July 13, 2012

The Sansburn Farm (Sketch #15)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:57 pm


For this will always be one of the immortal and living things
about the land…whose only permanence is change.

—Thomas Wolfe

It sat pretty much smack dab in the heart of the Aylmer Amish community, about a mile west of our home. On the main drag. An old house, covered with burnt-rust asphalt siding. A gaggle of dilapidated old unpainted outbuildings, including a huge old swaying barn, guarded on the north side by a poured concrete silo. On the south of the barn stood a complex of crumpling cattle pens and an even larger silo. And that was the place. A little odd, yes, compared to the proud, painted buildings on surrounding farms. But not as odd as the man who lived there.

His name was Carl Sansburn, and he lived there with his mother, at least during the early history of the Aylmer community. I have no recollection of her at all. She must have died before I was born, or when I was too young to remember. Some scattered fragments of who she was remain in the shadows of my memory, as tales told by my older sisters.

Carl was always old to me. A tall lean man in overalls, always dirty, his wrinkled face frozen in a half grimace, half smile, puttering about his farm on his old green Johnny popper. He was a kindly man who would help you out if he could. The children never feared him, nor were they intimidated by him in any way. I don’t know if he was born on that farm, but he lived on it for most of his life, I think. He’d probably never heard of the Amish before they settled around him. But he was one of those rare outsiders who somehow connects with the pulse of the surrounding Amish community.

His farm was like so many others in the area. Rich and fertile ground. About two fields wide, and very deep. Half a mile or more, it went back, the fields separated by a traditional farm lane with gated fences on both sides. He kept a few head of ragged cattle. Farmed the land faithfully, by the old conservative methods. Never put much money out, for seed or spraying. And his crops reflected his efforts. The fields produced, just not as much as they could have. And all that was fine with him.

From the right, the first unobscured face above the item the man is holding.
That is Carl Sansburn. (November, 1968)
The Amish guys, from front to rear: Abner Wagler, Alva Eicher, Stephen Stoll

Carl was a mumbler. A guy who talked to himself, didn’t matter if anyone was around or not. And actually mumbled when he actually talked to others. This came from decades of living alone, I suppose. He was pretty much irreligious, as far as I know. Never attended church. Maybe he was just very private about his faith. He may well have communed with God in his heart. I don’t know. I try not to judge such things.

Looking back, I’ve wondered. What it meant to him, to be able to connect, to participate in the life of the Aylmer Amish. I doubt that he thought about it much, or processed it at all. He just accepted life as it came at him. And to their great credit, the Aylmer Amish accepted him, too. Not as one of their own, no, of course not. Maybe even with a good bit of judgment. He was English, so he was probably lost. But still, they accepted him as he was. He was Carl Sansburn. Eccentric. Alone, on his farm. But connected loosely with them, simply by his farming methods. And maybe because he was so alone.

I’ve wondered, too, how life would have been for him, had the Amish never shown up in Aylmer. What was his social status, growing up? He went to public parochial school a half mile east, in the old school house the Amish bought in the mid 1960s. The same school house where I attended my first day in first grade. He went there for eight years, at least. But what happened then, in his adolescent years? Did he go to high school? Did he ever date a girl? And why didn’t he ever get married? Was he an outcast? Was he lonely? Was he too shy to approach or express himself to a woman? Or did he get burned, maybe? Was he rejected, scorned by the love of his life? What were the circumstances that made him who he was? I don’t know that anyone ever asked those questions, or even thought them. And why should they? But still, it’s a legitimate thing, to consider them now.

All these thoughts are pure conjecture, of course. But you don’t grow up in a community, you don’t go to school with your peers, you don’t live through your teenage years without some sort of social exposure to those around you.

I don’t know when his father died. But when the Amish arrived, there was Carl, on this ramshackle farm, right in the midst of them. Living there with his mother. And the place was falling apart. The barns were decrepit even then. And his fences, well, let’s just say they were barely worthy of the name. Old leaning posts, rotting at the base, falling over. Strung with rusty barbed wire, so old that you could twist it in your hands and it would crumple into rust. The place had once stood as a proud example of what a farm could be. Someone had done that, improved the land. Someone with a vision, someone with hope for the future. That someone was gone now. And now, the farm lay shriveled, decrepit, decaying. Along with the man who lived on it.

He farmed like we did, except with a tractor. He cut his oats in sheaves and shocked the bundles in his fields. Come threshing time, Carl joined the threshing ring. Arrived in his old car with a pitchfork. He walked the fields all day, a “pitcher” who only helped load the wagons. Pitching was the toughest job in threshing, because you didn’t get any breaks. The wagon drivers could relax while driving the loads from field to barn. Pitchers could never rest until the field was cleaned of shocks.

I don’t know what Carl ate at home. It wasn’t much, and I’m sure it wasn’t that healthy. He sure enjoyed the threshing meals, sitting there as one of us, devouring great mounds of home-cooked food. When it was his turn to thresh on his farm, the neighbors always came only in the afternoon. So Carl wouldn’t have to worry about feeding anyone. It was different, but everyone made it work.

He was frugal to a fault. Pinched every penny before buying anything. And mostly didn’t buy anything, because the money meant more to him than the stuff he should have spent it on. That’s why his farm was falling apart. He wouldn’t maintain it. His old ramshackle car finally collapsed one day, and the community beheld a great wonder. Carl Sansburn bought a brand new car. A Chevy station wagon, painted an ugly avocado green (The 1970s: the decade of that awful color). It took a while for us to get used to seeing the shiny new car swooshing up and down the gravel roads with Carl behind the wheel.

He always headed to the Aylmer Sales Barn on Tuesday afternoons. Just hung out there. And if my brothers or any other Amish youth wanted to ride along, all they had to do was show up, tie up their horse in Carl’s barnyard, and they had a free ride to town. Carl always smiled and mumbled pleasantly, and never asked for a penny for the bother.

In 1973, Carl let it be known that his farm was for sale. He was ready to retire and move to town. It was a strange thing to contemplate, that he would no longer live there in the community. “Carl was a good man,” the children said. He would move out of our lives, we figured. We were very wrong.

And that spring, Dad bought Carl’s farm. I don’t remember if Carl even bothered to hold a disposal auction. His stuff was mostly junk. I don’t remember, either, just when he moved to town. But I do remember that we farmed the place that year, while Carl was still living there. So we were over on the farm a lot, while Carl puttered about on his tractor, wrapping up his affairs.

One fine summer morning, my brother Stephen and I were there, working in a field doing something, I forget what. Carl’s old tractor appeared from behind the woods way to the south. He wasn’t pulling anything, just driving his tractor. He slowly popped on down the lane toward us. And somehow, a large chunk of splitting wood lay there, right in the middle of the lane. I have no idea how it got there, probably it fell off the wagon Carl had been pulling earlier. It was a magnificent specimen as chunks of wood go, round as the tree trunk it had been cut from, probably two feet long and about as wide, with a few protruding knots.

From across the field, we looked on with great interest as Carl and the tractor approached the chunk of wood. He never saw it and drove right up to it. The narrowly spaced front tires pushed the chunk off to the right. And then the large rear tractor tire nudged the chunk down the lane for about ten feet or so. We gaped. The chunk must have hit a little incline then, because it resisted. Stubbornly dug in. The large rear tire treads gripped the wood, and the right rear of the tractor abruptly lunged straight up into the air, as the tire clawed its way over the obstacle. Carl’s upper body was flung violently to the left. But somehow, the man managed to keep his grip on the steering wheel. And then the tractor plopped back down to earth, two feet straight down. This time Carl was flung somewhat less violently to the right. Again, he hung on, and somehow kept his precarious perch on the tractor seat.

The tractor puttered on as a startled and shaken Carl looked back over his shoulder to see what in the world had just happened. Mumbling at top speed to himself, I’m sure. Stephen and I just couldn’t help ourselves. We doubled over with helpless laughter. We howled until we couldn’t any more, until the tears came. Carl never looked our way, never saw that we saw. It was just one of those moments, frozen in my mind. The man could easily have been killed, or at least seriously hurt. But he wasn’t. And that’s why the whole scene was so uproariously funny. Or maybe our sense of humor was a little warped.

Sometime that summer, Carl moved to Aylmer. Bought a little house in town. And we stepped in to clean up the place he’d left. My brother Joseph and his bride Iva Mae planned to live there. Joseph had traveled down to Honduras, where Iva’s family had migrated with the Peter Stoll group a few years before. There, a simple wedding was held. I’ve always felt a bit bad for Joseph, because his parents and most of his siblings were not present on his big day. Not that Dad and Mom had anything against the marriage. But Honduras. It was halfway across the world, almost. And traveling down there by bus was just a bit too much for my parents to undertake.

Carl’s old ramshackle house was simply beyond filthy. Reeked of mold and rot. Legend had it that anytime Carl was of a mind to, he just hocked and spat randomly, right in the house. From the look of it, I don’t doubt those stories. We scrubbed and painted and cleaned and scrubbed some more. Tore out walls to combine little rooms into larger ones. There was one tiny bathroom, downstairs. I think we left that as it was, just cleaned it. We never did much with the big barn and outbuildings. The place swarmed with rats. You could walk into the old garage or the barns at any time, day or night, and see the vermin scatter. They weren’t that wild, really. More than once, I stood in the doorway of the garage with my rifle and picked off a few rats with .22 shorts.

Carl moved to town, but he did not go gentle into that good night. Instead, he became an even more important part of the Amish community. He merrily began hauling Amish in his now-dusty, increasingly creaky station wagon. He couldn’t see that well, and was far from a safe driver, but that generally doesn’t faze the Amish much. The man had a car, and was willing to do local taxi work. That fact alone was more than enough to keep him as busy as he wanted to be. So he trundled about, his car sagging under the heavy cargo of people and groceries.

It wasn’t safe to ride with him. One morning, he was taking Sam and Katie Yoder and a few of their children somewhere, maybe to the chiropractor in St. Thomas. A soupy Lake Eire fog had settled in, and visibility was near zero. They approached the railroad tracks on Glencolen Road. The warning lights were flashing; a train was coming. At that time, the great CN freight trains swooped through the land at 60 mph. Carl carefully braked his station wagon to a halt. They waited. And waited. And waited. The fog was so thick they could see nothing. They heard nothing, either. So finally Carl put the car in gear and slowly edged over the tracks. The car had barely cleared the tracks when the train came barreling through at full speed. Literally a second slower, and they would all have been killed. Carl mumbled excitedly. The Yoders requested to be taken home straightway. Katie, who had a history of health issues, was so emotionally distraught that she took to her bed for a week. At least that’s how I remember the story as Mom told it to me later.

After moving to town, Carl became a fixture at the Aylmer Sales Barn on Tuesdays. Kept a vendor’s stand inside, which was stocked with “antiques” that were mostly junk. I don’t know that he ever sold much there. But for years, he kept the stand, probably to socialize as much as anything.

Carl nurtured his friendships even with those who moved from Aylmer. In 1972, Bishop Peter Yoder and Homer Graber, both of them my uncles, moved with their families to Marshfield, Missouri. Both had been close neighbors to Carl, and both had befriended him. Periodically, right up to the final decade of his life, Carl teamed up with another Aylmer character and good friend, Charlie Newland, and the two of them set out to visit their old friends. They even stopped by in Bloomfield after we moved there in 1976. Keeping the old connections alive, that’s what they were doing. And those they went to visit were always delighted to see them.

Back on the old Sansburn farm, Joseph struggled along despondently, farming and milking. Like me, the man was not a farmer and would never be one. Besides, the old dilapidated barns of the Sansburn farm were enough to make anyone depressed, even a real farmer. And then, as 1976 rolled around, the whole scene changed dramatically. My family abruptly uprooted and moved to Bloomfield. Dad sold our old home place. And he sold the Sansburn farm to Alvin Fisher of Somerset, PA.

Alvin did not sojourn long in Aylmer. Never fit in, quite. Maybe it wasn’t the heaven on earth he’d figured it would be. And after only four years or so, he decided to retreat to where he’d come from. Somerset. In 1980, he sold the farm to the Jantzi brothers, Dan and David, who moved down from Milverton, Ontario with their families. The place no longer looked the same by then, though. Born of solid Pennsylvania stock, Alvin Fisher could not long abide on a ramshackle place. After moving onto the Sansburn farm, he had promptly spruced up and re-sided and re-roofed the old barns. Made them look fresh and new again. Improved the place pretty dramatically. He had flung out new fences and remodeled the house.

And the Jantzi brothers split the Sansburn farm into two parcels. Dan took the home buildings, and David built a long drive to the back of the place. And there he erected a whole new homestead.

I last saw Carl Sansburn at my uncle Homer Graber’s funeral in Kalona, Iowa in May, 2001. I recognized him immediately. Just much older now, stooped and bent from the long weary years of living a frugal, lonely life. And I have to admit, I stared at him, appalled. The front of his suit jacket was literally caked with layers of dust, now hardened into dirt. He had no one, no one to look out for him for even the most basic things. I shook his hand and smiled and spoke my name. His eyes sparkled as he saw the child he used to know in the man standing before him. We chatted for a few minutes, then I drifted on into the crowd.

He passed away a few years ago, I’m not sure exactly of the date. Left his modest estate to a niece no one even knew he had. And so he’s gone, the memories of who he was fading ever more rapidly into the mists of the past. Today I speak his name and write of him for no particular reason, really. It’s just a thing that came. Maybe because no one else has ever bothered to tell it.

In the end, I suppose, this post is more about Carl than it is about the Sansburn farm. But it’s about the farm, too. Dan and David Jantzi and their families settled there. David still remains, his roots firmly planted on his “new” homestead. Several years ago, Dan sold the old Sansburn home to Reuben and Dorothy Eicher, who now live there. The generations will move on, will come and go. Fifty years from now, maybe, someone might peer back in time as far as I’m peering back now.

And write of the same land called by a different name.



  1. A jolly good tale! My favorite, I think.
    So far.

    Comment by Rhonda — July 13, 2012 @ 7:54 pm

  2. Very interesting story. It is refreshing at times to think back on the good and the bad which we all endure at one point in our lives. Keep up the good work.

    Comment by Marge — July 13, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

  3. My first memories of Carl were as a taxi driver in his station wagon. There were numerous old bachelors living within five miles of the Amish. Some were brothers and all were farmers. I have often wondered why so many in that area?

    Comment by Katie Troyer — July 13, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

  4. I find this very interesting. You have a very special way of writing and it is very good. Thanks for allowing me to read your sketches, and sketches they are for I can picture it with your words.

    Comment by Linda Morris — July 13, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

  5. I also have memories of Carl back in my childhood days. When I was about 12 yrs old, we as a family planned a western trip as far as Montana. Well, it so happened my Dad mentioned, on a ride to somewhere, that we were going on a trip out west, and jokingly said to Carl, he should come along. Well, to Dad’s surprise, he jumped at the opportunity, and said he would go along.

    We as a family were not excited about him going along, but my Dad just didn’t have the heart to disappoint the poor man, so we took him along.

    Yes, he did a lot of mumbling, but he was also known to have dirty smelly clothes. The trip went well, we got along fine, but we also had some very funny happenings, that we still laugh about today.

    We had a few nights out west, we needed motels. Because there weren’t Amish folks around to get a free night’s rest. This would have been our first time ever, sleeping in a motel.

    One night we had a hard time finding any vacant motels. (Or maybe it had something to do with the right price too.) We finally found only a few rooms, so all us men slept in the same room. There was no way,!!!!! any of us boys ,was going to sleep with Carl, so Dad had to. Well, this motel was terrible terrible! And, in the middle of the night, one side of the bed broke down! Carl came rolling down on Dad!

    I think my Dad apologized to the motel owners the next morning, about the bed breaking. I can’t remember for sure, he might even have offered to pay for it.

    Also, after being on the road for almost 2 weeks our driver and his wife started hinting, that when we stay at a motel, he should shower. Wouldn’t cost more, they kept telling him.

    Well, they got more and more desperate, and even my parents tried to help. But, he always just mumbled some excuse, and never showered!

    Comment by Joseph Wagler — July 13, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

  6. Interesting! Now I understand why my Dad (Sam Yoder) still has yearly nightmares about those Aylmer years. (No kidding!) I know very little about that time in my history, except for the fact that it is my birthplace. So I find your reminiscing very interesting!

    Comment by Amy — July 13, 2012 @ 11:41 pm

  7. You really captured this man with your story. Now if only I can get the “captcha code” to work this time.

    Cynthia in Laurel, MD

    Comment by Cynthia — July 14, 2012 @ 9:23 am

  8. One summer I worked for Carl, and he introduced me to the one man hay rack. Dad never had one, so this was new to me. I guess he had enough boys to keep two of us busy on the hay wagon. Later, I had my own when I was farming and it was a real labor saver.

    Comment by James Stoll — July 14, 2012 @ 10:06 am

  9. I hadn’t thought of Carl in years. Thanks for the memory.

    Comment by Mark Oliver — July 14, 2012 @ 10:47 am

  10. Isn’t it great with your story reaching so many, that a solitary figure who was just a face in the crowd (so to speak) is giving us all pause and making us all think about him and that life. Great job – I feel like I can see the farm, him, and the rats in the barn. And even though I’ve already had one today, it makes me want to go take a shower. HA HA

    Comment by BethR — July 14, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

  11. Very interesting story. Thanks for sharing. Made me think of some of the people from my childhood, who have long since passed.

    Comment by Linda Nazelrod — July 14, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

  12. This post reminds me of the BBC production ‘history of our street.’


    Comment by james emmans — July 14, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

  13. Glad to see you writing again.

    And thanks for sharing it.

    Comment by LeRoy — July 14, 2012 @ 8:02 pm

  14. Memories stirred. I helped him put up hay one summer with horses and the hay loader. He and Charlie visited us in Holmes County and Joan made chili soup as a last minute meal. They really enjoyed. I remember the mumbling. Great post, Ira.

    Comment by Crist — July 14, 2012 @ 9:21 pm

  15. A “good man” he certainly was. To the very core of his soul. My family, The Homer Graber’s, lived a half mile to the West. As an Amish child growing up in the 60’s, I vividly remember some of the Carl Sansburn tales that were rehearsed at our dinner table. It seems that Carl was resolved to not run the heater in his old station wagon, even in the dead of those cold Canadian winters, which can be quite cold. One such day Homer Graber, my father, was riding in the front seat when he decided to reach over and turn on the heat. Carl promptly reached over and turned the heater back off while muttering something about his car not getting as good a gas mileage with the heat turned on. :)

    Comment by Reuben — July 15, 2012 @ 8:20 am

  16. Great story!! Thank you Ira–I have been waiting to see what you would write next. Most enjoyable–except for the rats!

    Comment by Jennifer — July 15, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

  17. Yes, it seems like every large store of memories has some rats that need cleared out somehow. You can’t just ignore them and go on, or they start to overrun your house.

    Your writings have so many good angles and insights, Ira. Very human and real.

    Comment by LeRoy — July 18, 2012 @ 11:11 am

  18. I love this story. So human. We are connected with only our bonds of humanity. Memories are made and cherished as only human creatures can. Love one another is what makes us different from all God’s other creatures, and it is what makes us human. To not love is to lower our identity as humans to that of brutes or rats that need to be kept under control. Jesus himself loved the lowly, are we to do any less?

    Keep up the good work, Ira. You have a way of making the common things beautiful.

    Comment by Rachel Zook — July 18, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

  19. Dear Ira,

    I really loved your book. I read it so quickly while on vacation and couldn’t put it down. I have always been fascinated with the Amish and thank you for telling your personal story. Please hurry with the sequel. I couldn’t wait to read what happens next and you left us hanging. Thank you so much.

    Christie from California

    Comment by Christie — July 30, 2012 @ 11:45 am

  20. This is my favorite story thus far. “I don’t know when his father died.” Excellent paragraph! “precarious perch..” Awesome! And the summary of Carl’s driving skills is hilarious. I get so much pleasure out of reading your blog. I’m making my way back to the beginning and lovin’ it. Thanks for the free endorphin explosion.

    I knew a man much like Carl. His name was Robert Ragsdale. He too was a mumbler and I often overheard him chuckle while he was talking to himself. He obviously thought of himself as very good company. As a midwest girl who moved to the south as a social worker I met many characters, but he took the cake. One day while making a home visit and to drive him to a doctor appointment I noticed cockroaches all about his small apartment. I saw one make a mad dash for the calendar hanging on the wall. I thought I’d be clever and kill the disgusting mutant by shaking the calendar, making it drop to the floor and splat! under my 1 inch heel. With a vengeance I shook. And down dropped about 20 fat, brown family members scattering hither and yon to avoid the light of day. You can better believe I stomped my feet as soon as I layed foot on his porch. Even though I was sporting a skirt that day I wanted to make sure there were no hanger-oners. The whole ordeal didn’t faze him a bit. I think he just mumbled.

    Comment by Francine — October 12, 2012 @ 1:24 am

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