Amish businessman Mervin Lehman stitches a mattress at his Heartland Mattress facility in Shipshewana. Lehman agreed to being photographed only if it depicted him working and wasn’t posed. (Rick Farrant)
Amish businessman Mervin Lehman stitches a mattress at his Heartland Mattress facility in Shipshewana. Lehman agreed to being photographed only if it depicted him working and wasn’t posed. (Rick Farrant)
When Mervin Lehman of Shipshewana was laid off from his RV company job in 2008, a neighbor affiliated with LaGrange County’s sizable woodworking industry suggested Lehman consider making mattresses.

The neighbor thought it would be helpful if someone locally could supply mattresses for bed frames displayed at trade shows.

“He asked me, ‘Did you ever think about making mattresses?’” Lehman said. “And I said, ‘Well, no I hadn’t.’ And he said, “Well, somebody in this area should do that.’ So I thought: Why not me? I’m unemployed. I can do that.”

Thus was born Heartland Mattress LLC, which to date has not only supplied trade shows but sold more than 450 handcrafted mattresses since 2009 to retail markets in Indiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Canada.

Lehman is Amish and his story is central to one of the focuses of a broad effort to develop an economic development plan for LaGrange County, where the Amish represent a significant percentage of the population.

Donald Kraybill, a nationally recognized expert on the Amish and senior fellow of the Young Center of Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, estimated 14,664 of the 37,128 people in LaGrange County — or 39.5 percent — are Amish. Amish researcher Steve Nolt, professor of history at Goshen College, estimated the Amish population at 12,300 — or 33 percent.

The substantial Amish population brings with it some perceptual challenges. A demographic analysis prepared by Strategic Development Group of Bloomington suggested that two key economic indicators — per-capita income and educational attainment levels — are relatively low in LaGrange County as a result of the large Amish population.

Although the county’s population is growing, SDG noted that is due for the most part to large Amish families, and that translates into a low per-capita income. Moreover, the county’s educational attainment levels are low, in part, because most Amish residents do not seek formal educational opportunities after the eighth grade, the SDG report said.

Keith Gillenwater, executive director of the LaGrange County Economic Development Corp., acknowledged that per-capita income and educational attainment levels are customarily among the factors weighed by businesses considering moving to an area. But both he and Lehman, who serves on the EDC board, said statistics can be misleading — that behind the seemingly discouraging data is an Amish work force that is innovative, entrepreneurial and possessing the kind of work ethic employers covet.

Lehman said it is important to take into account the philosophies of Amish culture — to look beyond the numbers when considering how the Amish factor into an economic development plan. Those philosophies, he said, enhance an economy, not detract from it.

One thing worth knowing, the amiable, articulate father of four said, is that the Amish do not seek great affluence.

“Define wealth,” Lehman, 41, said. “If you’re defining wealth by average annual salary, then that’s why you come up with those numbers. If you’re defining wealth by personal net worth, you’ll get a different number. How many in this community own their own home? A large percentage of people do.

“I think we figure out how to live within our means. Our cost of living is a lot lower than the non-Amish cost of living. Why spend money that you don’t have? That is the philosophy of our culture.

“My goal,” he said, “is not to become a millionaire. My goal is to pay for my home, have something to live off of in my retirement years comfortably and make sure my kids and family are comfortable. That’s all I need out of this life. And helping my neighbor if he is in financial straits. Having enough money to help him.”

Lehman’s modest position on wealth is closely linked to his views on educational attainment.

Lehman supports efforts in some LaGrange County public schools to better prepare non-Amish students for high-tech jobs, but he said there is no need to focus on increasing the formal educational levels of the Amish. The way he sees it, if the county can ensure jobs requiring advanced degrees are available, the people in those high-paying jobs will employ the Amish.

“What I hope to see for the community at large is creating higher-paying jobs for the non-Amish community so the Amish community can feed off those jobs,” he said. “It will create a lot more wealth in the Amish community.”

Gillenwater was more bullish on the value of the Amish work force.

“It’s a skilled work force,” he said. “It’s just not something where we’re going to wow people with the number of Ph.D.s we have in our community. Here’s the thing, if you look at how schools these days are trying to teach project-based learning, who is more involved in project-based learning than the Amish?”

That, said Lehman, speaks to the entrepreneurial nature of the Amish.

Lehman said he didn’t know a thing about mattresses when he started exploring his enterprise, but he had to do something to support his family.

He was not alone. He said his entry into the arena of self-made businesses is part of a growing trend in LaGrange County, where the Amish, stung by the recession, are realizing that they need to take matters into their own hands and not depend on a volatile business like the recreational vehicle industry.

“Our eyes were opened in this recession,” he said. “All our eggs were in one basket, and we can’t have that. So we need to diversify. We need to become more self-sustaining in our community. We need to open small businesses. We need to think for ourselves — not relying on the government or whoever else can create jobs for us. We need to do it ourselves.”

Statistics provided by Nolt illustrate just how dependent the LaGrange County Amish were on manufacturing jobs before the recession. In 2007, Nolt said, 53 percent of Amish heads of households were working in manufacturing. Just 16 percent ran their own small businesses.

In Lehman’s case, he did what most entrepreneurs do when they set out to start a business. He researched. He began tearing apart mattresses to see how they were made and he consulted with people in the industry, including a representative of mattress maker Leggett & Platt Inc.

“He came to my house and sat in my kitchen for over four hours,” Lehman said. “The first question he asked me was, ‘Why do you want to go into the mattress-making industry?’ And I told him, ‘Well, I think there’s a niche market for me of handcrafted mattresses.’ He said the industry was saturated. There was a price war going on. The companies are always undercutting each other. And I told him, ‘I want to make a premium product that is handcrafted.’ He put me in touch with all kinds of names in the industry.

“I’ll never be able to repay him for what he gave me. But when he left, he said, ‘You don’t owe me anything. I just want to see the American entrepreneur succeed.’”

And succeed he has. Lehman began the business from his garage on his rural property and recently expanded the garage to a 3,600-square-foot manufacturing facility and small showroom.

Lehman’s wife, Naomi, handles office duties, and Lehman and his 16-year-old daughter, Arlene, make mattresses that range from $279 to $1,399 for a queen to $1,026 to $1,816 for a king.

Lehman stakes his reputation on the quality of the mattresses and on his customer service.

Beyond that, if anyone asks him why his mattresses are so special, he replies, “Because I made them.”

“I know what’s in these mattresses,” he said “We use a premium foam. There’s a price war going on out there and they’re trying to cut the price of the mattresses. They’re going to a cheaper quality of product. But we went the other direction. We want a product that 10 years from now the customer says, ‘This is the mattress to buy.’”

Lehman, who like so many Amish didn’t pursue formal educational opportunities after the eighth grade, said his ability to master the trade speaks to the ingenuity and innovation of the Amish — something that could be easily overlooked in crafting a region’s economic development strategy.

“Many Amish may not have degrees,” he said, “but they’ll know how to think for themselves, and that is part of the thought process you need to have in business. Thinking for yourself. Figuring out what works, what doesn’t work.

“We could probably build a better car than Detroit can. I will go out on a wing and say that. I honestly believe we could do that.”
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