LANESBORO, MINN. – In this scenic southeast Minnesota town, tourists on warm fall weekends wander along the main street past bed-and-breakfasts, quaint eateries and the bike trail to get to the farmers market in the town park.
It used to be called the Amish market by some regulars, but the Amish haven’t been there since the town kicked them out two years ago.

The problem? The Amish wouldn’t buy insurance.

The city’s demand that they have insurance went against long-standing Amish customs and effectively ended a practice of some 20 years in which Amish families set up shop on a patch of grass in Sylvan Park.

The standoff has lingered as a reminder of the trouble that dwells at the intersection of the modern world and the Amish, who number about 3,000 in Minnesota. None of the Amish families who regularly sell baskets, farm goods and homemade items joined the farmers market after the insurance requirement was made.

Instead, one family now rents space in town from private landowners. And others sell baskets and handmade goods each weekend across the street and a block away from Sylvan Park near the town dam, which is on state land.

The dam location isn’t as lucrative as Sylvan Park, said one Amish vendor. The dam sits further from the Lanesboro business district, for starters, and it’s not as visible to passing motorists as the old spot. After a season spent at the dam, the Amish woman reported earning about 65 percent of the business her family used to see each week.

“I don’t know how much we have to complain to move back there,” the woman said as she sold homemade bread, bags of popcorn and jars of sauerkraut. She said her mother sold goods at Sylvan Park before the farmers market was even around.

She thought Amish families were given an exemption to the farmers market rules, but nothing was written down.

An Amish man working at her stand said the vendors at the market never complained about them, and everyone seemed to get along. “Everybody in town didn’t like it” when we moved, he said.

Parking woes

The problem came to a head in the summer of 2013 when a restaurant and inn owner complained about cars parking in a vacant lot along the town’s main commercial strip. The lot, owned by local brothers Andrew and Eric Bunge, was in a prime spot downtown. The Bunges had proposed turning the lot into an open air marketplace, but, according to minutes of the Lanesboro City Council meeting, Eric Bunge said the lot didn’t draw vendors because the Amish were allowed to set up in the park for free.

City attorney Thomas Manion said the Bunges’ lot had a conditional use permit to be a marketplace: “to use those vacant lots for a purpose.”

Finally Mayor Steven Rahn weighed in, saying “he would like to take care of the issue with the Amish in the park once and for all; put it to rest,” according to the minutes.

Rahn could not be reached for comment. It was later in 2013 that the city adopted new rules for the Amish, forcing them to pay a fee, join the market and show proof of insurance or leave Sylvan Park. The mayor’s supporters said fair’s fair. If the Amish were allowed to sell things in the park, everyone should have the same privilege. They envisioned a chaotic marketplace opening every weekend in the middle of Sylvan Park, and pushed for a more regulated solution.

But the plan to force all vendors to either join the farmers market or move to the open air marketplace didn’t go as planned when Amish balked at buying insurance. The Amish in Minnesota pay state and federal income taxes, but generally believe it’s their Christian duty to look out for one another rather than buy insurance.

So the Amish families left Sylvan Park, along with two non-Amish vendors who didn’t like the change. City Council minutes from November 2013 said many people showed up to support the Amish.

‘Part of our fabric’

Tourist Richard Jensen of Lino Lakes, who was out wandering Lanesboro with friends on a recent weekend, said the whole flap seems “kind of silly.”

“They have a right to be up here just the same as everyone else,” said Jensen.

Beekeeper Michael Gjere said he always “thought it was cool” to have Amish vendors near his honey stand at the farmers market. “I wish they could be a part of it,” he said.

Even the new mayor sounds supportive. “I think it would be great to have them back in our park,” said Robin Krom, who took over the job last year from Rahn.

Eric Bunge, who founded the Commonweal Theatre Company in Lanesboro and now works for a theater in Vermont, said he’s supportive of the Amish but wanted to see town businesses treated fairly.

“If a non-Amish person were to set up in the park whenever they wanted to, the town would send the police down there to kick the non-Amish out,” he said. The vacant lot that he and his brother had hoped to turn into an open-air marketplace today has one Amish family on Fridays and Saturdays, a family the Bunges have known since they were teenagers. The Bunges charge the family $100 a month, providing tables and a tarp to stay out of the rain.

“They seem to do quite well,” said Bunge.

The friction between the Amish and the non-Amish goes beyond the farmers market, said Bunge. Amish contractors who don’t have state licenses were undercutting licensed non-Amish contractors, especially during the recession, he said.

Andy Bunge, a plain-spoken contractor and Lanesboro businessman, put it this way: “It’s not your religious view to do whatever you want wherever you want,” he said.

The Bunges grew up in the area, and both remember a time before tourists ever came to Lanesboro. The Amish didn’t start coming until the 1970s, Andy Bunge said, when development in Pennsylvania started displacing Amish communities there.

Bunge has spent his contractor’s career working with the Amish off and on and said he doesn’t want to see them leave Lanesboro.

“They certainly are a part of our fabric,” he said.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747