Now this was lost, a fume of smoke, the moment’s image of a fading
memory, and he could not say it, speak it, find a word for it – but he
could see that boy of his lost youth…He seemed to be a witness of the
secret weavings of dark chance that threads our million lives into
strange purposes we do not know.
They saw it coming and had time to get ready for it, the family. He hadn’t been doing all that well lately. And then, a few weeks ago, the stroke hit, a hard one. And that’s what did him in. And the other Saturday afternoon, as I was meandering out there on the road, my brother Steve called me. And he told me that the man had died. “He passed on a few hours ago,” Steve said. And we talked a bit. About David G. Yutzy, one of the founding patriarchs of the Amish settlement in Bloomfield, Iowa. Steve’s father-in-law, Wilma’s Dad. And this week, a lot of memories stirred in me. Not only of “Dafe Yutzy,” as he was called in Amish-speak. But of all that was the world of Bloomfield as I knew it. Or Old Bloomfield, I guess you could call it now, since it was so long ago, and it’s no longer the same place it was back then.
I’ve mentioned it before, in one line in the book, I think. Bloomfield was founded in the early 1970s by Gideon Yutzy and his sons. David, Henry, and Norman. I’m not sure of their ages, who was oldest. It doesn’t matter. And their younger brother, Eli, eventually moved in, too, with the young English woman he had married. She became Amish for him. But I think it was just Gideon and the three older sons for the first while. And I’ve thought about it some, since. What kind of nerve or guts, or was it foolishness, they had, to just go off on their own like that, and settle in a new place. Or maybe it was just plain old faith. I don’t think any three of my brothers would ever have done that with my father, go off into a strange new land to settle, with no other Amish people around. I know I sure wouldn’t have. So it must have been some kind of special bond they had there, the father and his sons. That’s all I can figure out.
And just that close, it didn’t work. I’m writing from memory, here, so not all the details may be exactly accurate. But this is how I remember it being told. They lived there for a year or more, all hopeful that other families would move in. And none did. So they got a little discouraged, and got to talking. Maybe it was a mistake, this Bloomfield thing. Henry decided to pack up and move on over to Milton. He’d had enough. He wanted to live in a real settlement. And Milton was just south of there, all inviting. So he moved over. And the remaining few families huddled for a few more years. And they talked some more. They didn’t want to move to Milton. Maybe they should just give it up and go look at other more suitable settlements to move to. Settlements that were more established, and somewhere along their lines of thinking.
And Dave actually went to Milroy, Indiana, and bought a farm. That’s what they tell me today. But there’s a legend out there, too, that I somehow recall from way back. I don’t know if it’s true in every detail, but I know I heard it told. The men of Bloomfield headed to town, one day, to board the bus. Maybe they were heading to Milroy. I don’t know. But from the stories I heard, it was a close thing. They planned to board a bus to somewhere. And from that bus they planned to board, a young Amish man with a long red beard stepped off. He greeted them. He had come to check out what they believed, and how things were, here in this little fledging place. It was Dewey Gingerich from the now-extinct settlement of Fortuna, Missouri. He originally hailed from Kokomo, Indiana, where his father, Bishop George, still lived. They were having issues in Fortuna, I guess, right about then. Little Amish communities like that tend to explode sometimes from personality clashes. And Dewey decided to head on up north and check out Bloomfield. The Yutzy men welcomed him enthusiastically, and abruptly canceled their own trip to wherever they were going. They took Dewey out to their homes. Showed him around. The land was fertile, and, better yet, cheap. You could buy a pretty good-sized farm for a little bit of next to nothing, compared to a lot of other places.
And Dewey was impressed. At least with the land. Maybe not with the church rules, so much, but those could always be tweaked, he figured. And he went back home to Fortuna, all excited, and told of what he had seen. And eventually a lot of the Fortuna families moved up to Bloomfield. Dewey told his father, too, there in Kokomo. I suppose Bishop George made a foray soon after that, to see for himself. They both bought farms not far from where the Yutzys had settled. And so Bloomfield was saved from extinction. They had a Bishop, now. That’s a huge thing, for any new settlement. It signals stability and structure. And soon other families from other places started trickling in.
And by the time Dad and Mom took the bus to check out the place in the spring of 1976, Bloomfield was getting established. Dave Yutzy was The Budget scribe for the community. And he duly recorded that David and Ida Mae Wagler were there, visiting over a Sunday. And all those little intricate details count, looking back. Amish people from all over read The Budget. And a little later that summer, Dave triumphantly wrote that David Wagler had bought a farm there. Out just north of West Grove. He and his family were moving to Bloomfield. It was pretty big news, to be proclaiming from any Amish settlement. Especially from a young upstart settlement like that.
And in August of that year, I got to go along with Dad and Naomi and Titus, to help build our new dairy barn on the farm. Joseph went along, too. I’m not sure who all else went. It was so long ago. Charlie Newland took us in his capped pickup truck. Of course, Carl Sansburn had to get in on the action, too. We arrived at the farm, and it was all that Dad had claimed it would be. Big hills to the north. The little farm buildings nestled in, below. And the river bottoms to the south, bordered by the Fox River. Maybe I’d canoe that river, some day, I thought. (I never did get that done.) They had built the foundation for the barn, and were waiting for us. The Yutzy brothers, Dave and Norman, and their sons. Looking back, the Yutzys were good at three things, as I recall. They farmed. They worked at construction. And they liked to hang out at sale barns. That’s just who they were. And they had a lot of fun doing all of that. And they welcomed us quite raucously into their world.
I connected immediately with the Yutzy cousins, Marvin and Rudy, that summer as we built the barn. They were bright and intelligent, and said things that made me laugh. We got along real well. The barn sprouted, day after day, as we hammered hard at the wet rough lumber Dad had bought from Jake Beachy, who had a sawmill. It was tough slogging, but we stayed at it. There were frolics, too, that week. The men from the few families settled there came and helped us build, all for free. And there was another connection going on, in another dimension. My sister Naomi met Alvin Yutzy that week. Naomi cooked our noon meals. That’s why she came along. Not long after we moved to Bloomfield, Alvin asked to bring her home one Sunday night.
And we built that barn that week, the Waglers and the Yutzys and all the frolicers that came to help. I was excited and nervous. This place would be my new home. Still, I felt deep sadness. Aylmer was the only home I’d known. I remember how my little sister Rhoda asked Dad, as the day approached that we would leave. “If we don’t like it, can we move back here, to our home?” Dad chuckled. And he assured her, in some way. I don’t remember what he said. But there he was, and there was his little daughter, asking. He calmed Rhoda’s heart, even though he knew we would never return to Aylmer. That’s a pretty special memory.
And then we moved to Bloomfield, in October of that year. It was a new world. I reconnected with Marvin and Rudy. It was a strange time, leaving behind the only world I had known. And I got to know my new friends and their families. Another thing I remember about the Yutzys. They could sing. And they sang a lot, at the singings. In harmony. That was a sin, in Aylmer. I can still hear Alvin’s high clear tenor. And his brother Lester’s deep bass. It was just chillingly beautiful to us Aylmer folks. We joined the singing, of course, with our cracked and untrained voices.
And it seemed like if there were ever two families that were destined to mix and mingle their blood, it was the Waglers and the Yutzys, in that Bloomfield world of long ago. Alvin took the first shot at it. He courted Naomi. Brought her home, after the singings. And eventually, he asked for her hand. She said yes. And they were married. Then Lester courted my sister Rachel. And Steve asked Wilma if he could escort her home. And Titus courted Ruth, the daughter of Dave’s brother, Norman. And right along, then, as the years passed, Ruth’s brother and my best friend, Marvin, brought Rhoda home. And, in time, all of them got married. All of them. That’s pretty rare, I think, that so many siblings get married to so many partners that shared the same blood like that. And there was an empire, of sorts, sprouting to life in Old Bloomfield.
This has nothing to do with the story line, but I’ll just say it here. It’s kind of ironic, I think. I married into the Yutzys, too. Ellen’s father, Adin, is a brother to Dave and Norman and the others. He had left the Amish, though, and joined the Plain Mennonites before Ellen was born. Or maybe shortly after. I can’t keep track of small details like that. They’re not that important in a story. Anyway, we were one more Wagler/Yutzy couple. Or Yutzy/Wagler, take your pick. From all the courtships that happened between those two families, ours was the only one outside the Amish world. And we all know how that went. Our marriage was the only one that failed. You think about that, and it’s a little strange. But not really. The stress of our journeys, the stress of breaking free, had a little bit to do with it, I think. Who knows?
Moving on, then. There was a short golden age, there in Bloomfield. When all was going as it should have, when it came to what an extended Amish family is. And what it is to set down roots. But it could not last, that golden age, and it didn’t. Nathan was the first one to walk away from that world for good. I soon followed him. No sense going into detail how that all came down, it’s written in the book. And after fleeing, we sorted out our lives, licked our wounds. Picked ourselves up, and kept walking. And we were the only two from either of those clans that fled Bloomfield, at least for a few years.
We went back to see the family every year at Christmas. And it went pretty well, usually. Our siblings and in-laws treated us cordially enough. Once in a while someone felt led to give us a little talking to. It got agitated a time or two. And Dad always delivered his obligatory lecture at some point during morning devotions. We just shrugged it off, such fussing. And we went on about our lives.
There were fault lines, though, in the foundations of the budding empire. There in the Wagler and Yutzy clans. And soon enough, those fault lines shivered and gaped open. There was no one particular reason for them, I suppose. It was a mixture of things. One of the main reasons was that the leadership in Bloomfield took a hard core, conservative turn. Bishop George was greatly influenced by Dewey and Jerry, two of his more radical sons who also happened to be preachers. My brother Joseph walked among them, too, the preachers of Bloomfield at that time. But he never had much of a voice, other than being the most popular preacher around. The Gingerich men looked at him with grave suspicion. He was a Wagler. He had wild brothers. And later, he had wild sons.
They had a lot of power, that combo of Bishop George and his two preacher sons. I’ll give some credit to Bishop George. He said it as he saw it, in his high squeaky voice. And his sermons were always interesting, even if you didn’t agree. But his sons, well, let’s just say they weren’t public speakers. It all went to their heads a bit, the power they had. And they took to acting a little funny. They wanted to be more plain. And that just never works, in any Amish community. Never has, never will. I don’t know why that’s so hard for some people to grasp. If you start forbidding things that always were allowed, all of a sudden, it creates a lot of turmoil and unrest. And there was no way to stand against that power structure. If you spoke up in protest, you were marked. So you had a choice. You could stay quiet and go along with all the silliness. Or you could move out.
Some of that stuff went on, way back when I lived around there. But after I left, it got a lot worse. The farmers stirred and asked to use mechanical milkers to milk their cows. It was tough to make it, milking by hand. Oh, no, the Gingerich clan decreed. That would be a sin. That’s not who we are, here in Bloomfield. And the carpenters, too, looked on helplessly as more and more restrictions came at them. All power tools were abruptly forbidden. And the preachers grumbled that the builders were on the roads in pickup trucks every day, too. It all just got a little dark. I’m sure there were a host of other grievances that I never heard of, too. I wasn’t really all that tuned in to Bloomfield, anymore. Didn’t really want to hear much of all the problems going on.
The Yutzy men were particularly irritated at Bishop George and his sons. The rules in Bloomfield had been pretty firmly established, they felt, when they settled there. The way they had agreed among themselves how things would be. And now here came the Gingerich clan, and just arbitrarily changed things, decreed all kinds of onerous new laws. It didn’t go down well at all. And the children were stirring, those in the Wagler and Yutzy clans. And others. At some point soon, it was inevitable. There would be an exodus.
Dave Yutzy saw what the future held, I think. And to his credit, he made some tough decisions. In 1993, he and his wife Ella (or Ellie, as she was called) packed up and moved to Rexford, Montana, with a few of their younger children. It was a pretty big deal. I remember hearing the news, and wondering what in the world was going on. How could it be? One of the original founders of Bloomfield was packing up and moving out. Something must not be quite right.
And I’m not sure which of my married siblings broke first, but in time they all moved out of Bloomfield. Except Titus and Ruth. They’re the only ones who remain in Bloomfield today, of all my family. The others all trickled out, mostly over a period of a decade or so. And they all eventually left the Amish, too, except Joseph. But he didn’t move out until much later, over to May’s Lick, Kentucky. The others left for Plain churches. Like Beachy Amish, or even plainer. But where they could drive cars. Two of the once-powerful clans of Old Bloomfield now were no more. Dad did what he could, to persuade and convince his sons and daughters to stay and be content in Bloomfield. It was no use. I’ve always felt bad for Mom, that she had to endure one more burden, to see her children moving away from her like that. But, as it was with my own journey, all of us have to make our own choices. And all have to do the best they know, with what they have.
I’ve been a bit critical of Bloomfield, now and then, over the years. But they had one rule that was highly enlightened. Gideon Yutzy and his sons had insisted on this rule, when they settled there. And Bishop George must not have had much of a problem with it, because he and his sons never got it changed. And that rule was this. If you left Bloomfield and joined a “car church,” you would not be excommunicated. Not as long as it was a “Plain” church and not as long as you moved out of there and didn’t cause anyone any trouble. There aren’t a whole lot of Amish settlements where such a thing is true. Well, maybe there are more now than there used to be. The old Blue Bloods here in Lancaster County sure could learn a thing or two from their uncouth western cousins.
But Bloomfield has another strict rule, too, a rule that remains locked in today. An unbelievably harsh rule. And one that is pretty common in the Amish world. If a son or daughter leaves the Amish and joins a Plain “car church,” or just goes out and doesn’t attend any church at all, that child is pretty much cut off from any family ties in Bloomfield. Sure, he can go home to visit, like Nathan and I used to. But he can never be invited home. And the Bloomfield Amish can never go visit, can never go to the non-Amish weddings of their siblings or their offspring. I think they’re allowed to attend the funerals of such people, but what good does that do? By then it’s way too late. It’s all so brutal. It’s especially hard on a lot of mothers. It has to be, it can’t be any other way.
It’s just flat-out unnatural, to cut off a child for such a reason. And you can’t tell me any different. I remember a while back, I was talking to a good friend about it. He broke free from the Plain Mennonites, years ago. That’s a much harder place than where I come from. And I asked him. How can they do it? What possible motivation could there be, to treat any child like that? And my friend looked at me and told me. “It’s because they think they’re like Abraham in the Bible,” he said. “Where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son on the stone altar, because God demanded it.” It made a lot of sense to me, what he said, and I told him so. I’d never thought of it that way. Yes. They think they’re like Abraham in the Bible. Sacrificing their children because God demands such sacrifice, and such obedience.
I didn’t think to say it right then, but just thought about it later. Yeah. They’re sacrificing their children on an altar, all right. Just like Abraham was willing to. Problem is, their sacrifice is not to the God of the Bible. He demands no such sacrifice today. It’s the altar of sacrifice to false idols, what they’re doing. And they’re willing to give up their children to that. Willing to sacrifice them to idols. It’s not right, any of it. But this is just my perspective, here, how I see it. The Amish, anywhere, are free to believe what they want to believe. And free to act on those beliefs. I will always defend their rights, I will always defend the right of my people to live as they see fit. But still. I’m just saying.
And Dave and Ellie Yutzy moved out of that Bloomfield world. Moved on out to Rexford, Montana. And from all I ever heard, which wasn’t that much, they really liked it out there. But after a decade or so, Rexford was having problems of some sort. I don’t know the details about another little Amish church blowing up, and don’t care to. But in 2005, they moved over to a new little settlement that was starting up, in St. Ignatius. Still in Montana. A New Order Amish place. And there they lived, until their passing.
And from there, they traveled out and visited their children, both Amish and non-Amish. The way it should have been. The way it could never have been, had they remained in Bloomfield. They were welcomed into the homes of their children, and honored as parents should be. They came through Lancaster County a few times, and stopped at Steve and Wilma’s home. The last time was a few years back, for my nephew Ira Lee’s wedding. I visited with them both, and there was no hint of judgment in their faces. Dave smiled and talked, and we sat around in a group and retold old stories. And laughed uproariously at the old jokes. Someone related The Pancake Story that afternoon. Even though everyone knew the punch line, it brought down the house. And late that night, a bunch of us sat around in Steve’s kitchen and sang the old songs of Old Bloomfield. It took me back to the singings of long ago, that night. Hearing those old familiar voices, cracked and faltering now, some of them. But still singing those old songs.
And you look back at what Old Bloomfield was, back in the day. A place my father chose, quite randomly, it seemed, as a suitable settlement to move to with his family. In hopes of a better Amish world. And you look at the extended families, the clans, as they interacted and moved forward into life. It was what it was, the drama of it all. Bishop George is gone, now. He passed on, a few years back. His sons remain. Three of them are preachers, including Mervin, my old buddy from the original gang of six. But Bloomfield today is no longer what it once was. It has exploded in size, and today it is the largest Amish settlement west of the Mississippi. Eight districts, going on nine. No one man, and no three brothers, can dictate, anymore, as to how things will be or won’t. And that’s a real good thing, right there.
Dave and Ellie Yutzy enjoyed their children in their old age, and their children enjoyed them. As is the natural course of things. Ellie took sick, back in the fall of 2011. I don’t remember what it was, some blood disease, I think. She sank fast, and died a few weeks later. Her shocked and grieving family assembled in St. Ignatius to bury her. All of the extended family attended. Every single one of her children and grandchildren went to mourn her passing. And to honor her.
And Dave never seemed to really get over it. He grieved the loss of his lifelong companion. Mourned her deeply. Longed to go be with her. He had health issues, anyway. Two open heart surgeries, somewhere along the way. And his body just gave out. He wintered in Phoenix, Arizona, like always, this year. And his children took turns, going out to be with him.
And a few weeks back, he suffered a severe stroke, there in Phoenix. A few days later, he passed away in a hospice, surrounded by some of his children and grandchildren. What better way is there to pass on than that? Released now, to go join his beloved Ellie. They buried him beside his wife in the little graveyard in St. Ignatius. And there the two of them now rest together.
The Wagler and Yutzy clans of Old Bloomfield are scattered to the winds these days. And it’s just as well, I think. It’s not good, to have so many restless souls concentrated in one place. Too many strong personalities. There would be clashes, as there sometimes were back then. There would be all kinds of conflicts, all kinds of power struggles, had we all stayed there in Bloomfield. It would never have worked out. It’s just as well that the Old Guard could not hold.
We were what we were, back when the clans called it home, Old Bloomfield. And it’s kind of strange, how I feel, looking back from here. Because I am grateful for all it was, the world I came from. Grateful for the good things, and the hard parts, too. Like all of life, there was a mixture of both, and it couldn’t have been any other way. I am proud of where I come from, and I am very proud of my heritage.
And today, I’m just grateful to be right where I am.Share