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

Monday, January 30, 2023

Keeping Vigil for Katie

Saturday, January 28, 2023

As I write this, it’s 1:15 in the morning.

A few hours ago I returned from nine days with my sister in Los Angeles.  But I didn’t go home to husband and puppy—not yet anyway…  Because while I was gone, my dear young friend Kathy (“Katie” in previous posts, to protect her privacy) finally lost her nearly-three-year battle with cancer of the spine.

So here I sit, in a comfy chair in Kathy’s old bedroom…  But instead of singing by her bedside, her bed is empty—and she lies in a coffin beside me, finally at peace.  Her parents slumber in a bedroom nearby, and her nine siblings are upstairs—except for one brother, who fell asleep on a couch in the living room and was left there, undisturbed.

I’ve written before about how I got to know Kathy, here.  But how do I write about how much she—and her family—have come to mean to me?  I’ve lost one friend, but I hope (and expect) that the Miller family will be lifelong friends.  That’s part of the good that came from this tragedy.

But right now I am keeping vigil by lantern-light for my young friend as the night passes on, writing and remembering…


When this chapter in my life began, it was June of 2020 and I began to stop by the Miller farm to sing to Kathy every week.  She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer a couple months before and given three weeks to live.  But she was a fighter, and she was not only alive, but regaining the use of her upper body, which had been paralyzed by a blood clot.  Her lower body, however, was permanently paralyzed by the cancer, and at this point, she was still in a rented hospital bed, breathing oxygen through a tube.  She listened to me sing, tears in her eyes at times as she struggled to breathe.

So I sang to her… and as the months passed by, she grew stronger, and soon she was joining me on the choruses—she knew nearly every song in the books by heart.  She was back in her regular bed, and she had a wonderful new power wheelchair, and she was helping her family with chores and projects, and even teaching school that fall!

Before long it was summer, and I bought matching hymnbooks for us, and we were singing together—she on the soprano melody line, and I on the alto harmony line. 

Two years went by, as Kathy turned eighteen, and then nineteen.

Then late last summer, after a wonderful train trip to Montana with her family, her mind started to get more and more spotty.  Before long, as autumn progressed, her vision slowly disappeared, as did her strength and health.  She was moved back into a rented hospital bed and her mother’s heavy caregiving load became even heavier.  

As the cancer spread and got the upper hand, soon I was singing to her once again, as she joined in on the choruses, but less and less as the autumn wore on and the morphine doses increased.

Towards the end, it was difficult to know how much Kathy heard or understood—but who can know for sure?—so I kept on singing.

Then, not knowing how many more times she’d confound the doctors and stick around, I went to Los Angeles to see my sister… and now she’s gone, and I missed the two days’ visitation.  But tonight as I keep vigil by her side, I’m having my own visitation, as I try to write down even a tiny fraction of what she meant to me.

In a few hours the sun will come up, and the Amish community (along with a few like me) will gather for Kathy’s funeral—a service of worship and remembrance and thankfulness for a precious young lady and a life well lived. 

In the meantime, I’m going to pick up the hymnbook her mother left here for me, and I’m going to sing to Kathy—one last time.

I last saw Kathy alive a few days before I left for California.  My new friend “Wheelchair Mary” (I wrote about her here) was also visiting Kathy that morning.  She told me how wonderful it was that I sing to Kathy...  and that made me wonder if Mary’s days sometimes get long and lonely.

So now I know clearly what I am meant to do...  Next week I’m going to grab my hymnbook, hop in my Jeep, and head down to sing for Wheelchair Mary.

In loving memory

Kathy Miller
March 4, 2003 – January 25, 2023

O come, angel band, come and around me stand
O bear me away on your snowy wings
To my eternal home.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Who Knew?!

I moved to Amish Indiana from suburban Chicago five years ago, after retiring from administrative assistant work at a law firm, and before that, two decades of classroom teaching.  (My backstory can be found here and here.)  One thing I’ve learned since I moved here is this:  My childhood visits to Grandpa and Grandma Erickson’s farm, and 30 years of being a tourist over here, didn’t teach me everything there was to know about country life!

Here are ten City Girl things I believed until embarrassingly recently.  Feel free to laugh at me—I can’t hear you!  Or, feel free to learn something, if you’re a City Slicker too.

1.    There are two types of corn.  Some corn is “field corn,” which is used for silage (animal feed—the entire plant while still green), or seed corn, or ethanol production, or it’s ground up for corn meal.  Other corn is “sweet corn,” and that’s the kind that becomes corn on the cob.  Don’t try to boil up field corn and eat it with butter!

2.     Corn stalks usually have only one ear of corn per stalk.  This is not how we drew corn when I was in elementary school!  There was always an ear on the left, right, and left again.  But no…  One ear of corn per stalk is the norm.  A couple of my Amish friends had a laugh over this one. 

Apparently, if corn is spaced out when it’s planted (which it isn’t these days), a plant may send up a second stalk with a second ear of corn, but that’s not seen as much anymore.  An Amish friend told me that, these days, the Amish plant their rows 30 inches apart with between 28,000 and 32,000 kernels (seeds) per acre.  Wow!  And commercial “English” farms often plant them twice that dense!

3.     Hay vs. straw.  I’m really embarrassed about this one. But if I can give my Amish friends a laugh, then it’s not all bad!  “Hay” is one of a number of plants, mostly grasses, that are harvested while still green and baled up for animals to eat.  “Straw” is typically leftover dried-out wheat or oak stalks after the grain is harvested, and it is used for animal “bedding”—under their feet in the stalls to keep things absorbed and cleaner.  So, you might say hay vs. straw is like the difference between food vs. toilet paper!

1.     Commercial laying hens don’t live long enough to retire and move in with their kids.  There are dozens of free-range egg houses around here these days.  I should write about that—it’s a recent development.  Each egg barn can hold as many as 20,000 laying hens, as this one does—these long, narrow buildings are huge!  My friend Glen told me that the hens (his are Lohman Browns) start laying at about 4 months old, quickly working up to about one egg a day.  At about 21 months old their egg production tapers off sharply, and so after an egg-laying career of less than two years, it’s off to the meat packing plant to be “repurposed,” sometimes for stewing meat but usually for pet food.  Backyard hen enthusiasts can keep their laying hens for many years, in spite of lower egg production, but for commercial egg producers, it’s not economically feasible to do so.

5.     Not all sheep are the same.  I talked about this in a recent post, linked here.  Some sheep are bred to have wool, and others, called “hair sheep,” are bred for their meat (lamb or mutton).  They’re not the same.  You can’t get good wool from a hair sheep, nor good meat from a wool sheep.

6.     Stallions are rare, geldings are not.  I always figured horses came in two varieties, mares and stallions.  But it turns out that, in this horse-and-buggy culture where virtually everyone owns at least a few horses, stallions are rare and the vast majority are gelded (neutered).  I asked an Amish friend of mine with a lot of horse expertise about this, and he said that for buggy horses, work horses, and ponies alike, the rate of neutering is about 90%.  He said that stallions are “unruly in the barn,” and the only reason to have one is for stud purposes. 

The same holds true for cattle—very few males are kept as bulls for breeding—bulls are far too dangerous to keep around unless absolutely necessary.  A couple of years ago, a local Amish farm wife was killed by their bull for no worse offense than just being in his pasture when he was in a bad mood.

7.     Horses get hit by lightning.  Both buggy horses and draft horses have the habit of heading for the biggest tree when a thunderstorm hits, to try to stay dry.  Consequently, they sometimes can get hit (and killed) by lightning.  My friend Glenn has lost one this way, and he once told me about a friend of his who lost four at one time, when they huddled under a tall tree that was struck. 

8.     Horses also get West Nile Virus.  Mosquitoes can bite horses and infect them with West Nile, just like they can do with people.  There’s a vaccine, but it’s prohibitively expensive as compared to the risk, so it isn’t widely used.  A few years ago, my friend Glenn lost his favorite horse to West Nile.  I wrote about that here.

9.     Heating a home with a wood-burning furnace is still common around here, and it doesn’t take tons of wood.  Many older Amish homes are still heated by means of a wood furnace in the basement.  I saw my Amish friend Sam with a hay wagon load of wood a while back, and asked him about this.  He said that he can heat his large farmhouse for a typical winter with about 7 wagons of wood—and firewood is plentiful around here.  It keeps a house quite cozy, actually, and the furnace has to be stoked only twice a day—morning and evening—unless it’s bitterly cold.

10  Being a dairy cow isn’t exactly a full time job.  Or rather, it is a two-part job—producing milk and producing calves.  A dairy cow (mostly Holsteins around here, or Jerseys) don’t give milk 365 days a year.  Rather, they “freshen” for about six to eight weeks every year, when they don’t give milk at all.  Incredibly to me, about six to eight weeks before a cow is due to have a calf, the way they “dry them out” is by simply not milking them for a few days!

So, I hope you learned something today!  And I hope I keep learning! 

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The Backstory

I’ve done a bus tour and a couple of private tours lately, and I have been surprised at how many people want a little backstory on where exactly the Amish came from.  For that, we go back to Switzerland in the 1500s...

In 1525, shortly after the Protestant Reformation began, a group of Christians emerged in Switzerland who refused to have their babies baptized, believing in adult choice in religion, and therefore, adult baptism instead.  Since baptism was the equivalent of receiving church membership, Swiss citizenship, membership on the tax rolls (like our Social Security numbers), and registration for the draft—this was seen as radical and disruptive. 

This group came to be known as “Anabaptists” and they were severely persecuted.  Hundreds were executed—burned, drowned, tortured publicly, and starved in dungeons.  Even today, most Amish households have a copy of the book “The Martyr’s Mirror,” which records many of these stories.

Needless to say, the Amish soon retreated to more remote areas of Switzerland, and eventually to the Alsace region of what is now southern France.  Their desire for “separation from the world” and nonconformity to mainstream culture became more and more ingrained.

It was in 1693 in Alsace that the Anabaptists split into two groups: The Amish, led by Jacob Amman, and the Swiss Brethren (later known as Mennonites), led by Menno Simons.  There were various doctrinal disagreements that drove them apart, one of the main ones being shunning—which the Mennonites felt was too harsh, but the Amish felt was necessary to maintain the purity and unity of their church.

In the early 1700s William Penn was granted a piece of land in North America which came to be known as Pennsylvania, as a place for the persecuted Quakers of England to make a fresh start.  Penn invited the good Amish farmers of the Alsace to join him, and eventually the Pennsylvania Amish moved west to Ohio and then Indiana.  The Amish church completely died out in Europe.

Today the Amish are found in 32 states and Canada.  There are about 325,000 of them here, and they are thriving!  80 to 90 per cent of their children remain in the faith, and their population here in North America is doubling approximately every 20 years.  There are many subdivisions now from the main body of Old Order Amish, including the Beachy Amish, the yellow buggy (Byler) Amish, the white buggy (Nebraska) Amish, the Swartzentruber Amish, and the New Order Amish.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

For more on the history of the Amish, try Donald Kraybill’s small but info-packed “Simply Amish.”  Don’t be fooled by its small size; I had to read it twice to even begin to absorb it all!

For a deeper dive, try Steven Nolt’s “A History of the Amish,” now in its third edition.  Here’s a quote I think is very illuminating:  “While Moderns are preoccupied with ‘finding themselves,’ the Amish are engaged in ‘losing themselves’…  The Amish believe that personal ambitions are secondary to the Holy Scriptures, centuries of church tradition, and family obligations… best described with the German word Gelassenheit, which means submission—to God, to others, and to the church.”  No wonder they don’t always think or act like we do!

For more on the Indiana Amish specifically, try Meyers and Nolt’s “An Amish Patchwork,” written in 2004 but still a very good source (other than some of the statistics).  There are a number of other Amish settlements in Indiana, and not all are just like the one where I live and write.  The Amish and other old order groups in the rest of Indiana are actually quite diverse.   

If you prefer your information online, the best source for information on the northeastern Indiana Amish community where I live—Lagrange and Elkhart Counties—just might be my blog and my Facebook page, both entitled “My Amish Indiana.”  For more general information, the sources I trust are Erik Wesner’s “Amish America” website and the amazing and frequently-updated Elizabethtown College Amish website.  The first has an excellent state-by-state directory of the Amish, as well as an amazing FAQ page.  Happy reading!