Monday, May 12, 2014

An Amish Settlement That Didn't Last

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, Jacob Bontrager, left in 1932, that was the death knell for the colony.  By 1938, the last holdout, Jacob Bontrager, had left Arkansas.



[Image credit: www.123rf.com – George Burba – used with permission.]

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