“The great thing about touring Holmes County with John Schmid is that
he knows everyone, and you get to meet a lot of interesting people.
The bad thing about touring Holmes County with John Schmid is that
he knows everyone, and you can’t get to where you’re going, because
everyone stops to talk to him.”
I’d never been to Holmes County, OH before. Never. In all my years of wandering this continent, Holmes was never on my route to anywhere. So I never stopped.
The Holmes/Wayne settlement is, of course, the largest contiguous Amish community in the world. Or so it claims. Lancaster can’t be too far behind, but somehow Holmes slipped ahead a few decades ago, and never looked back. So I’ve always had it in mind to visit one day, to check things out for myself.
Last winter my friend, John Schmid, called me. Asked when I would come to visit, so he could show me around. He is involved in prison ministry, and travels so much it makes me tired to even think of it. So I told him to check his schedule, and I’d plan a weekend when he was home. He chose last weekend, June 19-21.
So last Friday, I gassed up Big Blue, packed my large camo duffel bag, and headed out. Hit the PA Turnpike west. It’s always a weary chore, to travel the Turnpike from about Carlisle west through Somerset. It’s a lonely desolate stretch. Steep hills, sharp wicked curves. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the Somerset skies spit either snow or rain. And this time was no different. It rained briefly.
All bad things must pass, including the PA Turnpike. Eventually I reached Ohio, and approached Holmes on Rt. 39 West. Through all the little towns with names I always saw in the Budget all those years ago when I was a child. Sugar Creek. Walnut Creek. Berlin (pronounced BERlin). John lives in the tiny village of Benton. After turning off Rt. 39, and cruising the County roads, I reached the little huddle of houses that was Benton.
The side street where I should have turned was blocked. A flashing arrow sign boldly announced Benton Days. A small-town celebration that night. Chicken barbeque, ice cream and old time, down home entertainment. I parked and walked down the blocked street. People bustled about. A large tent had been set up, right over the street. Tables and chairs. Off to one side, in the hot sun, stood a large rather pudgy Amishman, clutching a wooden paddle, stirring a huge pot of beans cooking over an open fire. The Amishman sweltered in the heat of the fire and the humidity.
Someone told me how to get to John’s house, and a few minutes later I pulled up with Big Blue. John emerged from his ministry’s international headquarters, which consisted of a very cozy little cabin. Greeted me and we carried my bags into his house. His wife Lydia welcomed me as well, before rushing off to the festival to help with the food.
John showed me to my room. Then to his office, where I posted last week’s blog on his computer. I sometimes post using my Iphone, but Holmes County has no AT&T service. My Iphone was dead as a doornail and would remain so the entire weekend. It felt strange, not to be wired. Almost Amish. And even some of them are pretty much wired these days.
Then John grabbed his guitar and we were off to the festival, a block away. It opened at five, a typical small-town celebration. The first annual. If this one succeeded, they’d have one every year, John told me. A small crowd of probably a hundred people soon milled about. We feasted on barbequed chicken and Ohio potato salad, the best in the world. Donations were accepted to defray costs.
At six, a welcome speech, and several speakers, including a ninety-year-old resident who rambled at length about the old days when Benton was a rip-roaring town. The guy was actually very interesting. Sadly, a great thunderstorm approached, complete with lightning and wind. Slashing rain poured down, and the poor old man was forced to concede his post. Freaked out by the lightning, I took refuge in John’s van. Every-one else huddled under the tent for twenty minutes until the storm passed. The sun shone again, and the first band took the stage, which was set up on the porch of the closest house a few feet away.
At 8, John took the stage. It was the first time I’d seen him perform. He spoke with practiced ease, and sang many of his own classics, and a few new ones, including his hilarious version of “What was I thinking?” And a string of Johnny Cash songs. A few blog readers approached and introduced themselves. And some folks I already knew. Including Paul Marner, an old friend from my Aylmer days. His family had moved out around 1970 or so.
Paul and his wife Kathy and a few other friends dropped by John’s house later, and we all hung out and had a great time until almost midnight. Then off to bed. Tomorrow I would tour Holmes County. I tossed restlessly all night. I don’t sleep well away from home. And not that well at home, come to think of it.
The next morning we headed out for the day. First the local restaurant in BERlin. It was jammed with locals, most of whom knew John well. We joined an Amish guy at a table, a friend of John’s. He wasn’t wearing any galluses, which I thought strange. I would soon learn such a thing is not strange at all in Holmes County.
At breakfast, as it had the night before, the conversation drifted to Eli Weaver, the guy whose wife was murdered. The people I spoke to believed he had done it, and placed the blame on Barbara Raber, his lover. According to the locals, Eli was pretty much a low life, and entirely capable of knocking off his wife. But that’s just what they said. I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion.
After breakfast, we toured Schrock’s of Walnut Creek, the area’s largest producer of cabinets and kitchens, and where my boss, Patrick Miller, cut his teeth. Pat’s father, Marvin, manages the place, and took us on an extensive tour through the show room.
On then we rushed, into what would be one busy and exciting day. The great thing about touring Holmes County with John Schmid is that he knows everyone, and you get to meet a lot of interesting people. The bad thing about touring Holmes County with John Schmid is that he knows everyone, and you can’t get to where you’re going, because everyone stops to talk to him. Everywhere we went, stores, post office, the deli for coffee, on the street, people waylaid John and held us up.
Not that I minded. It was just part of the experience. John Schmid is one of the most unique men I’ve ever met. He was born in the Holmes area. Completely “English.” Not a drop of Amish blood. But in his youth, he took to running with the local Amish and got to know them so well he even learned the language. He speaks flawless PA Dutch. He married Lydia, a Mennonite girl whose parents had been Amish. You’d never know he wasn’t born an Amishman. He even sings PA Dutch songs. And the Amish love him for it. He’s accepted as pretty much one of them. Welcome at their homes. And boy, does he know a LOT of people.
Around 11 o’clock, we pulled into Sam and Ruth Eicher’s place in the Millersburg area. They had heard I’d be around and called John and asked him to bring me by. Sam and Ruth lived in Aylmer when I was a child, a young married couple. They lived directly across the road from the old East school house. Their oldest son, Jerry, was my age and in my grade for the first two years, before they moved to Honduras in the late 1960s. Jerry is today a very successful author of Amish fiction.
Ruth welcomed us at the door of their neat, new house. Sam sat in his easy chair in the living room. He had a stroke a few years back, and was a shell of the former Sam I had known years ago. Ruth also happens to be my first cousin, and Elmo Stoll’s sister. We sat there and talked as old friends. Ruth then dug out some old newspaper clippings with pictures of some of the Aylmer Amish people of my childhood. Rare, very rare pictures. I almost collapsed with excitement and requested copies. She agreed to send me some. This week, she took them to a local printing shop, where the pictures were scanned and emailed to me. The pictures will be of enormous interest to anyone who lived in Aylmer in the late 1960s-early 1970s. I can’t thank the Eichers enough for sharing them.
Characters from my Aylmer childhood days.
I was seven years old when these pictures were taken.
My Uncle Abner is the Amishman front and center.
All too soon, we had to leave for our next stop. Lehman’s Hardware in Kidron. I wanted to see the place. So off we rambled in John’s van. As we passed through Mt. Hope, John remembered that the great tri-annual machinery auction was on that day. We swung in to check it out. And there I got a true taste of the Holmes County Amish.
The place was huge, and large crowds milled about. At least eight different auction rings were going at the same time. Tens of acres of machinery and junk. Little knots of Amishmen stood about, hands folded or in their pockets. Snippets of conversation floated in the breeze. Of course, John was immediately assailed by acquaintances all along our path. So we stopped and talked, and stopped and talked some more. I hung back; once in awhile he introduced me as David Wagler’s son, Ira. You know, the David Wagler who started Family Life. Which usually brought a gleam of recognition from the Amishman of the moment.
And here, at Mt. Hope, I saw every degree of Amish that exists in Holmes. Must be about nine different levels. Swartzentrubers are the lowest, or the most conservative. They are called the “Hinistie,” which loosely translates to “the least,” “the lowest,” or literally “the ones bringing up the rear.” Then you have Dan Amish, Andy Weaver Amish, Tobe Amish, and several other levels whose names escape me. All the way up to “normal” Amish, who in Holmes are so modern they don’t even wear galluses. Each group dresses somewhat distinctly. It’s enough to make one’s head spin. I couldn’t tell much difference, except for the Hinistie, who look and dress downright slovenly. The men wear long sleeved shirts, the women long sleeved dresses, even in the hottest weather. The women wear great, tightly strung black bonnets at all times while out-doors. We saw a young Hinistie girl walking along the road, tightly bound with long flowing dress, long sleeves, and high shoes. She looked hot, and I don’t mean that in the modern sense of the word. She looked overheated. I pitied her. Probably the same as English people pitied me years ago, when they saw a ragged little Amish boy trudging along the road. Oh, well. It’s all relative, I suppose.
After some time, John managed to extract himself from accosting hangers-on, and we boarded the van and crept out. Even then, a young Amish boy approached the van window and asked John if he’d bought anything. John claimed he didn’t have a clue who the boy was. He obviously wanted to tell his friends he had spoken to John Schmid. Bragging rights, and all. Off we went then, headed for Lehman’s. The hard-ware store that sells all the old-time tools and hard to find items. We stopped first at a little hole in the wall restaurant for a late lunch. My diet went right out the window in Holmes. I’m doing penance this week at home.
Lehman’s was pretty neat, a hodge podge of buildings cobbled together over the years as the business expanded. Filled with thousands of obscure items. All kinds of hand tools and gardening stuff. Hand forged axes from Sweden for $300.00. Must be some axe. They even sold the little human powered push tillers we used years ago in Aylmer.
The afternoon passed. We had a stop or two to make, before heading back to John’s home. Where he would pick up his guitar and head for his second engagement of the weekend, a short set at an outdoor concert.
On the way back, we stopped for a few minutes to see David Kline, the well-known Amish author and Bishop. I didn’t know he was a Bishop until after we left, or I might have been a little intimidated. David ambled out to meet us. He knew John, of course. John, I am convinced, knows everyone worth knowing in Holmes. David welcomed me warmly. We sat in the cool shade of his front porch and visited animatedly for ten minutes. We had to leave then, as time was running short. Some day I will return for a more leisurely chat.
We rushed home then, cleaned up a bit, then off to Doughty Valley, where the annual outdoor summer concert was unfolding that night. John is a mainstay of the Doughty concert, but had told them he would sing the opening set at 5:30, and would have to leave, because he had company. We drove out into the country, the remote hills, and turned down a half mile long winding gravel lane. Down, down it went until it led to a beautiful open meadow along a flowing creek. People were already assembling. A large flatbed trailer had been set up as a stage. I trailed along with John as he tuned his guitar and swapped tales with other groups.
At 5:30, John opened the concert, and I saw him perform for the second time in two days. He is a polished performer, and the crowd loved him. At six, he closed it down. We stayed to watch the second set, Paul Mark and Beverly Miller and family. Then off again.
We had a dinner appointment at the home of Myron and Sarah Ann Miller and family. Amish friends of John’s. In the past, John dropped off my blogs periodically, so they felt as though they knew me already. Myron’s parents, Crist and Nettie Miller and his uncle, Ray Miller, also were there. John’s wife Lydia joined us as well.
They all greeted me warmly. Myron grilled hamburgers, and we sat around and talked like old friends.
Myron was an Amish preacher, and commented on my Preachers blog and the ordination scene I’d written some time back. That’s exactly how it was, he told me. He didn’t wear galluses either, which I thought was pretty wild.
At 9:30 we left and headed home. A long day, a good day. We were both exhausted. The van bucketed along the back roads through the darkness, on short cuts known only to the locals.
We passed an Amish farm, a young man with a flashlight stood there beside the road. John braked the van to a stop. He knew the guy, he said. He backed up. The Amish man approached the window on my side of the van.
He was young, a stocky powerful barrel-chested man, with a short beard on his round face. He recognized John and greeted him heartily. He was out moving some horses, he said.
“You just got married recently, didn’t you?” John asked.
The young man nodded. “Last October.”
“Where’s your wife?” John asked.
“Right here with me,” the young man replied. And she stepped up from the shadows, a tall beautiful wisp of a girl, barefoot, hands clasped, smiling shyly. I was startled. I had not seen her back there. John chatted along, asked about her family, which area she was from, and the small talk that is common in such a setting. The three of them spoke through the open window on my side of the van.
I was tired, the ebb and flow of their conversation seemed surreal as it swelled around me. I looked at the young couple in the flickering shadows cast by the van’s head- lights. The stocky powerful young man with the round face and short beard. His shy smiling young wife at his side, out there with her husband at 9:30 on a Saturday night, helping him move some horses. I don’t remember their names, and it’s not important. But I was struck by a deep sense of who they were and what they represented. They stood there, utterly unpretentious, chatting with John about this and that for a few brief moments. And then we left them.
Of all the things I saw in Holmes, this simple scene touched me the most. These two young people who had so recently joined their lives. They are the future of the Amish faith, the Amish culture, the old traditions, the old way of life. In Holmes County, at every level. And beyond.
After attending church with John and Lydia the next morning, I sat with them for a quick but delicious meal of sandwiches and left over potato salad from the festival. Then I packed Big Blue, thanked them for their gracious hospitality, and took my leave. Exactly seven hours later I pulled into my drive at home. Even the Somerset skies spared me that afternoon.Share