From Amish life to TikTok videos, Rochester man makes unlikely change
For the first 17 years of life, Eddie Swartzentruber lived in an Amish community in Harmony, Minnesota. He left it to search out the broader world.
ROCHESTER — Eddie Swartzentruber of Rochester was 17 when he slipped a note under his pillow, quietly crept to the farmhouse door and fled.
It was a terribly cold January night, and his flimsy Amish clothes offered little protection against the sub-zero temperature.
Swartzentruber ran fast enough down the road to make progress and keep warm. He felt scared and guilty but determined to leave behind a lifestyle that offered him no prospect of happiness.
“I was pretty scared, but I knew somehow I would figure it out,” Swartzentruber said, recalling his flight eight years ago from his Amish community.
He did figure it out. Swartzentruber, 25, has proven successful in navigating the modern world. He sports swept-back blond hair and a well-trimmed mustache and beard distinctly not in the Amish mold. He is married to Karwyn. He owns his own roofing company.
And, perhaps, in the most unlikely twist, Swartzentruber has a growing legion of TikTok fans.
Swartzentruber wasn’t seeking TikTok fame when he opened an account last spring for fun. It wasn’t until two months ago that he began experimenting with the platform describing life in an Amish community. That’s when the number of his followers began to creep upwards, now 70,000 and growing.
It’s not hard to imagine why his TikToks are attracting tens of thousands. Swartzentruber keeps his videos short and sweet. He often ends them with a flash of his beatific smile.
But mostly, his short videos work because they lift the veil on a community largely shrouded in secrecy to the outside world. People, in short, are fascinated by Swartzentruber’s videos about the Amish.
Do his parents still love him despite leaving the Amish? Love is not part of the Amish lexicon, Swartzentruber says in one video.
How do the Amish teach about puberty and sex? They don’t. The subject is verboten. Swartzentruber said he was taught that babies come out of the sky. The fact that such subjects are not discussed among Amish explains “why there are a lot of problems in the Amish with abuse.”
On the question of the freedoms the Amish enjoy, Swartzentruber said in one video, they were few, if any. The rules prescribed everything, from how the Amish wore their hats to the size of the brim (no more than three-and-half inches wide). The brim could not be curled upward like a cowboy hat.
“That is way too worldly,” he states emphatically in his Deutsch-accented English.
Largely viewed as a frozen-in-time Christian sect, the first Amish arrived in America in the mid-1700s. But the Anabaptist movement began well before that in Europe in 1525 as a radical wing of the Protestant Reformation.
Unlike Catholics and Protestants at the time, Anabaptists practiced adult baptism, and insisted on a “free Church” separate from state interference. In the late 1690s, Anabaptist leader Jacob Ammann and his followers promoted “shunning” and other religious innovations. It ultimately led to a split between Anabaptists into Amish and Mennonite branches.
“Back when they broke away, there was no cars. It was barely a horse and buggy. It was more just a wagon,” Swartzentruber said. “They still do it today.”
Swartzentruber said this conflict between resistance to change and the need to adapt for reasons of law or survival creates huge dustups in the church that are usually resolved by an all-powerful bishop. Change does come, but when it does, it is often incremental and tortuous.
Cows and the cold
Eddie said that when he was growing up in Harmony’s Amish community, his family milked 10 cows to make a living. They stored the milk in cans and kept the can cool in ice and cold water.
But when a big dairy farmer moved in nearby, he introduced bulk milk and storing milk in tanks. Soon, creameries refused to accept canned milk. But to keep bulk milk fresh and cold, power generators were needed, and that was a bridge too far for his Amish brethren. So many turned from dairy farming to the trades and construction.
Life in an Amish community was often miserable. No matter how much he might search the Bible, in many situations he could find no satisfactory answers for why the Amish in Harmony lived like they did.
Swartzentruber said his own church, his namesake Swartzentruber church, was one of the most strict and uncompromising towards change. He recalls the moment when he made his decision to break from the Amish community.
He and his brother were riding in a fore cart, an open-air buggy with two horses hooked to the front. Both were exposed to the elements on a miserably cold day. His hand froze. He was 12.
It was hard not to look enviously upon other nearby Amish communities that had more relaxed rules toward convenience and innovation.
The sin of envy
“We thought the St. Charles Amish were so cool, because they got a triangle in the back of their buggy. They also had a door to get in, in the winter time. And they had a glass on the front, which I thought that’d be so awesome (to protect from the cold wind).”
Swartzentruber said he felt a desperate urge to explore the wider world. But the Amish church exerts a powerful force through its teachings that hedge in community and conformity among congregants.
Children are taught from an early age that they will roast in the pit of hell when they die if they ever leave the community. And for the first five years after leaving the Amish, Swartzentruber had trouble going to sleep at night.
“My mom would always say, ‘The end of the world could come for you in the middle of the night,’” he said.
Swartzentruber began his new life “among the English” basically from scratch. When he fled the Amish, he had no driver’s license, no birth certificate, no social security number. He had only an eighth-grade education (He has since gotten his GED). But his Amish upbringing outfitted him with skills and an outlook that helped him succeed in the English world.
For one, he had a strong work ethic. He wasn’t afraid of work. And soon enough, he was taking on odd jobs, shoveling snow and splitting wood, as long as they paid him in cash. Still, the learning curve was steep.
Building an English life
“It’s hard to ask questions, because every question that I have, I feel like it’s the stupidest question ever,” Swartzentruber said.
It was hard not to be dazzled by this new world after the cramped existence of Amish life.
Soon after he left the Amish, Swartzentruber went on a cross-country furniture run to California. Driving down an interstate, Swartzentruber saw his first overpass bridge. He urged the driver to slow down.
“I wanted to take a picture, because I didn’t know if I was going to see another one,” he said.
Swartzentruber still retains that wide-eyed wonder of the world. He travels often and has visited almost every state in the union.
But he discovered that there were Amish qualities and personality traits he had that collided with the social conventions of his new world and that he had to tame.
The Amish are a blunt people with an edgy sense of humor. At a Subway fast-food restaurant one day, Swartzentruber noticed that the food preparer behind the counter was a heavy-set lady.
“It looks like it’s nice working at Subway,” he recalled telling the woman. “With the Amish, you would take that as a joke like, ‘ha, ha,’ but out here, you don’t say stuff like that.”
Subway was challenging in another sense. An Amish dinner was simple and straightforward: Eggs for breakfast, a casserole for dinner. But at Subway, he found the multitude of choices he had to make for a customized sandwich bewildering and overwhelming. Do you want tomatoes? Lettuce? Mustard? Oil?
“The first time I ever went to Subway, I was almost crying. The person I was working for wanted to go through Subway, and I’m going, ‘How do you order one of these? There’s a million things here. I didn’t know what half of these things are called,” he recalled.
“Just make it like his. Just make it like his,” he recalled telling the server.
Back home, again
Swartzentruber said he has returned to Harmony's Amish community that he was raised in a number of times since leaving. The first time was a short-lived visit a year after he had left. He drove up in a car, and his mom came out the door ready to reprove him. He didn’t stay long.
His relations with his mom are up and down. His mom feels like she failed him. But for the most part, he has gotten his mom to promise not to talk about why he left.
Swartzentruber said he has nine siblings, many of whom have left the Amish community as well.
He gets enjoyment from making the videos, but if suddenly his audience plummeted to zero, he would go about his life as before.
“I’m not going to be offended," he said.
But that’s not going to happen soon, given the volume of questions he gets about Amish life. Every question he answers leads to 10 more.
He said he knows many Amish are aware of his TikToks and “they hate it.” Some young Amish have phones or they use the phones of others. They create accounts to keep tabs on others.
“(The Amish) would see me as so much better of a person if I would be home, wearing Amish clothes, living an Amish lifestyle, even if I had a computer and a phone but kept it hidden,” he said. “That’s one of those things that I never respect about the Amish is they will totally live a lie.”
But it is important, he says, to give the unvarnished truth, both the good and the bad, about life among the Amish from someone who lived it.
“Some of it is not comfortable to talk about, but I think it’s needed,” Swartzentruber said, “because some of the stuff that happens is horrible.”