November 18, 2011

Chronicles of Daviess…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:04 pm


“We are the sons of our father, and we shall follow the
print of his foot forever.”

—Thomas Wolfe

I went back again to Daviess last week.

There’s never time, really, when the unexpected news arrives. And one can’t always make it. But when the word came early last week, I knew that I would go to Uncle Ben Yoder’s funeral in Daviess.

Only three of Mom’s siblings have remained with us for some years now. William. Sarah. And Ben, who almost expired last winter in Florida, due to complications from cancer. But he pulled out of it, and got a lot better. Even returned home to Daviess. I last saw him at my book signing there in August. He seemed to get around pretty well. But we all knew the time of his passing likely would not be long.

He passed away in the early morning hours on Tuesday, Nov. 8th. The funeral would be on Friday, the 11th. My sister Rachel sent me the texts with the news. I didn’t have time to go, really. I mean, I’ve taken off a lot of days for my book promotions this year. And next week, over Thanksgiving, I’ll be gone for a full week. But still, I thought, how many of Mom’s siblings have I ever honored thus? Only one, that I could think of. Aunt Anna, a few years back. But that was it.

So I decided to go. To simply take the time. This time. You can’t always make it, to every funeral. And no one gets offended if you don’t. Or shouldn’t, anyway. But this one was important in so many ways. Both to me, and my siblings.

We never knew Mom’s side of the family. Not really. We knew who they were, and chatted with them in passing. Ben was always the quiet one. Never had much to say, one way or another. If you had a conversation with him, you’d have to do the talking. He would answer your questions, but rarely ask questions of his own. I’m not sure where this silent trait came from. Maybe from the Yoder side. If so, that silence sure never got passed on to us from our mother. Not to that level, at least. We’ve always made ourselves heard, always clamored about, whether or not anyone was listening.

I don’t fly, not unless I absolutely have to. Not because I’m scared or anything. I’ve flown dozens of times in the past. But it’s a matter of principle. Barring extraordinary circumstances, I won’t walk the TSA “security” gauntlet, won’t let the goons bark and paw at me as if I were a dangerous criminal. That whole system has no legitimate purpose, and I refuse to accept it as anything other than brute government intimidation on a massive scale. So I just don’t fly. I’ll drive two days instead. And once they bring that same level of lawless intimidation to all our roads, which they are doing now in several states, I don’t know what I’ll do. Go back to a horse and buggy, maybe.

And so I set out on Thursday morning, early. Didn’t rent a car this time, but drove Big Blue instead. I don’t mind the low gas mileage so much, but I do mind all those miles accumulated in a matter of a few days. But this time, for some reason, I decided to let them pile up. What’s the use of having a truck, if you don’t take it on a road trip once in a while? It’s twelve hours, to Daviess. A long, long drag. I settled in and zoned out, and by six o’clock that evening, arrived at my friend Glen Graber’s guest cabin outside Odon.

Weddings and funerals. That’s when most families gather, when they rarely do so otherwise. For my family, though, it’s more the funerals. Because of the Amish thing. Depending on the community in which the wedding is coming down, you can’t invite your non-Amish relatives. Like Aylmer. And Bloomfield. And in those places, you can’t attend the weddings of your non-Amish kin. It’s verboten. But funerals are different. Open to all who will come. And the Amish from both those communities can attend non-Amish funerals as well. So funerals it usually is, when my own clan gathers.

I cleaned up a bit, changed clothes, and drove on over to the viewing. The church yard was packed out. About then Titus and Ruth arrived from Bloomfield. I lifted him from the van and onto his wheelchair and we headed in. I was surprised and pleased that six of my siblings had made the trip. Joseph and Iva from Mays Lick, Kentucky. Maggie and Jesse and his wife Lynda from South Carolina. Naomi and Alvin from Arkansas. Rachel from Kansas. Titus and Ruth from Bloomfield. And me. A pretty decent showing, from Ida Mae Yoder’s family. We greeted each other joyfully, surprised that so many of us had come.

Ben’s family and their families seemed very glad to see us. We mingled and visited with each other and with many relatives who were total strangers. In such a place and time, at least in Daviess, it always goes the same.

Some nice lady I have never seen before (or certainly can’t remember seeing before) approaches and excitedly exclaims my name. I smile and shake her hand. Oh, it’s good to see you, she gushes. I smile. And then I simply say, I’m sorry, but I have no idea who you are. Are you my cousin? It’s best to just confront it, I figure. Get the awkwardness right out there. So we can both laugh. This happened a lot that night and the next day. Eventually I placed a few faces with a few names. Don’t know if I’ll remember them, though, the next time. Probably not.

After the funeral service was over late Friday morning, we all gathered in the church hall for a meal. One thing I’ll say about Daviess; those people sure know how to cook and bake. Simple, scrumptious food. Daviess is home to the finest cherry pies in the world. Far better than any I have ever tasted in any other Amish community, including Lancaster County. And I should know. Mom used to bake them. And they had those pies there, at the funeral meal. Same texture, same taste, two generations after Mom’s time. In Daviess, they know how to preserve and carry on the good traditions.

Around mid afternoon, Joseph, Naomi, and Titus all departed for their respective homes with their respective spouses. That left four of us siblings. Maggie, Jesse (and Lynda), Rachel and me. Jesse allowed he wanted to go see some relatives. He used to live in Daviess, and knows his way around. So, with one of my sisters riding shotgun, I tagged along behind him in my truck.

After a few stops, we pulled up and parked beside the plot of ground that holds more Waglers per square foot than any other in the world, probably. The “Stoll” grave yard, a few miles north and east of Montgomery. I probably had been there decades ago, but don’t remember. Here rests a host of relatives from both sides of my family, including my grandfather and great-grandfather.

The story of my great-grandfather, Christian Wagler, was unknown to me until I was an adult. Unspoken, the story was, except in whispers that I could not hear. But mostly just unspoken, as a blackened blot on the family name.

He killed himself. At age thirty-six. Shot himself in the head with a gun. They still know the exact spot where it happened, or close to it. Used to be the Gerome Raber farm, back years ago. I don’t know who owns it now. Supposedly, Christian, who had a history of severe mental problems, took the rifle and told his oldest son he was walking out behind the barn to shoot some sparrows. And when the son heard the rifle’s crack, he ran out to check. The scene that greeted him has never been accurately described; it remains a horror buried way deep down there, in the annals of my family’s history.

We’ve always heard that Christian was buried outside the grave yard fence. That’s what they did, back then. Still do, in some Amish communities, when someone takes his own life. But there is a lot of dispute today, as to whether that really happened. Whatever the case, Christian now rests well within the boundaries of the grave yard fence. Not exactly in the middle or anything, but certainly inside the fence. So either the tale was never true, or the fence has been moved since his day. Who can know? Or who really cares, one way or another, except his descendents?

The story of my grandfather, Joseph K. Wagler, was told and retold in my childhood. A deacon in the Amish church, a stern dark grim man. (Not sure if I’d even want to meet either Joseph K. or Christian in person). But well respected, from all I’ve ever heard. He too, passed in a most untimely fashion. While pitching oat bundles into the threshing machine on a hot summer day, he collapsed and slid off the wagon.

The events are recounted only from memory. No one wrote down the specific details, unless someone’s diary might yet surface and bring them to light one day. So there is some dispute even now as to how exactly how it all came down. The accepted version: they carried him to a nearby tree and laid him in the shade. He passed away there on that spot. Another version from an eyewitness claims they carried him into the coolness of the nearby milk house. And that’s where he died. Who knows? Does it matter?

We strolled leisurely through the Stoll grave yard and stood by their headstones, these two men so connected to my past. I exist because of their seed. Genealogies never meant much to me, growing up. Or mattered much, one way or another. But lately, I have grasped and accepted the importance of knowing and connecting to my roots. Who I am. Where I came from. Why I am the way I am.

After dropping the ladies at the motel in Montgomery to get some rest, Jesse and I boarded Big Blue and took off. This time, we headed out to explore the territory our father knew as a child. Familiar with the area, Jesse told me where to turn and where to go. First stop, the farm where my parents lived as a young married couple, after my father returned from CO service after WWII.

A few miles north of Montgomery. The house is newer, built since my parents lived there. The outbuildings sag in a state of sad disrepair. The old barn torn down, only the foundations remain. Another outbuilding, a shabby structure minus a roof, will not long survive. We got out and wandered around a bit. Tried to imagine how it was, all those years ago, on this ground that my father worked from dawn to dusk. And my mother, bent and toiling in the garden in the mid morning sunlight, her young small children tagging along by her side.

On then, almost straight east as the crow flies. To the farm where my father grew up. On the way, we approached the crossroad where he went to school. Parson’s Corner. It was a public school back then. The Amish bought the property decades ago. I believe the school has been in continuous use ever since my father attended there as a youth. That is a remarkable thing.

And then back south, less than half a mile. And there, on the left, the farm. Where he was born and raised. Almost ninety years ago. The old house was torn down and a new one built in the year I was born. 1961. The great old barn still stands, and a few other ramshackle outbuildings. We got out and walked around the windswept barnyard.

This, too, is a remarkable thing. To stand where your father stood as a child. To see what he saw then, in that same frozen moment, as the late afternoon shadows crept in. To see the very spot beside the old barn where the threshing machine was set up on the day his father died. And the old milk house, where the raggedy barefoot boy poured foaming milk from dented pails into large sweated metal cans settled in the water tank, and slopped some to the cats. This is where he was born, where he lived and grew, where he formed into the man he was.

We stood there, strangers in a strange place, and absorbed the moment. My own history, at least for many years, was one long trail of constant, restless movement. Of running to and fro, here and there, to no particular destination. This spot, this place, stands as a symbol of something strong and resilient. Something from long, long ago. Something that has remained.

This is Daviess. The land my father fled many decades ago, when the wanderlust struck him. The land he left behind. The land that lies buried in the ancestral memory, the land that calls me back again and again.

But we are strangers to this land, my father’s sons and daughters. And, except for some few rare and fleeting moments, there can be no return.



  1. Hey Ira, I find this all very interesting as my Grandfather (Abner Wagler) would have grown up on that farm too. I believe he was the one that had to take on the responsibilities of the farm when Joseph K. Wagler died while threshing. If I remember correctly he was only 18 when this happened.

    Thanks for the photos and someday I too want to go back there, stand, meditate, and simply try to picture what it used to be like so many many years ago, in another time and another era….Maybe find some clues of what makes me the Wagler that I am today.

    Comment by Jacob Wagler — November 18, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

  2. I am sorry for your loss but what a beautiful story about your father’s life. You are talking about one of most favorite things…genealogy. I love searching and finding everything I can about my family. There is so much to learn about ourselves by finding out how our parents, grparents, grgrparents, etc..lived and grew up.

    Comment by Connie French — November 18, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

  3. We had a great time, didn’t we, Ira? And as a follow up, we, or at least Big Blue, was spotted from afar by the Amish farm owner and his brother while we were at our parent’s first farm there on the weedy hill.

    They debated if they should ”go run those rabbit hunters off.” In typical friendly Daviess Co. Amish fashion, they decided to “let them get a few rabbits.”

    I guess Big Blue does sort of look like a sporting vehicle.

    Comment by Grandpa Jess From SC — November 18, 2011 @ 10:40 pm

  4. Ira, how are your folks doing? You didn’t mention if they came to the funeral. I’ve known your dad and mom for about 16 years now, though we’re not in touch any longer. Had a meal with them once at the Bloomfield house, and had them to our house in Ohio when they were traveling around selling grain mills pre y2k. They were always kind to us and we hope they are well.

    Comment by Missy — November 19, 2011 @ 9:27 am

  5. Great post. There’s a lot about my dad’s side of the family that I don’t know much about and when you come across cousins and such from that side and find little things in common, it’s kind of a “wow” moment. Sounds like one more little piece of your life puzzle was put in place when you went there. I think we all realize as we get older, that funerals, sad as they are, are also good for re-grouping and re-acquainting with loved ones and “should be” loved ones. Glad you got to see some of your sibs too!

    Comment by Bethrusso — November 19, 2011 @ 10:28 pm

  6. Ira,
    The Jerome Raber farm is still in the Raber family. His youngest son Leon lives there now. A visit to the Stoll Cemetery, or any cemetery for that matter, is something I do too. Gives one much to think about; wondering about the people who lived before us. What they were like; their dreams, victorious moments, and their defeats. My mom is buried there.

    Comment by John Stoll — November 20, 2011 @ 12:36 am

  7. I too was blessed by be warm welcome we received in Daviess, we the sons and daughters who are desperately trying to find a link to our past. You are right, their food was 2nd to none, and even the bread at the funeral reminded me of Mom’s. Sorry you missed it completely by starting home before the supper at cousin Lauras..The dressing, noodles, and salad were the closest to Mom’s cooking we will ever taste..and their family acted so much like ours, here they don’t even know each other. Aside from being good cooks our cousins are also very very kind. I flew in solo to Indianapolis, cousin Arlene and Luke Rhodes took time out of their busy schedule to pick me up…dear brother Jesse and Linda got up at an unearthly hour of 4 a.m. to take me back….

    God bless you all and my condolences to the Yoder family,I understand the valley you are traveling thru…we burried our dear Yuyzy Mom just a few weeks ago……………

    Comment by Rachel — November 27, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

  8. I picked up your book yesterday at Graber Post and find it very interesting. We live north of Odon and know many of the Amish. My ancestors, Mumuaws, left Holmes Co and settled in Odon area along with 80 other families, some of the first settlers. I want to visit Holmes Co soon to see where they came from. They landed around Maryland and owned the farm at Antiam where the Civil War battle was fought, my ancestors had just moved before the war but one son stayed. Thanks for writing the book.

    Comment by Linda Ault — November 29, 2011 @ 10:34 am

  9. Ira: Because I love true stories and because I was from Ohio, just north of what we referred to as “Amish Country”, I ordered your book “Growing Up Amish”. I absolutely loved it.

    I am not Amish, but some of your life (although I’m a girl) had many of the same situations in it that you had written about. My mother was raised in a group that has many of the traits of the Amish/Mennonites. Long dresses, with sleeves, no jewelry, not cutting of the women’s hair. She left it to marry my father, but in my growing up years her faith and raising mannerisms carried over. Then my grandmother came to live with us, and I used to walk with her on Sundays & Wednesday nights to a members house for church & prayer meetings. It obviously didn’t kill me, but I thought my feet would fall off at the time! Since then my mother, father and I have joined a Christian church.

    I could write a lot more about the similar life style we have led, but I won’t bore you. My parents are still alive at 90 and 92 and while they are living in their own home now, I see them daily and care for them. I haven’t read all off your posts yet, but wonder if your mother & father are still living! I really appreciated the honesty in your book and plan to share it with my mom tomorrow. After that, I would like my two grandsons to read it also (they are 17 & 18) just got their driver’s license and the older one a 2004 Mustang… They live with their parents in my house, but they too have “drifted” away from their church up bringing… The world holds too many more things of interest then listening to the Preacher stand up there and talk. Keep up your writings, I know many will enjoy reading them… I have…………

    Thanks again for sharing your story…

    Comment by Linda E Fisher — November 29, 2011 @ 9:30 pm


    Comment by Joann — December 1, 2011 @ 10:14 am

  11. Hello from Idaho. I just finished reading your book last night. In spite of not being a book buyer, I most likely will purchase, mostly because of chapter 6 pgs. 37-42. Wow. It is candidly written. I’d like to have it to address and discuss the subject of bullying and being kind. For my teenage son. He doesn’t bully, isn’t bullied, but just to see what can happen…I plowed through the book. Should have paused to chuckle a few times! Very interesting. Not that you left a lot out, but it would be interesting to know more, i.e. your siblings reactions and where they were, why you didn’t consider taking Sarah with you. Your mental anguish is heartbreaking. Thanks for a good read.

    Comment by Diane — December 2, 2011 @ 11:25 am

  12. So, what is it about people wanting to know about their ancestors? Does it make a real difference? I think it’s that deep seated need to connect with human beings and who better to connect with than your own flesh and blood? There is such a wow! factor to it. Or maybe, an ow! factor. In my case, a vein of my bloodline comes from a female McCoy from the “Hatfields and McCoys.” My great-grandmother. It started as a wow! and ended in an ow! considering the ignorance of their constant, deadly feuding. I don’t normally share this with people.

    The secrets, the skeletons, the mumbles and shushes. Shame, embarrassment. I’m afraid that’s where my stock was birthed. Ugg! I was just talking with my sister about this yesterday. But, at the end of our conversation, we spat out THEIR lives of swill. We would not have it! Not for ourselves. Not for my boys. One woman, my imperfect mother, showed us a different path. Not because she took it, but because she stood at the mouth of it and pointed. That’s all it took.

    Comment by Francine — November 26, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

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