CANISTOTA, S.D. — It’s a common site in Old Order Amish communities: blue dresses, black pants and white socks on a clothesline billowing in a brisk, early spring wind.
But this clothesline and its contents aren’t in Pennsylvania or Ohio or Iowa. They are behind a motel in the small southeastern South Dakota town of Canistota. The clothes’ owners are among the vanloads of Amish who travel from as far as Delaware and New York to Canistota for treatments at the renowned Ortman Chiropractic Clinic.
Why make such a long trip, passing countless other chiropractors and other medical professionals along the way? The answer is simple. “We get real good results,” said Ira Stoltzfus.
He and his wife, Nancy, were part of a group from Plattville, Wis., in town for treatments over five days. The Stoltzfuses, playing games in the lobby of the Ortman Hotel adjacent to the clinic on Main Street, said a van of Plattville Amish make the trek to South Dakota three or four times a year.
A block down the street, a man from Holmes County, Ohio, who declined to give his name, sat reading a newspaper in a combination convenience store and grocery store. This was his ninth visit to the clinic since 2000, he said and added, “Some people come out every six months.”
The Ortman Clinic, which celebrated its centennial in 2015, has been attracting Amish patients for 70 years. Today Amish, plus black-bumper Mennonites from Arkansas and some Hutterites, make up 40 percent of the practice.
Its popularity among the Amish is especially striking since none lived in South Dakota until 2010, when several families from Wisconsin established a new community about 60 miles southwest of Canistota.
Word of mouth
Long-distance journeys for medical attention are not uncommon among the Amish, said Goshen (Ind.) College history professor Steve Nolt, who has authored or co-authored more than 10 books on the Amish. One reason is the weight Amish give to personal recommendations.
“Who you trust . . . may be based as much on what kind of medical care your aunt received as on other factors,” Nolt said.
That was true for the Stoltzfuses, who were told of the Ortman clinic by a friend, and the Holmes County man, whose father-in-law initially recommended the trip to South Dakota.
Ortman doctors say they have never targeted the Amish for patients, other than an occasional advertisement in The Budget, the newspaper for the Amish and other plain groups. Rather, it’s word of mouth that keeps generating business.
“It’s always so-and-so told me. It’s always someone telling somebody else,” said Tom Ortman, a grandson of one of the clinic’s founders. He’s one of 10 chiropractors on staff.
The clinic draws thousands of patients a year to Canistota, a town of fewer than 700 residents. Four motels are located within a block of the clinic, and a fifth is four blocks away on the edge of town.
Gale Bouma, owner and operator of the Depot Inn next to the clinic, said 85 percent of her business is Amish. “Some people even clean their rooms before they leave,” she said.
The clinic attributes its success largely to the “Ortman technique.” Instead of forcing misaligned bones into place, as is done in conventional chiropractic, treatment focuses on relaxing the surrounding tissue to allow bones to more gently slide back into place.
In the convenience/grocery store, the newspaper-reading Ohio Amishman was recuperating from his second of six scheduled treatments over 10 days for a shoulder problem. “I’m very, very sore,” he said.
According to him, doctors back home said there was nothing they could do for him. Based on past experiences, he’s optimistic he’ll feel better. “We get more help, and it lasts longer,” he said.
Nolt said the Ortmans’ technique would also explain the clinic’s popularity with the Amish. “Low-tech, high-touch is the way they appreciate,” he said.
He cited a study that found 92 percent of Lancaster County, Pa., Amish and 87 percent of Holmes County, Ohio, Amish have visited chiropractors, and 41 percent and 45 percent, respectively, have been treated by reflexologists, another “hands-on” practice.
Making it a vacation
Nolt speculated another reason why Amish are willing to go many miles for health care: It might actually be a vacation.
That wouldn’t surprise Tom Ortman. “They just seem to have a great time when they’re here,” he said.
The lobby of the Ortman Hotel is stocked with books and games. A popular group activity is singing, for which the Ortmans keep a supply of hymnbooks. Tom’s cousin Ivan, another chiropractor at the clinic, noted that the Amish have their own worship services if one of the patients is a minister. Amish have even accompanied doctors to their own congregations on Sundays.
While thousands of Amish travel to Canistota, the Ortmans have also gone to see them. In 2009, when the Great Recession hit northern Indiana, including the Amish, seven doctors went to Shipshewana, Ind., to host a meal and program for their patients. Eight hundred Amish attended.
Said Tom Ortman, “They know we have their best interests in mind and know we will help them if we can.”
Family has Amish connections
While the Ortman Chiropractic Clinic has been treating Amish patients since the 1940s, the Ortman family has had Amish connections since 1870. In fact, some family members were Amish.
In 1819, Friederich Ortmann (the second “n” was eventually dropped from the last name) and his family moved from Mecklenburg in Germany to Adelshof in Poland, which was under the Russian czar. There the Ortmanns joined a Lutheran congregation.
But the congregation split when the Ortmanns and others began to oppose infant baptism, swearing of oaths and military service. They also dressed plain, with the men wearing long blue coats. That earned them the nickname “Blaurock” — German for blue coat — the same moniker given to Georg vom Hause Jakob, who, along with Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel, is credited with starting the Anabaptist movement.
The government classified the Blaurock group as Mennonites. When the czar started trying to force the acculturation of the German groups under his control, including revoking exemptions from military service in 1870, Mennonites and others began exploring emigration.
The Ortmanns, who were also affected, made contact with the Amish to their east, in the Volhynia region of eastern Poland and northwestern Ukraine. The group originated in Switzerland but, unlike many other Amish who journeyed west to North America, traveled east in search of religious freedom. They eventually settled in Volhynia about 1800, where they developed relationships with the Ukrainian Mennonites, who had come from the Low Countries of Europe.
A delegation of Ortmanns went to visit the Volhynian Amish in 1870, and several stayed and joined the church there. They included Julia Ortmann and her husband (and cousin), Friederich.
The migration finally started in 1874. Julia and Friederich and the rest of their village settled near Moundridge, Kan. But Julia’s four brothers in Adelshof accompanied other Volhynians who went to what is now South Dakota. Once in the U.S., the Volhynians soon dropped their Amish identity and became Mennonite. The Ortmanns all joined Mennonite congregations in the Freeman area.
Amon Ortman, a grandson of one of the brothers, and his brother Noah, who apparently never became Mennonite, started the Ortman Chiropractic Clinic in 1915 at Canistota, about 25 miles north of Freeman.