward is a
Report for America
corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at