February 12, 2010

The Unloved…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:38 pm

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They cry in the dark, so you can’t see their tears.
They hide in the light, so you can’t see their fears.
Forgive and forget, all the while
Love and pain become one and the same,
In the eyes of a wounded child.

—Pat Benatar, lyrics: Hell is for Children
_________________________________

It happened in the late 1950s, a few years before I was born. I faintly remember them in my childhood world. The seven Mexican Mennonite children who were farmed out to various families in the Aylmer Amish community.

Mexican Mennonites were just that. Mennonites who had emigrated from Mexico. With few or no worldly possessions. With their own language, their own habits and customs. In southern Ontario, they were considered second class citizens. Ragged. Uncouth. Shifty. Mean. The hard-faced men with greasy side-swept hair slouched around in tight jeans and shoes with pointed toes. Most smoked. Many drank. The women, dressed in distinctive patterned flowing skirts, fluttered about, chattering in Plattdeutsch, a low German dialect.

Most of them were poor. Some were destitute. They roared about on the gravel roads in great finned cars, ancient rusting hulks.

We never had that much to do with them, except in the occasional course of normal commerce. No one trusted them. And so they existed in a dimension of their own, almost underground, struggling to survive in a strange land and a foreign culture.

And then, somewhere over in the area of Corinth, a few miles north and east of us, a certain Mexican Mennonite man with the last name of Fehr left his family one day. Just up and deserted his wife and eight children. I don’t know where he went. Maybe back to Mexico. Or maybe not.

But his choice of action was pretty much par for the course. Of what we thought of Mexican Mennonites.

His deserted, destitute wife struggled to feed the children. Ranging from toddlers to teenagers. On many a day, her cupboard was bare and there was no food. Her children looked on with hungry eyes. Desperate, she turned to her people for help. None was forthcoming.

And somehow, after the ragtag band of unsupervised children had terrorized their neighbors once too often, the people at the local Social Services office got involved. They decided to remove the children from their mother’s home. They determined that the Aylmer Amish were of similar faith and approached the leaders there to see if the children could be taken in. Meetings were held. And it was decided that five of the eight children would be farmed out to various families that would open their homes. The two oldest sons were allowed to remain at their mother’s home.

And so one day, as the little ragged children looked on in befuddled bewilderment, a long black car pulled up outside the shanty that was their home. Their mother herded them out and told them to get in. She had packed their few meager belongings and placed them in the trunk.

The long black car pulled away from what would be the last shared home the five frightened children would ever know. They shifted around and peered out the back window in alarm. Their mother stood there, receding in the distance, watching them leave. After she disappeared, the children murmured to each other. David was the youngest, probably around a year old. His sisters comforted him as best they could. The long black car rolled on.

And on and on, to them it seemed. Into strange and unknown territory. Then it slowed and turned into a drive leading to a farm. Pete Stoll’s place. There, David was taken from the car. He would stay here. As he was carried up to the house, his siblings watched him go.

On then, to the north and east. Next stop, Pete Yoder’s farm. The bishop. There, Pete and his wizened wife, Martha met them. The two girls, Betty and Mary, were told to get out. This was their new home.

Cornelius and Isaac, five and three years old, were unloaded at Noah and Nancy Gascho’s home. Some weeks later, Jacob, in his teens, was taken to the preacher Nicky Stoltzfus’ home at the east end of the Aylmer settlement.

And so they were taken from their mother, who could not feed or care for them, and distributed among a number of Amish homes in Aylmer.

I wasn’t there when it happened, so I didn’t see it. But it defies comprehension, the new life into which those children walked. Abruptly and unceremoniously, they were thrust into strange and frightening surroundings. In which everyone around them spewed incomprehensible gibberish. Terrified, stammering in their native Plattdeutsch, they were denied even the comfort of each other.

Within a year, another son was born to their mother. From a man not their father. She named him William. Whether from the kindly dictates of Social Services or on her own accord, the infant child ended up at the home of Levi Troyers.

Over at the Noah Gascho home, things were not going well. Cornelius and Isaac, tireless little live wires, soon frayed the elderly couple’s nerves to the breaking point. So their son-in-law and daughter, Joe and Laura Stoll, a young couple with children of their own, offered to take them in.

They may as well have been bastard children, all of them. Alone. Released by their mother. Abandoned by their father. Of them all, only little half-brother William was eventually adopted by Levi Troyer and his wife. The others all retained their last name. Fehr. An alien name, one that instantly branded them as outsiders and strangers who would not share in the inheritance of the families that had taken them in.

I have faint memories of some of their faces. Of Jacob, the oldest, and William, the youngest, I have none. But all the others I can see in my mind.

The boys were natural tinkerers, mechanics. Loved to tear apart and reassemble lawn mowers and such. Cornelius, or Corny, as he was called, had skilled creative hands. He hung out with my older brothers.

Isaac was a bit of a clown, always acting up. And always in some sort of trouble, it seemed. The clamor of his voice still echoes in the recesses of my memory.

David, always keen, always alert, a lean quiet loner with straight-hanging hair, was constantly absorbed in his own mysterious projects.

Betty, raven-haired, and Mary, a blonde, were about the age of my older sisters.

They were all measured and judged from the context of the worldview of those around them. And inevitably found wanting.

From the start, things did not go so well. Jacob, the oldest foster child, was unhappy with his new lifestyle. He quietly and persistently attempted to escape from preacher Nicky’s home. Each time he ran away, he was located and convinced or forced to return. And Betty, too, when she could no longer take it at uncle Pete’s home, launched desperate, sporadic flights into the fields, sobbing and calling for her mother.

For them all, life was hard. It had to be. And it showed on their faces. They were loud, fractious, uncouth. And the boys were mean. In school, they lagged far behind their peers. For the older ones, their prior education had been sparse at best. Thrown in with others of their age in these strange new surroundings, they were hopelessly lost. And could never catch up. It was simply impossible. Consequently, they were branded as dull, dense, hard of learning. Always slightly different. Separate. Looked down upon. Mocked. Scorned. Rejected by their peers.

And I’ve heard the murmurings, too, from those years. Of the harsh discipline they endured. Constant nagging. The strident incessant admonitions. And harsh corporal punishment. The brutal rod was not spared.

Mary, a quiet shy girl, sometimes did not speak for days. On her first day at the Aylmer Amish school, she was unable to communicate because she did not speak English. Somehow, the teacher found this a sufficient reason to whip her. That afternoon, after she returned to her “home” at uncle Pete’s, she was whipped again.

It’s no wonder she clammed up and wouldn’t talk, then or later, after she had learned the language.

I’m not saying the Fehr children were not loved. I am saying they must have felt unloved. In a foreign culture that tried to forge and mold them into something they were not. A culture that focused almost exclusively on the externals. And crushed the spirit, ignoring the internal regions of the heart.

It seems, even today, after so many years, that common sense was somehow omitted from the equation. In the decision to separate the siblings and raise them in different families. How is it possible for the most well-intentioned foster family to provide even a fraction of the love in the poorest mother’s heart?

But it was what it was. The Fehr children struggled into adulthood. I’m a bit sketchy on the facts, but some, if not most of them, actually joined the Aylmer Amish church. As was expected. This is what you do. And do as you are told.

But it could not stand. Stark simplistic rules and expectations rarely can or do.

Jacob left. He hung around the area for a few years, laboring at odd jobs here and there. Sometimes he showed up at the Aylmer Sales Barn and chatted with James Stoll, who must have had a market stand.

And Betty left too. She moved out of Aylmer in the early 1970s to Milroy, Indiana with the Eli C. Miller family. She very much enjoyed these new surroundings. But after some time, she moved to Holmes County to be near her brother, Cornelius, who had settled there.

And Isaac left too, and David. Where they went and what they did, I do not know. Probably they shifted about and survived as best they knew and could. Occasionally they drifted back into the Amish settlement and stayed for a few uneasy weeks or months. Always, they left again. David, it is said, served in the US military and was discharged honorably.

In the early 1970s, Mary moved to Marshfield, Missouri with Pete and Martha Yoder, her foster parents. Eventually she married Jacob Byler and they had a family.

Levi Troyers moved from Aylmer before my time and took William with them.

I have not seen any of the Fehrs since the early 1970s. And they were all removed from my mind, about as far as possible, until recent years. As they began to pass away, and the news trickled though the grapevine. Sparse, tense messages, replete with the heavy underlying knowledge that one more chance to right past wrongs has now slipped away forever.

In 1996, Jacob died in Georgia, at age 50. Where he is buried I do not know.

David, ill from a brain tumor and complications from decades of alcoholism, quietly returned to the Aylmer area where he had lived his childhood days. There he died a few years ago. His body was cremated and returned to Millersburg, Ohio, and he was buried there.

Betty Strait, the divorced mother of two sons, struggled with heart problems most of her life. On December 10, 2008, she went to work as usual. She never returned home. A heart attack struck and she passed silently and quickly. She is buried in Millersburg, Ohio.

Most recently, in November of 2009, Isaac died in Holmes County, where he had been staying with his brother Cornelius. He too is buried in Millersburg.

William and three of the brothers who never were farmed out, Larry, John, and Bill all still live in Canada.

Of them all, only Cornelius remained Amish. Today, he is a respected member of the Old Order Amish church in the Winesburg, Ohio area.

Mary and Jacob Byler today reside in Lexington, Ohio. Mary is the mother of five and grandmother to fourteen children. She has struggled over the years to put to rest the traumatic days of her broken childhood. She has seen much and suffered much.

At Isaac’s funeral, Mary spoke of that day when the long black car came and took them from their home. Into exile and separation and a life of fear and anguish.

It was impossible for her to describe the wounds, the hurts. But she spoke. She tried.

But still, who knows where they would have ended up, had the Amish not intervened? Life might have been even worse. If there were ever children born with the deck stacked against them, it was the Fehrs.

I’ve wondered sometimes, over the years. About how it all came down. Whose idea it was, to agree to take those seven children from their home and farm them out like that. To different families. I figure it was probably Pete Stoll. He was a good hearted man, who always had a soft spot for the less fortunate. Not even a stray dog, they say, would go hungry if Pete Stoll could help it.

There are people alive today who would know all those details. In Aylmer. But I doubt that those people would talk to me.

The Fehr children had it tough and hard. They knew it. They felt it. They lived it. Things most of us could not endure or even fathom. And things those around them should have known and could have made better.

But they didn’t. Or wouldn’t. And so the Fehr children survived as best they could with what they had to face. From life as it came at them.

For all these years, they have been alone. Unheard. Forgotten by most of those who knew them as children in Aylmer so long ago.

Alone. Absorbing the blows. Toughing it out.

They had some things to say, all of them. Of how it was. And how it went. Their quiet hesitant voices have always been ignored.

And now, some of their voices have fallen silent. They will not be heard again.

At the time, all those years ago when the decisions were made to remove the children from their home, everyone involved did the best they knew with the hard choices confronting them. Including the Aylmer Amish families that took them in. Of that I have no doubt.

But sometimes, in the judgment of history, that is not enough.

Sometimes the generation that follows, those who come later and were not involved or even born, those who look back with a heart of human compassion, they are called to pronounce a verdict on the past:

“Even with the best of intentions, it was wrong, so very wrong, how the Fehr children were treated. Something like that should never happen again. And all those, including their peers who mocked them, who can still clean the slate and make things right with the remaining survivors, they should do so now before it is too late.”

There are times when hard and bitter truths must be spoken. And need to be heard. However difficult it might be to speak those truths. Or however painful to hear them.

This is such a time.

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(25 Comments) »

  1. This story broke my heart!! How unfair life was for those children! And there are many more like them out there today. It all seems so overwhelming….on one hand I have a desire to care for children like that, and on the other hand it scares me to death.

    I do know that I am very blessed….as are my children. And I pray that I am teaching them to care for those less fortunate, those who are rejected by society in general….oh, God, give us hearts of compassion. Let us walk a mile in their shoes….

    Comment by Twila — February 12, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

  2. This incredible tale of suffering brings memories of the numerous foster children who my mother and father took in from time to time. The trauma of small kids being ripped away from parents is something that scars for life. This story is gut wrenching, but I love the closing lines. There comes a time and the truth must be spoken. Thanks for this story.

    Leon

    Comment by Leon — February 12, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

  3. I find this post most interesting, its been about 10 years ago that I built a house next to Jake Fehr, son of Corny Fehr and I was aware of sketchy details of this history but this certainly clears some things up. Corny would often come to Jakes for a weekend cookout and I’d often sit around the fire with him and whoever of the rest of the family who may show up. A really friendly man and his children are just as socialable. Jakes have since sold this this place so I don’t see Corny as much anymore however he still lives close to my house and on summer nights I may ride my 4 wheeler past his house and if he’s on the front porch I’ll swing in to say Hi. If you ever get to Ohio and want to make contact with him, I’ll take you to his house.
    Sam

    Comment by Sam Stoltzfus — February 12, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

  4. Good story, good conculsion. It is painful that plain people seldom are willing to be truthful about themselves. Underneath the plain suit and cape dress (often) lies a wretched heart untouched by the Christ child.

    Comment by Cliff Yoder — February 12, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

  5. By the time I moved to Aylmer the Fehr children were history and the subject was closed.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — February 12, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

  6. I knew Dave, Ike, and Betty. They were social, likable people, always friendly and willing to do anything for others, yet it was apparent to anyone who looked beyond the surface, that life for them was an uphill battle.

    I’ve heard it said that some of us start life at the fifty-yard line, some at the twenty, some within inches of the goal line. The achievements by which we often measure success in others are inaccurate if we do not also acknowledge the obstacles they have overcome simply to survive.

    Thanks for an accurate and moving account of courageous living.

    Comment by K. Marner — February 12, 2010 @ 11:03 pm

  7. A very sad tale, well told.

    “tireless little live wires” – check

    “skilled creative hands” – check

    “settled in Holmes County” – check

    “Today, he is a respected member of the Old Order Amish church” – you are a very kind man, Ira.

    Comment by Marvin — February 12, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

  8. Parallels a Farley Mowat book, No Man’s River, that I’m reading … three “Eskimo” children from a family in dire straits are re-homed with a couple of scientists and some free-trading trapper dudes. It reminds me of the Haitian kids too. God bless all the little children of misfortune.

    Comment by Katy Miller — February 13, 2010 @ 12:53 am

  9. A gut-wrenching true tale, these children, some of them our grandchildrens’ age, were “farmed out,” more than I can bear to think. David was my age, and I remember well one time in our pre school days, I had just learned the word adopted, and knew that was connected with him, so I promptly informed him that he was ADOPTED. That night he was sad, so Pete Stoll asked him what is wrong. So he told Pete, “Rachel said I am adopted.” Well, Pete handled it well. He said, “Daves (my parents) had no choice, they had to take Rachel. We PICKED you!!!!!!”

    I still remember that day and I am still ashamed of it, wonder if David ever forgot. I never saw him after he left Aylmer. Does anyone know if he had gone along to Honduras? I am thinking he did for a while.

    There are no tears in heaven, may the ones who have passed on rest in peace, and God bless you, Ira for giving them a voice…..

    Comment by Rachel — February 13, 2010 @ 1:04 am

  10. This one has me sobbing. I don’t know if I feel like a “Fehr” or if it’s raging anger but you’ve stirred some deep buried thoughts. Honestly, I’d rather not face all of them. The realities of life are harsh and rude at times. I can choose whether or not to let my past ruin my future. I thank my precious Savior every day for extending His grace and mercies anew each day upon my life.

    I wish the Fehrs and many others could experience a life such as mine…blessed with wonderful parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and more friends than I can count, a wonderful church, a rich heritage and the endless list continues. May I always remember the love, unconditional love, that was/is shown to me!

    Comment by J. Stoltzfus — February 13, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

  11. FATHERS.

    That is what strikes me as I read. My impact in forming society, whether I intend it or not.

    “And I will send before Him Elijah (the prophet), who will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children … lest I smite the land with a curse.” (Malachi 2.16 to end)

    Comment by LeRoy — February 13, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

  12. Heartbreaking! Though I never learned to know the Fehr children, I do know William and am glad that his life has turned into something much better.

    Comment by A Joyful Chaos — February 13, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

  13. I don’t care much for the Aylmer Amish today, but I have to admire them for stepping up to the plate so many, many years ago, and trying the best they could. Perhaps the only other alternative way back then would have been the County Poor-house, and all the horror it entailed.

    I don’t believe any of those families ever got a dime of Government money. Unlike today’s Foster-Child programs that are a lot about the $$$$$. Payments every month. From the State (Province) point, that particular intervention has to be counted as a success, as all the children grew to be law-abiding taxpayers.

    Comment by Grandpa Jess — February 13, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

  14. There are those moments when one reads literature and a hush gathers over the soul as it senses the presence of greatness. I felt that stirring, reading this piece. The Fehr children have been honored by the pen of a great writer. As the scriptures say, “those members…we think to be less honorable, upon them we bestow more abundant honor.”

    Comment by Jerry Eicher — February 13, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

  15. A heart wrenching sad story that gives an understanding about someone I encountered later in life.

    My first rememberence hearing the name Fehr was when Corny got married to a lady in the same church district where I grew up. It was the early seventies and it made an impression on a young lad 8 years old. “Corny Fehr is getting married to Edna Troyer”, the hushed tones of the adults in the community made it clear this was an unusual marriage with a sense of uneasiness in the air that fall day.

    Approximately ten years later my employment was with Corny at the foundry he owned south of Berlin, OH. Innovative and entrepreneurial were terms used to describe him at that time.

    Isaac and David also worked for Corny at the time and there were surface issues evident. After reading about their childhood, it is clear they were simply consumed to cover hurts suffered. Looking back, it pains me, being a part of inflicting further pain on them thru mockery and otherwise.

    How it would have turned out if the Aylmer community had not intervened one will never know.

    Thank you Ira, for sharing this well written story.

    Comment by John Yoder — February 13, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

  16. Truett Cathy, the founder of Chik-Fil-A restaurants, is an individual I’ve heard speak twice at conventions and I have a lot of respect for him. He always speaks fondly of having taught 13 year old boys’ Sunday School class for fifty years! And now, 24 of them manage a Chik-Fil-A restaurant. He sponsors several homes for troubled chidren, and if I have any energy or any other resources after taking care of my children and grandchildren, that’s where I want to spend my efforts. Helping children like the Fehr children.

    Great blog, Ira!

    Comment by Rudy Yutzy — February 13, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

  17. Readers who follow your posts diligently know, by now, that I am from Daviess County, Indiana. I do believe that I have heard that Corny Fehr spent some time here in his “rumspringa”.

    At any rate, I have personally met Corny, his wife, and some of the children. A daughter, especially, I count as a good friend. I have been to their home and can vouch that they are upstanding Christians who entertain guests with excellent hospitality!

    However, I was unaware of most of the facts in this article. My heart breaks for my “friends”, the Fehrs, as I discover what terrible circumstances they endured.

    Disbelief…Tears… Heartache…Thanks for the enlightenment, Ira.

    Comment by HENRY — February 15, 2010 @ 10:25 am

  18. There is more to the story;

    Like Corny being born in the back seat of a model T while they were moving from one location to the next.

    Seeing dad chasing mom with a butcher knife.

    Going through the local dump looking for any leftover food and squeezing the remains out of toothpaste tubes to try to curb the hunger.

    Comment by A nephew — February 16, 2010 @ 9:40 am

  19. David or “Dave” as we called him worked for me for a while. I’m guessing it was about 10 or 12 years ago. He brought a lot of humor to the job. He lived a tough life, but always found humor in the small details of life. I heard that he found God in a very real way in the latter days of his life.

    It was interesting for me to hear his side of the story, as I had only heard the Aylmer Amish stories growing up.

    I have good memories of him!

    Gerald D. Hochstetler, Jr.

    Comment by Gerald D Hochstetler, Jr — February 16, 2010 @ 11:45 am

  20. We judge people by what we see, and when they are different than we are we assume it’s wrong or not as good. The Corny Fehr family is one of the most accepting, hospitable families I know. When I read the story, I am appalled that we as Jesus’ followers would mock and ridicule, and otherwise make things more difficult for those who are already down. Jesus had more kind words for those in need when He was on earth than the “respected, religious” folks. God help us not to condemn and ridicule those around us now who are struggling.

    Comment by Anonymous — February 20, 2010 @ 11:52 am

  21. Thank you so much for sharing this story with us! Mary is a good friend of mine and she has shared a short story now and then of her past, I am so glad that I know her as a friend, there are few people like her. When there is someone in need she is right there to give of whatever she has…which to the people that don’t know her well it would appear like she has nothing to offer. Her heart is filled with the unending LOVE of Jesus and she has the river of Life running through her. Blessings to you for sharing!

    Comment by Teresa — February 22, 2010 @ 7:24 am

  22. I read your account of the Fehr Family with great interest – so much of their story I didn’t know. I knew David Fehr somewhat. In the winter of 1964/65 I was at Pete Stoll’s place near Sudbury, Ontario. We worked in the pulp woods. David was just a little boy. He played with Mark. They had a kitten that they tussled with until their hands were covered with scratches.

    In the summer of 1966 I was at Aylmer for two months, mostly at Pete Stoll’s. Consistent with your account, I recall Uncle Pete as David’s main protector and friend. Once at dinner David said he wished for a pet monkey. Pete said: “Yes, by all means we need a monkey.” This conversation may have gone forward in Pennsylvania German, but I clearly remember the phrase “by all means.”

    Hope you are well, and thanks for your posts.

    Comment by A Cousin — February 24, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

  23. Four years ago God dropped me into the middle of forty thousand Mexican Mennonites- in Chihuahua, Mexico. My heart now belongs to hundreds of Fehrs; to Cornys and Davids and Marys and Isaaks and Jakobs. These people STILL need to be loved, to be understood and celebrated. I applaud you for attempting to do that.

    Comment by Linda — March 12, 2010 @ 3:41 am

  24. My heart goes out to every child with insane parents. And I am of the firm opinion that God takes parenting very seriously.

    I remember once when I was substitute teaching, there was a boy in my classroom who was in foster care. The teacher left the children small bags of popcorn as a treat. After I distributed them there were two baggies left over. The sweet boy in foster care, who had no qualms with letting me know his desires, asked if he could have the other two bags for his siblings who were home with the foster care mom. I thought it fair to ask the other children what they thought in case they wanted to split the leftovers amongst themselves. Their response was so loving. Every one of them gladly thought it best to send the popcorn home with the boy. The little fellow must have let his situation be known to his classmates because they, too, wanted to care for him, his brother and sister. It was touching and memorable to me.

    Comment by Francine — January 17, 2013 @ 12:59 am

  25. This story is truly amazing, I knew most of the story about the Fehrs, but I didn’t know all of it. I met Corny Fehr on December 20th, 2015. He is a wise man that has a heart full of gold. I met Corny through one of his sons, Paul Fehr, who runs a recovery ministry that I was part of. Corny is a man who accepted me and the other guys like we were his own family, and he never knew us before but from the first day we met him he showed love to us like we was family already. We gave him the nickname Pops bc he was a grandfather to us. He is a wonderful and brilliant man that would do anything for anyone. And one thing he said to me that I’ll never forget was, “if every person would just follow the one commandment in the Bible, this world would be a better place.” And it was love thy neighbor as they self. He also told me if we work on ourselves and our own problems every day and work to be more like Jesus every day then one day we will be in heaven. Well that’s all I got, thanks for the story you wrote. And if you ever see Corny Fehr, let him know that Tyler earls said hey pops I miss you!

    Comment by Tyler — August 24, 2015 @ 3:18 pm

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