My Thoughts About One of My Favorite Places--Northeastern Indiana's Amish Country

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Shipshewana Walldogs, Part One: Bennett Blacksmiths

In 2014 Shipshewana was fortunate enough to be chosen to host a gathering of painters who left a remarkable set of sixteen murals on buildings all over the small town.

The event was hosted by an organization of sign and mural painters who are known as "The Walldogs."  (More information about them can be found at  They spent four days in June creating some remarkable work that paints a visual history of sixteen important people, places, and business from Shipshewana's past.

There are two different brochures available which show the location of all sixteen murals, but neither one says much about the scenes depicted.  I did a little digging, and this first post is about one of the largest murals:  Bennett Blacksmiths.

This mural is found on the north side of the Shipshe General Store building, which is at 420 North Van Buren Street (Route 5).  The text reads, “Bennett Blacksmiths.  Miles and Willard Bennett, Proprietors—Shoeing Shipshewana from 1902 to 1954.” 

I wanted to know more about this business and its proprietors.  An old photo in the archives on the Shipshewana town website shows the shop, looking just as it does in the painting at the left side of the mural.  The words on the sign over the door say “Shoeing – Repairing – New Shoes – Miles Bennett.”  The caption says, “The blacksmith shop was built in 1892 by Abraham Summey [one of the founders of the town], and operated by Miles Bennett from 1902 to 1943.  The locals took their horses here to get shod.”

I did some further digging on  Miles Bennett and Willard were father and son, and although the mural names them both as proprietors, Willard must not have been there long.

Miles was born in Indiana in 1897.  He was married in 1894 to first wife Jennie and they had a son in 1895—Willard.  Poor Jennie died in 1899, and in the 1900 census, I found Miles living alone and working as a “ditcher” while his young son lived with his maternal grandparents. 

Miles must have had the blacksmith business by 1902, if the caption on the old photo I found are correct.  By 1910, father and son were reunited with Miles’ new wife Alice—Miles was 40 and a blacksmith, and son Willard was 15 and had no occupation.

By 1917, 22-year-old Willard’s World War One draft card described him as tall, medium build, blue eyes, and blond hair.  He must have already broken with his father’s blacksmith business, as he lived in Sturgis, Michigan and worked as a “furniture polisher” at the Royal Chair Company.

The 1920 and 1930 census records find Miles still running the blacksmith shop.  By 1930 son Willard has married and moved to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, where he is an insurance agent.

By 1940, Miles is 70 years old, but still working at the blacksmith shop full time—52 weeks the previous year, according to the census.  His son Willard is a factory machinist in Westmoreland County, so he did not come home to take over the business as his father got older.  Was there a rift?  Or was Willard just not interested in being a blacksmith?  Or did Shipshewana hold bad memories for him, perhaps because of the death of his mother and his shuttling off to live with his grandparents? 

Miles died in 1943 and was buried in Shipshewana’s Sidener Cemetery with both his wives—Jennie and Alice.  When his son Willard died in 1954, his wife had him buried in Shipshewana, near his father and mother.

Is horseshoeing a thing of the past in Shipshewana?  Certainly not.  As long as there are Old Order Amish in the area, there will be plenty of horses.  There is no blacksmith shop in Shipshewana today, but there are a number of local men, both Amish and “English,” who provide this service.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Horse Auction

When we visit Amish Indiana, it’s often for a long weekend.  If I’m there on a Friday morning, any time of year, I like to watch the horse auction.  The Shipshewana Auction building is on the main north-south street in town (Route 5).  Every Friday is horse auction day.

You enter the auction pit from the upper level, and below you are wooden platforms and a few scattered chairs.  The first thing you notice is the smell!  Horse auctions are not for the squeamish—it does smell like a barn.  The crowd is mostly male and about half Amish, half “English” on a typical Friday morning.  I learned how easy it is to place a bid one morning when I swatted at a fly and saw the auctioneer point at me and take my “bid.”  I frantically started motioning “No, no!” and the auctioneer just laughed and remarked (over the microphone), “Looks like the lady was just swatting a fly!”  Tack (harnesses, etc.) is auctioned off first, and then later in the morning, the horses—the big draft horses, the relatively smaller buggy horses, and the ponies. 

Most of the draft horses used for field work are Belgians; two of them are shown here, hitched up for a day of work.  They are huge animals, but very gentle.  I asked an Amish friend one time, why Belgians instead of Clydesdales?  He said, “We like the way the Belgians look.”  The Percheron is also used; I saw a Percheron wall calendar in the kitchen of one Amishman who prefers that breed.

The buggy horses are mostly quarter horses and mostly brown.  I was surprised to learn that many of them come from Canada.  Racehorses which are not fast enough to compete on the race track may end up going south to Indiana and becoming Amish buggy horses.  Horseback riding is rare there, though, although one of my Amish friends used to enjoy it when she was younger, before she married.

Ponies are common on the farms and are used with little pony carts.  It’s a great way for Amish children to learn the horse-and-buggy skills they will need as adults.  It also can be their transportation to and from school.  My niece Be used to love riding around in a pony cart with the children of my Amish friends. 

Anyway, getting back to the horse auction:

The main entrance is on the south side, and there is a sign there that says “no photographs.”  This is because of the many Amishmen who attend the auction.  (The Amish don’t like to have their photograph taken, considering a photograph to be a “graven image” and therefore a violation of the Second Commandment.)  But I stopped by after the auction one day and asked if I could take a picture of the auction pit, and the auctioneers had no problem with that.

Side doors lead to catwalks from which you can wander across the “off-stage areas” from up above and look down at the animals yet to be sold.  One Friday morning while wandering around back there, a friend and I saw a pen of horses who looked especially old, tired, and lame.  We asked a man about it, and he said, “Oh, that’s the kill pen.”  My tenderhearted friend turned quite pale—but farm animals can outlive their usefulness.

I never get tired of sitting in the stands and watching the beautiful animals brought in and auctioned off.  Maybe it’s not a typical tourist activity, but it’s real life in My Amish Indiana.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Pumpkinvine Trail

Rode the Pumpkinvine Trail three times last week, from Middlebury east to Shipshewana and back again (13 miles), and from Middlebury west towards Goshen (5 miles and 7 miles).  More on the trail here in a post from last year.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Quilt Garden

A late-season shot of one of the 2014 Quilt Gardens, this one in front of Menno-Hof on Route 5 in Shipshewana.  Read more here, in a blog I wrote last year: The Quilt Gardens of the Heritage Trail

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Yoder, Miller, Bontrager

Yoder, Miller, Bontrager…  Names one sees on mailboxes and home businesses all over Amish Indiana.  Lately I did a little research into the most common names there.  That led me into learning about the two distinct Amish ethnic groups found in Indiana today.  (I am indebted to the book “An Amish Patchwork” by Thomas Meyers and Steven Nolt for helping me to get the details right.)

The main Amish ethnic group in Indiana, the one found in Lagrange and Elkhart Counties, is the “Pennsylvania Dutch” (the word “Dutch” actually meaning “Deutsch,” or German).  These people are descendants of early German settlers—Amish and non-Amish such as Lutheran—who came from Europe and settled in Pennsylvania in the 1700s.  Those settlers were called “Pennsylvania German,” or more commonly, “Pennsylvania Dutch,” and they spoke a form of German called by the same name.  The Amish among them retained the old language, but the non-Amish lost it as they adopted English over the years.

Then in the mid 1800s, some of these Pennsylvania Amish moved westward to Holmes County, Ohio, and onwards into northeastern Indiana (Lagrange and Elkhart Counties), where, today, they make up the third largest Amish settlement in America.  Their most common surnames are Miller, Yoder, Bontrager, Hostetler, Lehman, and Lambright.  Their language is still called “Pennsylvania Dutch” or just simply “Dutch.”  (It is quite different from both present-day German and Dutch.)  These are the Amish I am familiar with.

But there was a second stream of Amish into Indiana in the mid 1800s.  Those Amish came directly from Switzerland and settled farther south in Indiana, in Allen County and Adams County.  Their most common surnames are (in order) Schwartz, Hilty, Graber, Lengacher, Schmucker, and Eicher.  Their dialect is usually called “Swiss.”

So the differences go beyond surnames.  The two groups don’t have very much interaction, and tend not to intermarry or live in the same communities.  My friend Glenn once told me that, on the rare occasion that he has interacted with downstate Swiss Amish, their dialects are so different that they must switch to English to be able to communicate.   

The Swiss Amish in central Indiana tend to be more conservative than the Amish farther north in Lagrange and Elkhart Counties.  For example, they drive only open buggies, even in the winter.  They are more conservative in matters of dress, housing, and lifestyle.  They don’t use the hydraulic compressed-air forms of power that are common in northeastern Indiana (nicknamed “Amish electricity” by outsiders).  They mark their graves with simple wooden stakes instead of simple stone markers.  And, remarkably, they still practice yodeling!

Getting back to the northeastern Indiana Amish:  A funny thing about the “Pennsylvania Dutch” language is that it is a spoken language only.  Their written language is English.

Thus, my Amish friends are actually tri-lingual.  They learn “Dutch” as their first language, and it is the language they speak at home and socially all their lives.  They learn English (spoken and written) when they enter school at age six or seven.  And they learn the old “High German” in school, since it is the language of their two most important books—the Bible and the Amish Hymnal (the Ausbund).  Luckily for me, they switch back and forth easily!