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Amish ancestors.

We have forgotten so much that our ancestors knew. Thank goodness for COUNTRYSIDE magazine and the Belangers' efforts to keep the self-sufficient ways of the past handy for use in the soft, commercial age going on around us.

In recent years I've grown interested in my Amish ancestors, who left Switzerland because of religious persecution and settled in Ohio in 1834. A few stories of their pioneering days have survived.

Most of the early Amish arrivals from Europe had long histories as farmers in the Old Country. My great-great-great grandfather, Christian Beck, farmed but was also a blacksmith, a locksmith and a hunter. His skills as a hunter were highly valued in the New World since farming in the heavily timbered wilderness of Fulton County, Ohio was not very productive in the early years. No one starved to death in the small settlement in which the Becks lived, because Christian and his sons kept the households supplied with meat.

What a contrast with today's community attitude toward hunting. The families of modern hunters value their skills, but in wider society the opinion of hunting is one of disgust. That attitude would surprise the 1834 settlers and puzzle them. To those people, who had tried to live through winter on roots and wheat, sometimes eating decayed carcasses of dead animals, the hunting skills of the Beck family were life-saving and esteemed.

Christian was an Amish minister and while preaching one winter Sunday, he saw a large buck go past the window. He left the meeting room, killed and dressed out the deer, took it home for his wife to roast, returned to finish his sermon and then fed all the families roast venison after the service. What a perfect uniting of the physical and spiritual, all in one day!

The wheat previously mentioned cost my ancestors $14 a bushel when bought in Maumee. Once they had cleared land, planted and harvested their own wheat, and had enough to sell, they were paid 50 cents a bushel. Some things never change!

Salt was one basic food they couldn't produce themselves. One winter when the Maumee River did not freeze solid and they could not cross it to buy supplies, their only source of salt was a man who had bought all he could find in order to profit from the settlers' need. My ancestors and their neighbors held out, did without and finally the river froze, allowing them to cross to Perrysburg to buy salt.

Land was cleared of the timber and the farmers, used to working the dry, hilly land of the Alsace-Lorraine region of the Swiss Alps, grew more accustomed to the low, damp soil of their new home. One friend of my ancestors acquired and planted some pumpkin seeds, which grew well. He was worried that his new crop would rot on the ground and he decided to elevate each pumpkin in the air. He built individual three-legged stools for the pumpkins to sit on while they ripened.

Tallow candles were expensive and hard to come by in the early years. My ancestors used lard as a lamp fuel. When the lard ran out they burned specially made wood shavings. Using a wheel-maker's spokeshave, or plane, they prepared one-eighth inch thick shavings out of green wood. One man pushed the plane and two men pulled it. The shavings were allowed to dry for several days. The "lamp" was made by putting a three-foot pole into a hole bored in the top of a three-legged stool. The upper end of the pole had a saw kerf cut into it, several inches deep. A shaving was placed in the slot and lit on one end. One shaving lasted about 15 minutes and gave more light than a tallow candle.

Christian's wife, Maude, was a licensed physician in Switzerland. She continued to practice medicine in this country and her skills were highly valued in the Amish settlement. When she died around 1850, her medical books passed to her youngest daughter, my great-great grandmother, Magdalena. Using skills learned from the books and her mother, Magdalena delivered many babies and doctored people here in our county for three decades. She also raised 10 children.

How I wish I could spend time with my ancestors to learn their many skills and to absorb their hardy outlook on life. Our family is not Amish, but as homesteaders we live a more hard existence than the world around us. Even so, after reading of the pioneering days of my ancestors, it seems a pretty soft luxury to be able to light an oil lamp with a friction match and have the lamp bright enough to read by and stay lit for as long as I choose to read.

Isn't it interesting that so many homesteaders wish they could spend time with their ancestors--and eagerly learn from those who still have breath--while the rest of the world sends them to old folk's homes to be forgotten. This might be one of those little blessings of homestead living we don't often enough stop to appreciate.

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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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