Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Amish Casket Makers

Every Amish community has an abundance of carpenters who are excellent craftsmen. This Countyline Woodworking shop is just one example of what you will find, if you are visiting an Amish community. Ask any local person where the nearest woodworking shop is.

There are also casket makers in almost every Amish community, turning out beautiful handcrafted coffins. Usually, they are only making caskets according to need, not for business. I have found that they will usually be quite gracious about helping out strangers, if asked politely.

A few months ago we had a special meeting in Kalona sponsored by the Mennonite Historical Society. Local Amish leaders were invited to come and speak to the community about our shared heritage. Five Bishops and Preachers talked about Kalona Amish history and fielded questions the audience had about Amish practices. It was a fantastic experience!  I heard some really great stories; one about an Amish casket maker that I will share with you.

One elderly Amish man, who was speaking, told us of a relative that made caskets.  He said that in the old days it was the practice to cut a long straight stick the exact length of a deceased person.  This stick would be sent to the casket maker to be certain of a perfect coffin size.  This elderly Amish man explained that his uncle always kept all of those sticks in a corner of his shop, each with a named carved on it.
This is where the story gets good!

Amish graveyard north of Kalona

On the occasion of an unexpected death, a local Amish family went about the unpleasant duty of preparing a to send a stick to the casket maker. For whatever reason, they were not able to readily come up with a stick that was suitable, so, they cut a cornstalk the exact length. A young Amish boy was sent on a mule to deliver the measuring stick to the carpenter. When the boy was near his destination his mule decided it would be nice to have a snack, and took a bite off the cornstalk that happened to be within his reach.

The story had it, that the casket maker and the boy made the best guess they could, about how much stalk the mule might have bitten off.  No doubt the carpenter made the casket a little longer, rather than a little too short. These measuring sticks are still around in our community, but I don't think the cornstalk measuring stick survived.

This graveyard (pictured above) is near where the mule incident happened.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Horsepower in 2014

 The world has changed a lot in the past one-hundred years! In 1914 almost every farm in America was powered by horses, not tractors. At first glance these monster tractors look like a vast improvement over farming with horses, but are they?
Let's stop and go over the pro's and con's:
Tractors... one man can farm hundreds of acres alone. Horses... more people needed but that means more people with jobs.
Tractors... although they use expensive fuel, they don't need to be fed when not working. Horses... they have to be fed everyday but they can raise their own renewable, environmentally safe fuel.
Tractors... don't get sick and die. Horses... can reproduce their own replacements.
Tractors... don't have personality flaws. Horses... actually have a personality, many that you can fall in love with.
Tractors... will make you more dollars (True, that modern farmers spend more money on luxury items but almost all of them are strapped with a debt load their huge tractors can't pull them out of.)  Horses... will save you more dollars (Most Amish who farm with horses operate with zero debt.)
In the end, it is obvious that tractors are more convenient and make it possible to raise more food with less labor. If you ever visit an Amish farm, where they are using good old-fashion horsepower, you will find that with our "convenience" we have lost a lot of what makes life rich and meaningful.
What if, instead of one man farming a thousand acres alone, there were eight families working that same land. And those eight families helped each other daily in a close knit community. Welcome to the world of the Amish.

Does this fascinate you? Check out my novel, Under the Heavens, it will give you a chance to feel what it is like to spend a summer on one of these farms.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Horses in the Cold

 Horses seem impervious to the cold but it makes me miserable to observe it. My own horses have a good place to get inside if they choose to. As you can see in the picture below, my horses usually stay outside until I feed them in the barn. Today, when the sub-zero wind chills kicked in, I found Coke and Karm inside.

They seem to love the snow but not the wind! When I come in to feed them and they have snow all over their backs, I'm thinking, "why not get under a roof?"
But, it's their choice!

 I love to hitch up my team of horses. Yet, to be honest, I usually don't if the weather is bad. I deliver mail for a living, so, after being outside all day in the cold I'm not in the mood. When I see Amish out driving horses in all kinds of bad weather I'm impressed. This would be no life for wimps! Don't forget, there is no heater in these buggies. Although many do warm up rocks or potatoes to take along as mini-heaters.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A glimpse into "Under the Heavens"

        An Amish man appeared, walking toward them on the road.  When the man got within earshot, he called, “Sam, David, you boys are just on time!  My tractor is stuck, and I was going home to get my horses to pull it out. Why don’t we see if your grandpa’s horses can do it?”  Without saying any more, the older man jumped into the wagon alongside Lenny.  Sam headed his wagon through the nearest gate into a field, where they found a tractor half sunk in mud.
        “Whose boy are you?” The Amish man looked at Lenny, waiting for an answer. The boy’s face got hot; he didn't know how to answer that question.  Sam bailed him out by answering, “He is Jake’s stepson.”  The man gave a disapproving look, and nothing more was said.  Lenny assumed the Amish man already knew about him.
        They pulled up beside the helpless tractor; everyone jumped out and, in a few moments, they had both massive horses unhooked from the wagon, in place and ready to pull.  This was something Lenny hadn't seen before.  Sam held his horses in check as the older man mounted his tractor, starting it up with a pop, causing both horses to jump.  Lenny doubted these animals could pull out a heavy-metal  machine.

In a scene that filled his heart with wonder, both horses arched their massive black necks and heaved forward.  Muscles rippled in their shoulders and rumps and coursed down through their heavy boned legs.  One of the giants shook his thick mane and snorted as though gathering his strength, which seemed to spur on the other.  These horses dug their hooves in mud as the tractor wheels spun a little, and then took hold, spinning up out of holes it created when attempting to free itself.  Sam called his horses to a stop when the tractor rolled onto solid ground.

Lenny found himself letting out a victory shout when it happened, and the others all looked at him as if to see what was wrong.  Without much more than a nod, the older man drove off to finish his fieldwork as soon as the horses were unhooked.  His cousins hitched them to the wagon again,without a comment, they headed back down the road.  Lenny couldn't keep quiet anymore,“Wow, that was amazing!” he called from his luggage seat in the back.  Sam and David both turned and looked at him as though surprised to hear him speak. “That was so cool! Is that the first time you've had horses pull out a tractor?”  Both Amish boys gave Lenny a blank look.
          After a long, awkward silence, finally, the older brother spoke up, “Everyone around here knows Grandpa’s horses; they've pulled out lots more than tractors!”

Here is the link for more info