LIFE IN PIKE COUNTY

 

Isolation and cheap land were both abundant in Pike County Missouri when the Amish established yet another community there in the late forties. We were among the first to arrive and were joined at approximately the same time by Mom’s brother Moses Schrock, Dad’s sister Anna Hochstetler, Dad’s cousin Fannie B. Borntreger, along with their families, and quite a few others of our relatives and acquaintances.

 

We arrived in Pike County with all our possessions loaded on two cattle semis. I got to ride in the cab of one of the trucks and when nighttime came the lights came on. I had probably never been to town at night before and was extremely surprised and delighted. I could not get over all the bright pinks, blues, reds, and greens; traffic lights and neon signs; even the round reflectors that they had always fastened to the curve signs. Every thing was so exciting.

 

We got to Pike County well before blacktop roads and in most cases even before gravel roads. Because of the spring mud, our trucks had to be unloaded onto wagons and the last three miles were done by horsepower, that is, by the power of real horses. It was not until some time later that Stanley Hanson’s bulldozer and “King Built” roads claimed the humongous tree at the entrance of our driveway and brought gravel past our house.

 

My parents bought 66 acres of brush and what Dad jokingly called “bottom land.” “The top was all washed away,” he’d say. The rattlesnakes and blue racers protested violently when we took away their habitat and set out to turn it into productive farmland. One of the vivid memories of that era was piling brush on a fire at night and Mom suddenly calling “schlang, schlang.” (“snake, snake”) There would be an instant frenzy of flashing pitchforks and snarling dogs until yet another reptile had been deposited to burn with the brush.

 

We lived in a three-room house. No I didn’t mean “three Bedroom,” either. There was a large eat-in kitchen, a living room that also doubled as Mom and Dad’s bedroom, and the bedroom where we children slept. During the several years when we boarded two of my cousins, that bedroom slept eight. Ever try sleeping three to a bed? Actually, there were, by some reckoning, three more rooms to the house. An un-heated summer kitchen ran along the north side. It is where the meat grinder, sausage press, an assortment of other tools for butchering and processing meat, and all of Dad’s honey equipment were stored. On the west side of the kitchen there was also a small room that served as a pantry/storage room. Finally on the east side of the house there was a screened-in porch where Mom’s wash machine and additional storage were found.

 

In the winter, a wood stove in the living room, supplemented by the cook stove in the kitchen, heated the house. During the night the fire was left to go out and our bedroom was so cold that we would often need to thaw the chamber pot beside the stove the next morning before it could be emptied. When the wake-up call was issued there was always a mad scramble for a spot closest to the stove while we were dressing. I still have a faint scar from a burn on my right wrist that attests to my zeal in that department. Our house was built over a crawl space, the floorboards were very loose, and the wind blew un-restrained beneath it. I will probably always remember the sight of dust that was blown from the cracks and piled in neat rows at the edge of each floorboard during the night.

 

Our water supply was the cistern just beside the steps on the east side of the house. The pump was a loop of chain, with rubber disks every so often, that hung from a sprocket, which was fastened to a crank on the side of the pump. Turning the crank would lower the chain into the well where it looped around and then came up a pipe. The rubber disks sealed against the inside of the pipe and pulled water up as the chain made its endless journey. Other than the pond northeast of the house where the livestock was watered; the cistern supplied all the water for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing our clothes.

 

You might conclude that we had “running water” if you saw how we went running all over the place carrying it. From the cistern to the huge outside kettle where water was heated for doing the laundry: Hot water, from the outside kettle back to the wash machine: From the cistern to the bucket at the washbasin in the kitchen: And finally, much of our water was carried one more time, out to the barn as slop for the hogs.

 

Northeast of the cistern was the root cellar. It was a cave with a round cement roof covered with soil. Inside it was dark and cool with bins for storing onions and potatoes and shelves for all our canned food. Most of the canning for our family was in two-quart jars. Every summer the shelves would get overloaded with tomatoes, cabbage, beans, peaches, and strawberries. In the winter the fruit jars got refilled with meat: Pork and beef, cut in one inch cubes, and packed as tightly as possible or sometimes mixed with vegetables for a stew.

 

Dad’s shop was east of the cellar. It was home for all his carpenter and blacksmithing tools. The shop was about the size of a one-car garage with two swinging doors that opened up most of the south end. The most prominent feature in the shop was dad’s forge, which sat right inside the south doors. The forge was a basin that held some fine coal that would burn fantastically hot when you hand-cranked the blower. Dad shod horses and made buggy wheels; the forge was an indispensable tool for both. I was always impressed at the sight of a white-hot horseshoe coming out of the coals and getting “sized” by a big hammer on the anvil.

 

An Amish buggy wheel is mostly wood with a metal band or rim that provides the wear surface and locks the whole wheel together. Dad would start making a wheel by soaking the wooden parts in hot creosote and fitting them into an assembly. The rim would start out as a flat piece of straight steel. It would get cut to length on a shear; rolled into a circle, and the two ends welded together with some powder that Dad would pour into the white-hot joint in the forge. After the two ends of the loop were fused into one, the joint would be hammered smooth on the anvil. The entire rim was now heated to make it expand until it was just larger then the wooden wheel. Next it was placed around the wheel and quickly quenched, shrinking it to the wheel and tightly locking the whole assembly together. However this whole horse-training, horseshoeing, wheel-making business would come to an abrupt end before my tenth birthday. My parents were very unexpectedly, about to be excommunicated from the Old Order Amish Church.

 

When the Amish move into a new area there is usually a flurry of building activity. Dad intended to be on the cutting edge (pun) of this business, so shortly after arriving in Pike County, he bought a saw mill. It was located behind and northeast of the shop. The saw mill is where I learned practical mathematics. Fractions, multiplication, and division were all linked to sizes of logs, board/feet and how many 2X6’s it took for rafters on somebody’s corncrib. The saw mill was powered by a cantankerous Buda gas engine and I suppose that was what provided the background for my first lessons on internal combustion engine mechanics. (Actually, it might also have been an equally cantankerous engine on Mom’s wash machine.)

 

With the saw mill came a chainsaw. Actually, I’m talking about THE chainsaw. That chainsaw is the basis for another part of this story. That saw was, in reality, the catalyst for our removal from the church. Along with the ouster from the church came the loss of assumed revenue from the saw mill, and the urgent need for a drastically revised business plan.

 

 During the eleven years that we lived in Missouri, the business plan actually got revised quite a few times. To supplement the meager returns from our forty acres of tillable soil, we engaged in a large variety of activities: Raising razorback hogs to eat acorns and keep the weeds knocked down: (The hogs were so wild and ferocious that we had trouble rounding them up, to shoot, and eat them.) Custom butchering hogs and cattle: Raising sheep and custom sheep shearing: Custom hay baling: Raising white rabbits, (by the hundreds,) butchering them and selling them in the local grocery store: Cooking and peddling sorghum molasses: Picking peaches in southern Illinois and selling them on the streets of Vandalia, Missouri: Raising bees and selling honey: Selling Graham Chisel Plows, back when the farmers in the Texas panhandle were the only ones that knew what a chisel plow was: And, oh yes, my least favorite job of all; cutting down hedge rows and trying to turn the twisted, thorny mess into reputable fence posts: On top of everything else, there was always a large garden area and strawberry bed to take care of in the summer and fire wood to prepare and get to the house in the winter. Looking back now, I wonder how we ever knew what activity to engage in next, or by what standard our work was organized.

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