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Spending a Few Hours With a Carriage Maker

Steve Egan ’09 - I met Samuel Stoltzfus Monday, June 11,, a carriage maker in Parke County just south of Crawfordsville. Stoltzfus is a pretty common name down there as they were one of the first Amish families to move into Parke County around 1991 from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I hadn’t realized it at the time but I had already met several of Samuel’s siblings; not a hard thing to do since he’s from a family of eight children all of whom live in Parke County. 

Samuel was 15 when his family arrived after having made the 600 mile trip from Lancaster, and his home and barn, which he inherited from his father, were some of the first Amish built structures in the county. Just next door to his home is the first Amish school in Parke County, a relatively simple structure, with two rooms and outdoor bathroom facilities, it houses grades 1 through 8, all the schooling Amish children will ever have. 

Samuel’s family made the move in 1991 because his father was able to get twice the land for the same price in Parke as in Lancaster. With developers moving in on Amish farms in Lancaster to build more and more subdivisions, making the move to Parke County or other areas around the country is becoming ever more popular. Both because the Amish are able to get so much money for their land and because they can get away from all the Englishers, their name for non-Amish folks. In the first year there were just 15 families that made the trip.  For much of the first several years help was always waiting when a new family would arrive, but now Samuel expressed his frustration with so many families moving to the county as he didn’t always know when they would arrive and so he couldn’t go to help them unload and move in. 

They’re such a tightly knit community, their dependence on each other and their mutual aid and support are reasons they’ve been able to thrive in new places like Parke County. 

Samuel like many other Amish in Parke County is pretty much self taught in his profession. Because they weren’t really old enough to work full time when they arrived and they were the first Amish there, Samuel and his siblings are all pretty much self-taught. His brother, a cheese maker, told me of a few recipes he had to guide him, but beyond that he learned by trial and error.

Samuel, like all of the Amish I’ve run into, was happy to talk with me and made me feel rightfully awkward by not doing any work while I was there. He knew I was there just to observe, but to him I was a guest and therefore deserved all of his attention while in his barn. I wished it hadn’t been so as it only made my presence there just that more awkward. He showed me around his shop where he usually starts work around 5am every morning but Sunday. During the winter months Samuel uses lights fueled by propane.  Most of his tools run off an air-compressor. 

Work for the Amish is a family affair. When I arrived Samuel’s father, who lives across the street, was bringing over a couple of wheels he had worked on for Samuel.

While we were talking Samuel’s second oldest of his 5 children, all of whom are under 9 years old, meandered into the barn. She remained until I left. As she walked into the barn her father and she exchanged a few words in Pennsylvania Dutch and that was all it took for her to get to work on the carriage body that was the obvious project for the day. A girl that barely came up to my waist was now picking up a scraper and using it to remove old and broken reflectors. At first I wondered if her father could see and if she was supposed to be doing what she was, but when her father gave an approving nod in her direction I realized she wasn’t just messing around she was helping her dad get some work done, while he couldn’t. Samuel described his children as not quite old enough to help full time yet, but always within earshot to come and help. For his kids work was just another thing to play at, not to be feared or avoided. 

Before I left I asked Samuel to take a few pictures, assuring him that neither he nor his daughter would be in any of them. After retrieving the camera from my car I slowly stalked around the shop capturing images, holding the camera at my waist and looking at the screen for my next shot. Samuel had asked me questions throughout our talk, but they often seemed to be more of an effort to shift the focus away from himself rather than finding out more about me. Not to say that he sounded uninterested in his questioning, he did, but his last question was the most genuine. He asked about the camera in the way my experience has told me all Amish approach new technology; with a slight scorn so as to show that they have no real interest in it. 

He asked about the camera in the same way an Amish women had mentioned the internet in a conversation I had had several weeks earlier. He was surprised to see that I didn’t have to hold the camera to my eyes to take a picture. I noticed his concealed interest and showed Samuel and his daughter the camera.  It’s always surprising when the Amish reveal how little they really interact with the outside world. Samuel reminded me with his final question that the Amish really aren’t of this world.

In photos: Top left, wheels sit in Stoltfus' barn. The other photos are from an Amish auction.