A local group known for its back-to-the-basics way of life plans to open another site in the Northwest.
Homestead Heritage, which is headquartered in northeast McLennan County near Chalk Bluff, is preparing to open a center in Idaho that will teach crafts and sustainable living techniques. It will be much like the school the group operates here, which offers classes on everything from organic gardening and beekeeping to furniture making and blacksmithing, said Howard Wheeler, a member of the group and its unofficial spokesman.
Homestead has been wanting to open a new site for a while, Wheeler said. Its classes are "bulging," with people routinely traveling from out of state to learn skills, he said.
Since a significant number of Homestead's visitors are from northwestern states, the group started looking in that area for a site, Wheeler said. The 470 acres it has purchased near the Idaho-Washington border is perfect, he said, both in terms of the land and the surrounding community.
The site is located just outside a small town named Deary and is about 25 miles east of Moscow, where the University of Idaho is located. The area is heavily agricultural, Wheeler said, and is on the edge of logging country.
The group is in the process of building the facilities needed for the center, Wheeler said. It also hopes to eventually open a small bed-and-breakfast and a campground. Both would primarily be for people who come to the site to take classes, he said.
"We are very excited about it," Wheeler said.
Only a few people from the group will move to Idaho, Wheeler said. The majority of Homestead's approximately 1,000 members will remain in the Waco area, he said.
The group came to Central Texas two decades ago. Founder Blair Adams started his ministry in New York City as a missionary for United Pentecostal Church International in the 1970s. He and his wife then started a church in New Jersey, which eventually moved to Colorado after members began to feel a pull toward an agrarian lifestyle.
Friendships with Christians in Texas eventually brought the group to Waco. It bought land near Chalk Bluff in 1990 and now has more than 500 acres there.
Members of the group are sometimes a source of curiosity for local residents. The group has adopted many customs and some doctrine from Anabaptists, such as living in community and living simply.
Those customs can conjure up images of groups such as Amish. For example, the women wear dresses and don't wear pants, and the men use horses to farm instead of tractors.
However, the group does not spurn technology like some Anabaptist groups. Members drive cars, carry cell phones and use computers for work and school activities.
Thousands of people attend the group's holiday fairs, held each year after Thanksgiving and on Labor Day. Visitors can buy a wide variety of food and gift items made by members and they can also watch demonstrations of old-fashioned skills.
In addition, the group holds classes year-round and operates a deli and bakery six days a week.
Until a couple of years ago, virtually all of the buzz about the group was positive. But then some ex-members began speaking out against the group, aided by a Christian organization that focuses on groups it deems cults.
The ex-members say Homestead is not what it seems. They claim they were psychologically and spiritually damaged to the extent that it constituted abuse and label the group a cult.
Homestead officials vehemently deny those claims. They say the ex-members are bitter because they could not live up to the rigorous standards the group chooses to live by.
In Idaho, the group may face controversy of a different type. Some homeowners near the land Homestead has purchased object to the group's plans. Janet Rumford, for example, is concerned about the traffic that will result from the new center and the potential drain of customers away from businesses in Deary.
"We don't want it," Rumford, 63, said. "It's just an intrusion on our privacy, an intrusion on our safety, and it's completely changing the neighborhood."
Besides, Rumford said, "everything they say they're going to do, we already have." She said artisans from nearby towns sell items such as handmade furniture, candles and organic vegetables. Plus, professors from the area's two universities give lectures on topics such as organic gardening, she said.
Rumford said she and other concerned residents plan to ask the county's planning and zoning commission to deny the permit the group needs to open the center. A public hearing on the matter is scheduled for July 1.
Others in town are excited about Homestead's plans. Charlie Koehler, who lives near Deary, said he heard negative rumors about the group. But once he met members, he was sold on the new development.
For one thing, Koehler said, he is interested in learning many of the skills the group teaches, such as blacksmithing and cheesemaking. But more importantly, they are kind and caring, the 68-year-old said. He recently was admitted to the hospital with a heart problem and members brought him food and volunteered to do more cooking for him and his wife once he got home, he said.
Koehler said he is an atheist and appreciates the fact that members have been caring without trying to convert him.
"These are the type of people you'd like to have as friends and neighbors," Koehler said. "I'm glad to have them here and for them to be part of the community," Koehler said. "The town may not know that yet, but I think they'll find out."
Koehler said there is a variety of opinion about the group among local residents. Like him, some are excited about the group's plans, including the economic boost it could give the area.
Others are leery of the group because of rumors about them or concerns about added traffic. Some are indifferent, he said.
Wheeler said the group plans to open the site as soon as possible. But there is still major work to be done, he said.
Once the location is up and running, Homestead will consider expanding elsewhere in the country, Wheeler said. The group's only other location is a small community in Monterrey, Mexico.
"As things open up, we are very interested in expanding," Wheeler said. "We feel a lot of people are very interested in learning these skills."