The St. Joseph News-Press is running a nice story on a changing-of-the-guard at a Jamesport, Missouri Amish furniture business. Owner Jake Graber has passed on his company to son John following health problems:
Jake Graber survived an aneurysm a couple of years ago and strives now to lead what he regards as a “healthier, more Godly life.” Forgive him, though, occasional moments of exasperation.
Some involve the typical rub of generations, a parent seeing life from a different range of experience than an offspring.
His youngest son has taken over the family business and begun an education in all that entails.
“I said, John, you’re starting to see the pressures your dad had for all these years, and you thought your dad was grouchy,” Mr. Graber said.
The man smiles with the recollection, adding, “You’re trying to instill the good in them, and you hope for the best.”
This venture leans against the balance that the Amish strike in a modern world. Jake’s buggy sits out in the parking lot … “Amish in the city,” he laughed. Yet he speaks about how the price of gasoline affects the costs of raw materials and shipping, about how a solar cell powers the cash register.
“You’re trying to keep the old ways, your old-order Amish ways, and yet you need to stay up,” he said. “You need to be caught up with the 21st century, yet you don’t want to get out in the world too far.”
By the sound of the article it seems son John would rather have waited to take the reins of his father’s company. Did he think he’d be running his own company at age 21?
The Amish takeover
Some Amish his age are doing just that, though taking over an established company built up by years of a father’s hard work adds pressure. Among Amish, taking over a business or farm is a fact of life that gets sorted out according to a number of factors.
With a farm, typically the oldest boys will be out of the running, as by the time they reach working age their father is likely just hitting his prime in his early 40s. So older sons are more likely to try to buy their own farms (assuming its financially feasible) or, more likely in larger settlements, to go into a different line of work like furniture or construction.
Due to this age factor the youngest son is often in a position to start farming by the time his parents are thinking of retiring. By the time they reach their early-to-mid 50s Amish farmers are thinking of taking a reduced role. Even after retiring however they will stay on and continue to help, offering invaluable knowledge as well as manpower.
Of course personal preferences enter the picture as well. One son might be thrilled by farming and another not so much. An Amish friend in Lancaster has two sons at home in the teen to early-20s age range. You can tell both are excited by the idea of farming though it is probably more likely to be the younger of the two that takes over the home place–or, depending how things unfold, even their youngest brother, currently in 6th grade.
An older, already-married brother has landed on his own dairy, a dream for many in the crowded and expensive Lancaster settlement. And the oldest went into produce years ago, so the farming interest appears to have taken strong hold with the boys in this family.
On the other hand a friend of mine in Ohio who grew up farming hated it. He dreamed of getting off the plow, which he eventually did, in order to open a successful clothes company. Ironically he has returned to milking, which I suspect is in part because he knows it would be good for his boys, who help manage the herd of Jersey cows.
With businesses, the path to ownership is a little clearer. Sons may work in their father’s company for a number of years and eventually take over as partners (unlike a business a farming operation can be taken over by just one family, unless it is divided and/or repurposed for more intensive uses, such as produce or livestock). One of the older Amish furniture companies in Lancaster County, currently in its fifth decade, is owned by 4 sons of the founder.
Alternatively, since the barrier to entry in starting your own shop is (especially in larger communities) lower than it is with buying a farm, some sons may start their own workshops in the same field or even a complementary industry (ie son of a buggy shop owner opening a wheelmaking business, furniture maker’s boys crafting furniture parts, etc).
Amish gazebo photo: Alans Factory Outlet/flickr