I had the opportunity to sit down with Eddie Swartzentruber and his wife Karwyn for about three hours at Estelle’s Eatery & Bar in Harmony, Minn., to discuss his life’s story. For those of you who don’t know, Eddie has become a mega ex-Amish superstar, interviewed by major TV networks and media nationwide. He’s become a social media sensation. He told me he was offered a book deal to share his life story about a year ago, but hasn’t responded to that request yet.
I’ve known Eddie and a few of his ex-Amish siblings for a few years. He’s always smiling and full of positive vibes that are contagious.
His story has been shared by others, but never in this newspaper. So, here’s what everyone is talking about.
At the age of 17, Eddie Swartzentruber made a run for it. He left the Amish life behind in the middle of the night, leaving his family’s farmhouse in rural Canton, Minn.
It was January 8, 2014, between 11 and 11:30 p.m. Nobody knew. Not even his twin brother. He couldn’t tell anyone or they might try to stop him.
The day before he had planned to leave, their two German shepherds, Shep and Sarge, knew something was up. They made sad sounds and followed him around the farm.
When he felt it was time to make his getaway, he slid a note under his pillow. He recalls the note said something like, “I’m leaving the Amish life. I plan to stay in Mabel.”
Eddie quietly walked downstairs in his socks, carrying his boots.
The dogs normally slept in the barn. That night, they were waiting for Eddie when he stepped out onto the porch.
He put his boots on and ran. As he ran, he looked back and the dogs were watching him. Shep and Sarge ran over to his parent’s bedroom and barked.
Eddie didn’t want to hear his mom calling his name, so he covered his ears with his hands while he ran roughly two miles.
He waited to be picked up by a friend from Mabel. The temperature was -12 degrees around midnight. Eddie wasn’t quite dressed for that kind of weather. The clock was ticking, and his ride showed up about 15 minutes later.
“You feel bad for your mom, and you know it will be harder for others to leave,” remarked Eddie. He was the fourth of his siblings to leave the Amish community. Today, there are only two out of 10 of his siblings left in the Amish community.
Growing Up Amish
Eddie, just like all of his siblings, was born at home on the family farm. He is the youngest of 10, with two sets of twin boys in the family. Eddie has a twin brother named Eli. The other set of twins are Andy and Aaron.
He recalls that there were 23 students while he was attending Amish country school for first grade through eighth grade, with ages ranging from six years old through 14 years old. One of his sisters was their teacher when he was in first grade.
They started their day at school at 8:30 a.m., recess at 10 a.m., lunch at noon, and ended the day at 4 p.m. The older kids were often asked to help the younger kids with schoolwork.
While the Amish are a faith-based community, religion is not a part of the curriculum in school.
Eddie said they studied four subjects. He loved reading, he was horrible with English, enjoyed arithmetic, and was better than average with spelling.
For news, they mostly enjoyed publications such as the Cresco Shopper and Fillmore County Journal, but their favorite newspaper was The Budget.
Since 1890, a subscription-based U.S. weekly newspaper, The Budget, has been published in Ohio. This newspaper has been produced for and by the Anabaptist Christian communities, consisting of content shared by members of the Amish, Amish Mennonite, and Beachy Amish. As Eddie indicated, it includes news about weddings, funerals, baptisms, farm accidents, and other information relevant to the Amish communities in America.
Going to hospitals? They’d rather try home remedies.
Eddie rarely went to the hospital. None of their family received vaccines.
The first time he recalled going to the hospital was when he was in seventh grade.
His parents were reluctant to take him, but Eddie kept begging them to take him. He was feeling symptoms that he felt were similar to what he had heard about an Amish boy in Granger had died from. Eddie was truly afraid of dying from appendicitis. His parents took him to Winneshiek Medical Center in Decorah, Iowa, and he underwent surgery.
Once a month, someone from the church comes by to collect money from each Amish family for the sake of the church. Quite often, the church takes care of medical bills for Amish families in need.
Dating could start at age 16 ½. They don’t have pre-arranged marriages, but there’s a lot of peer pressure.
They never went on vacations. They only traveled for funerals and weddings, and they always took Amtrak trains or Greyhound buses.
As a young boy, Eddie always felt awkward when he was traveling with his family. Whether at the train or bus stations, everyone was always pointing at him and his family.
For meals, they typically had oatmeal, sausage, cornflakes, and pancakes for breakfast. Cheerios were a blessing.
Eddie said if you ask any Amish about Sunday Morning Coffee Soup, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. That’s a combination of milk, instant coffee, saltine crackers, and sometimes sausage. This was for special occasions.
They had church services every other Sunday, lasting from 9 a.m. to almost 1 p.m.
Nobody is considered a member of the church until they are baptized, so the children would have to leave the church after the service was over so that the members could discuss who might be in violation of the church rules.
Life is hard for the Amish, riding on horse-drawn buggies in the middle of subzero temps. Eddie recalled when his hands froze while riding in a buggy around the age of 12. That’s when he knew he didn’t want to live like this anymore.
According to Eddie, Amish don’t vote in elections. As his mother said, “We don’t want war, so we don’t vote.” The military is part of the government, and the Amish don’t like the military.
Since the beginning of time, young people have pushed the limits of their parental control. The Amish culture is no different.
Baseball isn’t just America’s favorite pastime. It’s a favorite sport of the Amish.
All of the Amish kids grow up playing baseball. And, they are huge Minnesota Twins fans.
English neighbors would stop by the Amish farms and drop off newspapers with sports sections sharing stories about how the Twins were playing each week.
But, reading about the Twins games wasn’t enough. They wanted to experience a live game.
Eddie and his siblings saved up money to give to an English friend to purchase a transistor radio headset from Kingsley Mercantile in Harmony, Minn., so they could listen to Twins games. Along with their transistor radio, they acquired two headsets. They separated all of the headset speakers from the brackets so that four people could each listen to one of the speakers.
As young boys, they became pretty savvy with wiring and batteries, since they didn’t have access to conventional electricity. They would take their father’s sawmill motor battery and run a wire into the battery compartment of the transistor radio. It worked. They could run the transistor radio off of their father’s sawmill motor battery. And, they’d return the battery to its rightful place, so nobody ever knew what they were up to.
With a smile on his face, Eddie said, “When Dan Gladden was announcing the games, you felt like you were out there.” He loved hearing about Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, and Torii Hunter, to name a few.
He has many fond memories of the Twins. There was this one Saturday in which the Twins had a big game, but the Amish kids have to work on Saturdays. His brother Andy was conveniently sick that day, so he could update everyone on the game.
It was time for lunch, so the entire family gathered around the family farmhouse table. There was always a silent prayer before and after lunch. During the silent prayer following lunch, everyone heard Andy yelling, “Yes! Go Joe! Go Joe!”
Mom was concerned and asked what was going on. Several of her sons stood up from the kitchen table and said they would check on him to see if he was OK. Meanwhile, Andy’s brothers quickly ran upstairs to alert him to the situation so he could hide the radio.
Historically, Eddie recalls that if any of this technology was ever discovered by the elders, it was immediately burned or disposed of in some manner. So, they guarded it quite well, as it took a long time to save up money and get their hands on any piece of equipment.
But, that didn’t stop Eddie and his siblings. One of his older sisters had a library card and would let Eddie and his brothers use her card to check things out at the Harmony Public Library. They checked out a portable DVD player and watched movies. The one movie that they became obsessed with was “Hang ‘Em High,” starring Clint Eastwood. They watched that over and over again.
Eddie recalled how he and his siblings would always run to the mailbox to get the mail before their parents had a chance, because there was always the possibility that a late notice might arrive from the Harmony Public Library for one of the movies they hadn’t returned on time.
And, when it came to music, they mostly listened to country music. Occasionally, rap music, including Akon. Eddie shared, “You know you can hotwire a boombox to a motor battery, and it will work.”
And, while they aren’t supposed to have cell phones, they do. Many of the Amish kids get their hands on trac phones. Friends who are non-Amish will get the phones for them along with cards so they can add minutes to the phones. Since there is no Amish phonebook, the kids just share their phone numbers with each other all throughout the community. They find a way to make it work. Eddie says it is not uncommon for Amish community members to charge their phones in the garages of nearby English friends.
Today, Eddie says, the young Amish are finding their way onto social media. They are using Facebook, Snapchat, Tik Tok, and the like.
And they keep tabs on Eddie, as he has more than 200,000 followers on his Tik Tok profile. He shares his stories about growing up in the Amish community on a regular basis.
Life After Amish
The night Eddie left his Amish life behind, he had $140 in his pocket, and he thought he had a lot of money at the time. But, he quickly found out that wouldn’t last long.
Right away, he needed to start making money.
He was like a foreigner born in his own country. Eddie didn’t have a Social Security number or a birth certificate. He went to the Fillmore County Courthouse and told them he lost his birth certificate. They were able to provide him with one.
Eddie then went to Social Security offices in Rochester and Decorah to work on getting his Social Security number. It took a couple months, but he was able to get that squared away.
Right away, Eddie went to work construction Monday through Friday. He was bored on the weekends, so he’d pick up odd jobs. He shoveled snow. Anything to make money. Eddie wasn’t afraid to work.
At the age of 19, he decided he wanted to earn his GED (General Education Development). He was working construction at the time, but knew this was important. He began attending classes at NICC in Calmar, Iowa.
He recalled when the teacher became frustrated with Eddie not understanding algebra. Since he had attended school for more than five years, he was a little rusty on many subjects. algebra just wasn’t clicking for him. At one point the teacher said, “OK, Eddie, let’s say you have X number of avocados…” Eddie quickly raised his hand, and said, “What’s an avocado?” The entire class, full of girls, erupted into laughter. It was already awkward for him to sit in a room full of girls, so this was an especially embarrassing moment for him.
As he began to explore the world with access to the Internet, he realized how much he would have enjoyed having history and science in school. He had a lot of catching up to do.
Eventually, he landed a job at R & J Wood Goods selling furniture. During his time there, he started transporting Amish-made furniture. He drove to Ohio to pick up furniture, and make deliveries all over the United States. He has stories to tell. At the age of 19, he was driving big furniture trucks in downtown New York and getting lost in bad neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
He delivered furniture in nearly every state in the U.S., so he’s not afraid to travel.
From tropical destinations to ski slopes, he has been around the world. He has been experiencing life as he wants it to be lived.
Eddie went to his first Minnesota Twins game, which also happened to be Joe Mauer’s last game. Eddie was there to see Joe Mauer retire, which was an emotional moment for him. He was 19 when he went to his first Twins game, listening to the Twins since he was eight years old.
He has become somewhat of a theologian. Eddie has attended and studied many churches from various denominations. He wanted to figure out where he fit in.
Along the way, he met his wife Karwyn, through mutual friends.
Karwyn (Thill) grew up in Winona, Minn., and has worked as a licensed dental assistant at Northwest Dental Group for the past five years.
Their first date was on January 2, 2021, nearly seven years after he fled his Amish life. They went to Decorah, Iowa, and ate at Don Jose Mexican Restaurant. They spent the night playing “Life on the Farm.” It’s like the game of “Life.” Eddie recalls playing that game a lot as a kid.
He has taken Karwyn out to visit his twin brother and his family in the country. His twin, Eli, also ex-Amish, is married and has one child. Karwyn loves Eddie’s big family, and likewise, Eddie enjoys time with her family in Winona, Minn. Karwyn appreciates Eddie’s Amish heritage. She was even sad when Eli sold his horse and buggy.
Eddie and Karwyn Swartzentruber traded vows in marriage on February 25, 2022. They currently attend Rochester Assembly of God.
His personal and professional growth has snowballed in so many ways in a very short amount of time. In 2019, he started his own business, Tri-State Commercial Roofing. Today, he is a real estate mogul, making property investments in Fillmore and Olmsted Counties. His construction background helps tremendously.
Eddie still visits his mom on the farm, but he always dresses conservatively. Whenever he visits, he feels guilty for leaving, and his mother has said that she feels like she failed him in some way. His father, Abe, died of cancer in December 2022.
Switzerland’s Dark History Guided Mennonites to America
Ever since Eddie earned his GED and learned about the origins of his Amish religion, he was curious about going to Switzerland – where it all began.
He made plans to visit the castle where Mennonites were tortured and executed for their religious beliefs.
“Government put you in the castle if you didn’t believe in baptism after birth, so they put Anabaptists in the castle to torture and imprison them back in the 1500s and 1600s,” explained Eddie. He knows because he and his wife visited Trachselwald Castle in Bern, Switzerland.
There was no separation of church and state, so the ruling Reformed Protestants oppressed the Mennonites for their beliefs. These Anabaptists, as they were called, didn’t believe in baptism until late teens, most commonly the age of 19. They were tortured and executed because they rejected infant baptism.
Around 1671, a large group of Anabaptists (Mennonites) retreated from Switzerland for Palatine in Germany. That probably explains why their bible is in German and they speak Deutsch. During the early 1800s, they were welcomed with open arms to Pennsylvania, thanks to William Penn.
Today, according to Eddie, the Amish are the fastest growing faith-based community in the world. And, the numbers don’t lie.
There are currently 32 states occupied by the Amish, and Minnesota ranks 11th in population in the United States. There are more than 360,000 Amish in America, and the numbers are spiking by double-digits in certain states.
Mount Hope in Holmes County, Ohio, is home to an estimated 37,770 Amish, the second largest population in the world. Lancaster County, Penn., has the largest Amish population with 41,000.
Eddie did his best to explain the evolution of the Amish. The Mennonites were conservative, but too modern for some in the community. So, a new group developed that was referred to as Amish. Then, some people in the Amish felt this group was too modern, so the New Order Amish was formed. People within the New Order Amish felt the group was too modern, so the Old Order Amish was formed. From there, another more conservative group was established under Eddie’s namesake – Swartzentruber Amish.
If you are English, can you become Amish? “Yes, but it is very difficult. You have to learn the Deutsch language. You have to be able to read the German Bible and get rid of all of your technology. You have to go to classes to learn the Amish culture and rules. It’s not very common, but it is possible. In Ohio, it has been done,” explained Eddie.
While Eddie grew up in the Canton area, just outside of Harmony, there are Amish in St. Charles and Granger, as well, and they all have different rules.
It’s apparent that while Eddie doesn’t want to live the Amish life, he respects his heritage.
Eddie shared that he is grateful for everything his parents did for him and everything they taught him. He knows that he wouldn’t be the person he is today without them.
For Eddie, he didn’t leave his family. He left a religious lifestyle.