There’s a country lane I know south of Fredericksburg, Ohio, just over the Wayne County border into Holmes County, where in the stretch of a few short miles, there are a dozen different types of Amish and Mennonite families living on adjacent farms, in a wide pastoral valley where there are few electric lines or TV antennas to mare the horizon. The gravel of the road there is perpetually laced with the thin, wispy lines made by buggy wheels, and the pace of life is as slow as a team of horses pulling a plow. I was there one year, on a cold and raw day, when the sky was white with overcast, and the families were all tucked inside with fires burning in their wood stoves. I was just out for a drive, looking for the kind of stories I use in my Amish-Country Mysteries, and I thought that perhaps I’d see something interesting. I wasn’t disappointed.
In the farmyard of a Schwartzentruber family, nosed up against the red bank barn, there was a postal service truck, stuck in the mud about twenty yards down a steep slope from the road. I could see the tracks of the truck in the mud, tracing down into the barnyard and spinning this way and that, showing the evidence of all the maneuvers the postal lady had tried in order to run her truck back up the drive. But there the truck sat, sunk into the mud, obviously going nowhere. I decided to watch. It was exactly the sort of thing I watch for in Holmes County – the type of intriguing stories I like to gather for the mysteries I write. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for thirty-five years.
I stood up on the road and watched for a while. The driver tried several times to get the truck headed the right way up the hill, but she always found herself nosed up to the rough red boards of the barn. I called down to her once to offer encouragement, and she said, “I think they’ll come out to help.” She meant the Schwartzentrubers inside. Those are the most conservative of all the Amish sects, living as close to the earth as they can figure out how to do. They rarely go to town, and they don’t have much use for us English. I’ve spoken to the father there once or twice, and the mother and grandmother of the family have sold me produce from time to time. The children are taught not to speak to people like me, and although they smile a lot when I say hello, not one of them has ever said a word in reply. So, I thought the mail lady was overly optimistic about their helping her up the hill. In all, I stood there about fifteen minutes, waiting to see what would happen. That’s usually the best way to travel in Holmes County, standing in one spot for a while. Tourists don’t know that, and they miss a lot by hurrying from one shop to another. I have leaned to wait.
Eventually, the Schwartzentrubers sent out a lad of about twelve years. He was dressed in plain Amish denim. He wore his black winter hat and a tall pair of rubber muck boots. Without speaking, he walked into the barn, hitched a team of horses to a block with a hook and chain, and drove the team out into the winter day with a whip. He hooked his rig to the rear bumper of the truck, snapped his whip, and coaxed the horses to pull the truck around to face up the drive. That’s when I got my camera out.
Next, he unhitched and came around to the front bumper with his team and hooked on again. He never said a word. He just snapped his whip, marched that team up the drive, and pulled the truck out onto the gravel lane, with the postal service lady sitting behind the wheel. He kicked his hook off the bumper, put his team away, and went inside. They had sent a boy to handle a man’s job, and he apparently had thought nothing of it. That’s just how it is on an Amish farm. The children work, too.
I don’t know, yet, how I’ll use that story in one of my mysteries. I tell about it when I give talks to literary and library groups, and I like the reaction that the story always gets – the lad who reversed the Postal Service Slide. And it wasn’t particularly unusual. Rather, it is perfectly common in Holmes County. The Schwartzentrubers live a hard life intentionally, and a boy of twelve is expected to know how to handle a team of draft horses.
But I will always enjoy the exasperation on that lady’s face as the horses pulled her truck out of the mud. I will always remember how that young fellow did the job without saying a word – like you’d expect from a Schwartzentruber. They’ll tell you, if you can get one to talk, that God expects us all to live on peasant farms.