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

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Rag Rugs

If you see this sign and go down this long lane, you’ll find a craftsman at work.

This small sign points the way.  Driving down the lane, we passed the beautiful produce garden and produce stand of their daughter-in-law, who now lives with her family in the main house; two years ago, Leo and Lorene moved their home and shop across the driveway into the “dawdi haus.”


Leo works at his loom most days, except when he’s at a wedding, funeral, or out fishing!  He told me he averages one rug a day.  You can watch him work—but be subtle, and don’t take any photos that show either of their faces, since this is against their religious beliefs and very distressing to them.

The rugs are made with two types of elements:  Firstly, the “warp” threads.  Leo tells me that there are 336 spools of black and white thread on this rack (front and back), all a part of any rug he makes. Wow!  And secondly, the colorful rags that make up the “weft” or “woof” part of the weaving process.  These can be any fabric, but woven fabrics work better than knits. 

Wikipedia puts it this way:  “Warp and weft are the two basic components used in weaving to turn thread or yarn into fabric. The lengthwise or longitudinal warp yarns are held stationary in tension on a frame or loom while the horizontal weft (sometimes woof) is drawn through and inserted over and under the warp.”  It’s really fascinating to watch Leo do it.

I told Leo that his cousin Ruth, a friend of mine, said to me one day, “Leo’s rugs will last longer than we will!”  I asked him if he thought that was true, and he said it probably was.  The reason?  The black and white warp threads on his rugs are made of polyester thread, not cotton, and polyester thread holds up much longer.    

Leo and Lorene have a retail area near the loom.  Rugs are priced by the foot--all are the same 27 to 28-inch width.  The shortest I saw were 22 inches long (priced at $19.80) and the longest were 76 inches long (priced at $68.40).  Leo says that he prices his rugs at 90 cents an inch—or if the customer provides the weft/woof fabric strips, then it’s 45 cents an inch.

The color combinations are varied and lovely.  Earlier this summer I took a bus tour here, and the tour director’s young daughter got a lovely one in black, white, gray, and magenta.  Lorene takes the money at her kitchen counter in the adjoining dawdi haus.

The shop doesn’t have regular hours, but most days, it’s open to visitors and shoppers.  If you want to be sure, give Lorene a call the previous day at (574) 349-0717.  This rug shop is a popular stop with my private tour groups, and for tour buses, too!

Leo and Lorene work and reside at 10780 US Hwy 20 in Middlebury, IN.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

An Amish Settlement That Failed

 This is one last Amish-related post I wrote for my old genealogy blog...

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Recently I did an ancestry binder for a young Amish dairy farmer who is a friend of mine.  I discovered that one of his great-grandfathers founded an Amish settlement.

My research for this binder coincided with my reading of a wonderful book called The Amish in America: Settlements That Failed, 1840-1960 by Amish historian David Luthy. The book, published by an Amish publishing house in Aylmer, Ontario called Pathway Publishers in 1986, turned out to be more than the story of 100 Amish settlements that didn’t last; it was also the most useful Amish genealogy book I’ve ever come across—a real keeper.  And lo and behold, there on page 36 was the story of the Amish settlement at Stuttgart, Arkansas, which was begun by my friend’s great-grandfather, a man named Noah Bontrager. 

I used to think that the Amish lived in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, with smaller settlements in a few nearby states like Michigan and Illinois.  But in truth, there are—or have been—Amish settlements in nearly every state in the union, as well as several countries in Central and South America.  Some lasted, but many didn’t, for various reasons—mostly because of cheap land that turned out to be poor for farming, or good, productive land with no economical way to transport their produce to market.  Or sometimes it was due to squabbles within the settlement, or just as often, the lack of leadership—which for the Amish, means a bishop, two ministers, and a deacon.  Without a minister, no church services could be held; and without a bishop, no baptisms or marriages.  A visiting bishop could do only so much for so long.  Without a ministry team, a young settlement would soon die.

But getting back to my story:  Noah E. Bontrager was born in 1874 in Lagrange County, Indiana and married Anna M. Yoder there in 1896.  They had seven sons and three daughters.  By 1916 he was a bishop in the Amish church.  By 1918 the family was living at the Amish settlement in Centerville, Michigan, where his WWI draft card says he is medium height and build with brown eyes and black hair.

Luthy’s book tells the rest of Noah’s story.  In 1927 Noah, age 53, led a group of seven families who left their homes and families in Centerville to start a new settlement in Stuttgart, Arkansas—most likely looking for cheaper land and milder winters.  The other six families were those of his son, Samuel; his brother, Eli; his nephew, Jacob, who was a minster; his son-in-law, Lawrence Yoder; and two families named Schwartz. 

Luthy says that their first winter in the south was mild, and their first spring was beautiful.  By May they had strawberries in their gardens, the roses were blooming, and peaches hung from the trees.  But this was followed by summer which were much hotter than they were used to—hard on the men, and even harder on the draft horses—and unlike Michigan, with its cool summer evenings, there was little relief at night.  Rain was sparse—until autumn, when dry weather was needed to harvest their rice crop—at which time the rain wouldn’t stop.  As the weeks went by and they waited for weather dry enough for threshing, more and more of their grain was lost to migrating birds.

In 1928, Lawrence Yoder lost five of his horses from sickness.  Then his wife had a baby who died, and the mother died soon afterwards.  When his young son Ervin died a few months later, Lawrence returned to Michigan.

In 1930, the settlement’s founder and bishop, Noah Bontrager, had a fatal heart attack; he was just 56 years old.  The following year, his widow returned to Indiana, where her beloved husband was brought by train and reinterred. 

The settlement didn’t last.  (“Failed” seems like such a harsh word!)  As Luthy tells it, the other five families struggled on, but as the Great Depression got worse, the local bank in Stuttgart closed its doors—taking the settlers’ money with it.  The five remaining families had not been joined by any new ones since they came 1927, and when their minister, Eli Bontrager, left in 1932, that was the death knell for the colony.  By 1938, the last holdout, Jacob Bontrager, had left Arkansas.

[Image credit: – George Burba – used with permission.]