November 21, 2008

Levi and Noah (Sketch #11)

Category: News — Ira @ 7:06 pm


Why could not the old men speak? ….Where were the
passion, pain and pride, the million living moments of
their lives? Was all this lost?

—Thomas Wolfe, “Of Time and the River”

They were the patriarchs, the elder statesmen in the Aylmer community. Gray-haired, quiet, both of them. Common men, not particularly leaders. But the years had bestowed upon them the somber mien of wisdom and experience, and they wore it well.

Levi Slaubaugh and Noah Gascho had little in common. One was a blacksmith, the other a retired farmer. Almost exactly the same age, they always sat beside each other in church, pretty much the only place they were ever seen together. The first to head in from barn to house on Sunday mornings to start the services, after the preachers. Slowly and majestically they walked, with just the right degree of gravitas.

They performed no great feats in their lives. As far as I know, little has ever been chronicled of their deeds or their span of years on earth.

Unremembered and unimportant, in the grand scheme of things. And yet the great framework, the vivid scenes, the bustle and flow of the world of my youth would have been incomplete without them.

Noah Gascho was born in 1909 in the Milverton, Ontario area. Gascho is an obscure surname among the Amish, one among many such in Milverton. He grew up there, and in 1931, married Nancy Lichti. They had several sons and daughters.

They moved to Aylmer in the late 1950s or early 1960s. I don’t know the exact date, and it’s not important. Dissatisfied with the dissolute morals of the Milverton settlement, he, like so many who moved to Aylmer, yearned for something purer, something better. For the great shining city on the hill, where one could live in peace and righteousness.

They purchased a farm about a mile west and north of our home. Their sons and daughters in due time found partners and married in Aylmer and started their own families. When I was four or five years old, and entering the fields of my earliest memories, Noah turned the farm over to his youngest son, Joseph, who had married my oldest sister Rosemary. Noah and Nancy moved to a small cottage on a few acres a quarter mile to the north.

The Gaschos were a bit different. Culturally. Rather grim and humorless, by Wagler standards. Used strange and garbled words unknown in our rough and tumble Daviess County roots. Like “kittell” for a light dress coat. Once, Nancy was telling my Mom about pests ruining their garden, raccoons and skunks. Noah couldn’t get rid of them.

“Noah doesn’t have a flint,” she announced loudly to Mom, who properly “vermached” herself. A flint was a gun. He didn’t own one.

We chewed that line for years. “Da Noi hutt ken flint.” (Noah doesn’t have a flint.)

Noah was hard-core Amish. Stridently opposed to anything that even remotely smacked of modernization. Or anything outside the boundaries of traditional Amish ways. A slight frail wisp of a man with a shiny bald dome and long gray beard, dressed in plain black broadcloth and battered shapeless black felt hat, he peered through round wire-rimmed glasses. He spoke in a squeaky quavering voice and always emitted the faint stale odor of garlic. He was somewhat overshadowed by his wife’s larger stature, along with her stronger will and personality.

We were fascinated by his bald head. Clean as a whistle, and shiny, it was the exact shape of the round part of a ball peen hammer. One local wag even took to calling the ball peen hammer a “Noi-kupp,” or Noah-head. He didn’t mean any disrespect; he was simply calling it as he saw it. It was a pretty accurate, if unkind, description.

We considered Noah a bit of an eccentric, the people in my world. Kindly enough, in his own way, just different. I can’t remember ever being in their home, although it’s likely I was at one time or another. When it was their turn to hold church services, they always had the service at the home of one of their married children. Their house was too small for the whole church group to gather. Besides, getting ready for church was a bit much for one old couple alone.

They were frugal and self sufficient. Noah puttered about on his few acres and helped his wife in the garden. They were always there when we butchered hogs at Joseph and Rosemary’s place. Bustling about, cutting and slicing, saving even the tiniest scraps of meat and fat for liverwurst. And the bones for soup.

At one such butchering, as they worked, Nancy and my Mom burst into a childhood song they both knew and remembered. “Juanita.” In perfect unison, their clear soprano voices ringing as they sang together. Smiling self-consciously, two plain elderly Amish ladies. The rest of us looked on in wonder and listened, shocked and thrilled. Such trite rollicking songs were unheard of in our world, and sternly frowned upon in Aylmer, for sure.

Noah enjoyed leading songs in church and that is how those who were children at the time really remember him. Long slow dirges that seemed to stretch forever. We always sank down and shriveled a bit when he announced a song number. A moment of painful silence followed, then his quavering voice shivered through the house. On and on, through verse after dreary verse. Particularly annoying was his penchant for leading many verses even after the preachers had returned from the “Obrote,” at which time the singing was supposed to stop. Noah usually paid little attention, or perhaps didn’t realize the preachers had returned, and kept right on squeaking along. Because of him, many a church service was extended by ten or fifteen minutes. And after three plus hours on hard backless benches, every minute leaves its mark.

Levi Slaubaugh moved to Aylmer in 1954, shortly after its founding. With his wife, Elizabeth and their two daughters, Emma and Eva, he lived on the Peter Stoll farm until their house could be built on a two acre corner lot on the community’s main east/west drag, half a mile east of my uncle Abner’s farm. After the house was finished, Levi moved much of his household goods the half mile from the Stoll farm by wheelbarrow, trundling back and forth.

He was born in the sad hungry wastelands of Milo, North Dakota in 1909. The tattered remnants of that doomed Amish community soon moved back east for sheer survival. He grew up in Mio, Michigan, and there met Elizabeth Lambright; they married in 1941. After drifting here and there among various settlements, they finally settled in Aylmer. It would be their home for more than thirty years.

Bald, bespectacled, of medium height with a bushy white beard, he was a stocky powerful man, a mildly rotund hulk of muscle and sweat. Perfectly suited to his humble calling as the community blacksmith. Just west of his house, he built a ramshackle, sprawling shop, running his machinery with a complex configuration of gears and belts and pulleys and drive shafts, powered by a huge diesel engine in the back.

Levi was a master welder, a craftsman of the trade. His shop always reeked with the strong manly smells of acrid smoke and grease and steel and melted welding rods. The diesel pulsed and throbbed in the background as Levi, clad in a stained worn leather apron, the rimless crown of an old black felt hat on his head, peered through his welding shield, the wicked buzzing of the molten welding rod vibrating through the shop, flickering with light brighter than the sun. Long iron bars and tubes and sheets of flat metal lay strewn about. A great solid iron anvil sat anchored to the floor. Occasionally when driving past, one could hear the clang and clamor of Levi hammering mightily on the anvil.

As children, we heard the whispered stories of how, when he was young and single, he cobbled together an old Model A Ford, and with a friend, headed to Florida for the winter. We looked at the man we knew and couldn’t imagine such a thing, but we believed the tales. Respected the adventurous spirit of his youth, and tried to envision the things he saw and experienced in that long ago world.

Lisbet, his wife, kept the house shining and spotless, at least when they had church. Their basement had its own unique odor, of cleaning soap and wax. The children pumped water from the hand pump in the corner and gulped it in great draughts.

One hot summer afternoon, when I was probably five years old, I accompanied my father on his business about the neighborhood. We clattered here and there in his rickety topbuggy, looking for a part for the grain binder or the silo filler, I can’t remember which. Quite suddenly he announced that since he couldn’t find the part he needed, we would make an unexpected trip to town. I couldn’t believe my good luck. It was like hitting the jackpot. Oh, boy. Town.

He glanced down at me, bouncing excitedly beside him on the seat. Frowned.

“You need to wash up. You’re kind of dirty,” he said. A huge understatement. I was barefoot, ragged, and gloriously grimy. “We’ll stop at Levi Slaubaughs and you can clean up.”

We pulled into the drive, and Dad tied the horse to the hitching rail. Levi was working inside his shop, the large sliding door was open. Dad and Levi exchanged pleasantries.

“I took a notion to go to town.” Dad said. That’s the word he used. Notion. I wondered vaguely what a notion was, but thought it sounded like a fine word. And I was going to town. He continued, “And Ira here needs to clean up a bit.”

Levi sent us to the house, where Lisbet met us at the door. Dad repeated his request. Lisbet smiled kindly, as if grubby little boys showed up at her door every day. I followed her into the sun porch on the south side of the house. Gleaming varnished hardwood floors, everything was spotless. There was a sink with a shiny white wash bowl. I took the wash cloth she gave me and scrubbed up a bit. Good enough. Dad thanked her and we were on our way.

Levi owned the only threshing machine in Aylmer and did custom threshing for all the farmers. On threshing day, early in the morning, he would appear from the west, over the little hill at Neighbor John’s, the great hulk of the threshing machine trundling along, crunching on the gravel road, pulled by an orange hybrid tractor Levi had assembled from scavenged parts.

He set up the thresher by the barn, lined up the tractor and attached the long flat belt to the pulleys on tractor and thresher. As the wagonloads of bundles pulled up and men pitched the bundles onto the ravenous feeder belt, Levi puttered about in the dust and heat, keeping the thresher greased and humming.

At the end of the day, when our threshing was done, he usually stayed for supper, sitting down with us to eat bean soup and tomato sandwiches in our summer kitchen. After supper, he and Dad settled up, and he rumbled out our lane with tractor and thresher. My brothers and I always ran out and hung onto the ladder mounted on the rear of the threshing machine. At the great oak tree a few hundred feet west of our lane, Levi shifted the hybrid tractor into higher gear. The entire bulk jerked abruptly, then lurched forward at astonishing speed. That’s when we jumped off. It’s a wonder we didn’t break our legs.

In the yard around his shop, he kept a scattered array of derelict farm machinery, tractors and truck beds and other fascinating junk. When they had church, the children played on the old equipment.

On the rear of one such rusted hulk, a previous owner had scrawled the still-legible message, “Don’t follow me, I’m lost.” As the men filed past the rusted hulk one Sunday morning on the way to the house for church, preacher Elmo Stoll noticed those words. Later that morning, as he stood to preach the main sermon, he repeated the slogan he had read outside. And the man crafted his entire sermon around those five words, weaving and stitching in his usual fashion to teach the lesson that could not have been forming in his mind for much more than an hour.

As Noah was known for mournful dirges, Levi was known for leading one particular song in church. The classic Lob (Praise) Song. It was by far his favorite. He led it often, his powerful, guttural roar echoing through the house in perfect pitch and rhythm.

In 1976, my family moved to Bloomfield, Iowa, and I soon lost track of the two old patriarchs and their wives. They faded completely from my mind as the passions and pride of young adulthood engulfed me. We heard tricklings here and there, snippets of news from our former home. I probably saw them once or twice after we moved, when visiting the old Aylmer haunts.

Noah Gascho was the first to go. Always frail, he struggled with health problems. He died in 1980, just shy of age 71, and was buried there in the Aylmer Amish graveyard. His wife Nancy, of more hardy stock, soldiered on alone for another nineteen years, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She finally joined Noah in August of 1999, and was buried beside him.

Levi Slaubaugh’s health, too, declined after Noah passed away. Heart and lung problems from decades of breathing in the toxic fumes of welding smoke, and the accumulation of untold days and weeks and years of unceasing labor. With Lisbet and his daughter Eva, who remained single, he moved to Centerville, Michigan in 1988. From that community they traveled to Florida, to spend the winter months in Pine Craft. A thing they would not have been allowed to do, had they remained in Aylmer.

In his final years, the dark tentacles of depression crept in and threatened to envelop him. He shriveled to a mere shell of the muscular blacksmith of my childhood. After leaving Aylmer, he died two short years later, in Florida in 1990, and was buried there. Lisbet and Eva moved permanently to Florida after his death. Lisbet survived him by fourteen years. She died in Florida in 2004.

And so they lived, and so they died. Quiet, solid and unpretentious. Enduring hardships without complaint. Faithful always to the culture and faith into which they were born.

They were unsung, unheralded. The sands of time will soon all but extinguish the last fading vestiges of the words they spoke, the lives they lived and the work of their hands, the legacies they left behind. To all but a diminishing remnant of those who knew them.

There are still a few of us out there. We, the living, who remember. We pause now from the bustle and stir of our daily lives. To recall. Reflect. Reminisce.

Somehow, it seems fitting to simply honor the memories of who they were.



  1. If I might be so bold as to pry . . . which came first to mind? The Wolfe quote or the story? Your fit, as usual, is remarkable.

    Comment by Mark Graham — November 21, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

  2. Yes, I remember these men well. Your vivid description is quite accurate. This reminded me of an incident that my brother was involved with. He and one of his buddies fired up one of those old pickup trucks at Levi’s place one Sunday afternoon. They had a jolly good time stirring up some dust on the back roads. I think they had some excitement with a flat tire. I’m not sure how it all turned out.

    The articles about Aylmer cause me to turn the clock of time back. Refreshes old memories. I remember ice skating to church or Sunday School once after an ice storm. It would have been about three miles.

    Comment by Crist Miller — November 22, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

  3. I was delighted to read about the old Aylmer days. One thing I remember about Levi S., he used to go somewhere, maybe Ingersoll, with an insulated trailer to get ice for the community. He had long tongs, and reached in, sometimes the whole trailer shifted. Once Rhoda and I were there getting ice, and a streaker passed in a car. Levi was so embarrassed, I wished I wasn’t there.

    These men are well deserving of your kind memories. Thank you. And no one beat Lisbet’s pickles the Sundays they had church. I can still smell that basement when we went down to eat on long pieces of lumber resting on saw horses. And Mommy Gascho made terrific tarts. Not so many years ago I got her recipe, but they taste nothing like her’s used to. And the Gaschos made first rate summer sausage. Now I’m getting hungry.

    Comment by Rachel — November 22, 2008 @ 8:51 pm

  4. Ira, I am confused about some details, though they are certainly not the focal point of these memoirs. Was this Amish group accepting of a man with a tractor? And old trucks on one’s property was OK as well? Somehow these particulars seem out of place in the imaginary picture I’ve created. Especially in light of the guilt placed on those who had the audacity to ride a bicycle.

    Have a Happy Thanksgiving and may all your favorite pies be served.

    Ira’s response: Yeah, it can all get a bit confusing. Each Amish community has different rules. In Aylmer, they can have tractors for belt power only. And to pull the machinery around only to set it up for operation.

    The pickup thing. I’ve thought about that myself. Levi was probably allowed to have the vehicles for engine parts. They were not to be driven, as those bad boys did on a Sunday afternoon.

    Comment by Rhoda — November 23, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

  5. I remember that Levi reported to the ministers his suspicion that the truck was not parked exactly where it was supposed to be. (He suspected some youth boys had driven it.)

    Comment by Steve Wagler — November 23, 2008 @ 9:01 pm

  6. I remember as a young lad playing in some old rattle-trap vehicles at Levi S., and I’m sure, pretended to drive them, but never did.

    Another great blog Ira. Very well said.

    Comment by P. Graber — November 25, 2008 @ 9:53 pm

  7. I appreciate you bringing the memories of my grandfather back to life. I was only six years old when we left Canada, but the memories of the shop, the smell of their basement is forever welded into my mind. I am the third son of Jim and Emma Stoll and have followed in the footsteps of my grandfather as far as my trade. I have fixed cars for a living since I was old enough to know how.

    Thanks for the wonderful recollection of my grandfather.


    Comment by Victor Stoll — December 1, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

  8. Ira Wagler- You sure do tell a good story. What a treat to read about the many characters in your formative years. You included!

    You wrote about Lisbet’s immaculate house. In a recent visit to IN I couldn’t help but notice the tidy, almost storybook like, homes and yards of the Amish families. Well manicured lawns with beds of flowers dotted here and there in random order. Everything was just so…neat and sparkley. Even the monstrous (and terrifying looking ) Clydesdales looked orderly and content. Must be a lot of work. Yes, a whole lotta work.

    Comment by Francine — June 5, 2014 @ 2:48 am

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