2016-07-27
WALNUT CREEK, Ohio (RNS) -- Day after day, Roy Wengerd makes leather belts in a barn behind his Holmes County home. Using tools powered by compressed air, it is a slow, deliberate process. A burner fueled by gas heats his workshop, which battery-powered lights illuminate from overhead.

His 15-year-old daughter, Martha, works by his side, preparing belts generally sold to wholesalers, shoe-repair shops, and harness shops. This is the way of the Old Order Amish, who avoid much of today's technology.

Yet the belts that Wengerd crafts so painstakingly in the old way are now for sale on the Internet.

R.W. Leather, of Walnut Creek, is one of eight Amish vendors linked on the world wide web by Orrville-based Spectrum Publications at the website amishshoppingmall.com.

"The Amish don't adapt to new methods. They shun modernism," Wengerd said while showing off his handiwork and the templates used to put designs on belts. "For me to go on the Internet, personally, I wouldn't do it. But [the Spectrum representative] is a wholesale account, and how he markets them is his decision, whether it's through the Internet or stores."

Mitch Naumoff, webmaster at Spectrum, said Wengerd was the first Amish businessman to agree to sell through his website, which offers everything from homemade noodles and jam to small wood products, cedar chests, and handmade quilts. But Naumoff was rejected by a number of Amish who didn't understand the concept of not having to pay for a service that is intended to increase their sales.

"It's very intimidating for a lot of them, just the idea of becoming involved in this new technology," Naumoff said. The website was launched in February with 150 products, and plans are in the works to have 300 products by the end of the year.

Old Order Amish people believe that the Bible instructs them to lead a life of simplicity.

They also believe it directs them to maintain a distinct separation between the church and the world. They've chosen to refrain from many forms of technology and other cultural changes in an effort to maintain cohesive family structures and stay true to their faith.

All the Amish vendors now participating in amishshoppingmall.com have been advertising for years in Spectrum Publication's Amish Heartland magazine, which targets tourists. The company plans to market the site this year on the web and various other media throughout the country.

Iva Yoder, manager of Helping Hands Quilt Shop & Museum in Berlin, Ohio, said she decided to sell quilts on the new site because it's an opportunity to share with the world the art of hand quilting. Prices range from $150 for a 30-by-30-inch quilt, to $1,200 for a queen- or king-size quilt that generally takes 500 hours to complete.

"We have a large inventory of quality quilts, and our goal is to get exposure to keep the art of hand quilting alive," Yoder said. The shop keeps about 600 quilts in inventory and also sells custom quilts. The quilts are made in Amish homes and sold on consignment.

Verna Schlabach, assistant director of the Mennonite Information Center in Berlin, likens Amish people's decision to sell online to the same justification that permits them to hire someone to drive them in a car.

"It eliminates temptation to go places that they don't need to go to if they hire a car," she said. "With this technology, they have the best of both worlds." They can sell their goods to an expanded market, but they can avoid unnecessary temptation to worldliness, she said.

Amishshoppingmall.com. is one of dozens of Amish-themed sites, although the vast majority only provide information about the Amish and handcrafted items they make.

Marvin Wengerd, owner of Carlisle Press in Walnut Creek and a distant cousin of Roy Wengerd, is one of the vendors on Amishshoppingmall.com who hopes to increase sales through the new Internet venture. He already has a huge following for his 16 Amish books and two magazines, which are sold in 26 countries and every state in the United States. Carlisle Press has also sold several hundred books to Amazon.com in the past year.

"Though we elect not to have a presence on the Internet ourselves, our philosophy is to sell every book we can to everybody we can," said Wengerd. "So with that in mind, that dictates that if Spectrum wants to sell books online, we want to sell books to them."

So far, about a third of the products on the new site come from Mrs. Miller's Homemade Noodles, a 26-year-old Amish-Mennonite business that

primarily sells noodles, jams, and salsa to bulk food stores and supermarkets in Amish and Mennonite communities.

Owner Leon Miller said he sees the Internet site as a way of eventually expanding his market. "They say more and more people are doing business on the Internet. You read about it all over the place," Miller said.

Beltmaker Roy Wengerd is also optimistic that the Internet will broaden his market. He rides his bicycle to a phone booth to check telephone messages for some of his wholesale orders, and he'll get his Internet orders the same way. But he hasn't changed his way of thinking when it comes to his craft.

"I tell people if they're interested in buying quality, I can help them," he said. "If not, go elsewhere."

more from beliefnet and our partners