Dear Amish Diary

The New York Times, 2009



The Amish do not usually expose their feelings in their diaries. Instead they note down each day’s rounds of boiling pear butter, collecting duck eggs, cleaning stables, taking sleigh rides or attending church. Once in a while dramatic events are recorded, but sometimes not by the diarists themselves.

“Our Dear son Dannie died this morning at 10 minutes after 8 o’clock,” Samuel and Annie Esh wrote as the May 31, 1912, entry in their teenage son’s worn clothbound diary. The Eshes then filled out some of the rest of the year’s pages with dutiful notes on farm life in Pennsylvania.

A hundred examples of these dryly detailed, unintentionally revealing manuscripts came up for sale last week at Horst Auction Center in Ephrata, Pa., just north of Lancaster. A dozen bidders, mostly Amish, spent about $3,000 for all the lots, which ranged from 1850s daybooks and medicine and dessert recipes by one Christian Lantz Fisher ($130) to Sarah King’s 1930s–1990s annotations ($25) that the Horst catalog summarizes as “weather, company for supper, visiting, quilting, baking, household chores, stitching rose chair cushions, painting door stops.”

Clarence E. Spohn, the cataloguer for the Horst sale, said in a telephone interview: “We could find no precedent for any collection like this previously being auctioned. It’s not common at all for this material to surface on the market. Much of it was lost or destroyed by the families.” The consigner, Mr. Spohn added, is “an Ohio collector who is not Amish but has had a strong interest in Amish culture for decades. He’s now downsizing.” (The sale, on Jan. 30, also included 70 scholarly books with titles like “Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries” and “Plain and Amish: An Alternative to Modern Pessimism.”)

The Ohio owner had bought the diaries mostly in Lancaster County, “in box lots with other books and papers at public sales onsite at the Amish farms,” Mr. Spohn said. “At one point in time there was little interest among the Amish in their own genealogy, although that’s changed in the past 10 years or so.”

Meticulous diary keeping, however, “has been a fairly common practice since at least 1800,” said John Parmer, a historian in Akron, near Ephrata, who is writing a book about the Amish fraktur tradition of writing and illuminating family trees and religious manuscripts. He owns half a dozen Amish diaries from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and last week he pored through the fare at the Horst sale.

“I’ve never come across a single emotion expressed in the many, many that I’ve read,” he said. “And there is very limited contact revealed with the outside world. You do see mentions of local happenings that would send ripples through a whole county: barn fires, wagons being struck by trains, the floodwaters along a creek that rose so high a doctor couldn’t get his buggy through to treat a sick baby and the family had to muddle along without him. You can sometimes read emotional content into the dramas. But nowhere does it explicitly say ‘I was terrified,’ or ‘I was crying.’ ”

That the Ohio collector was able to amass so many diaries, “really doesn’t surprise me at all,” Mr. Parmer added. “The Amish are not a particularly sentimental group. Only now are they realizing these are precious family treasures.”

At the Horst sale, Mr. Parmer said, he sat with a row of Amish friends in the half-empty hall, while the taxi drivers who had brought the Amish waited outside. Prices paid ranged from $20 (two 1930s calendars slightly chewed by insects) to $190 (an assortment of travel notebooks, marriage records, and scribbled poems dated from 1899 to 1952). “Certainly holding prices down was an informal agreement among the Amish that they would not compete with each other” for material relating to friends, relatives or community leaders, Mr. Parmer said.

The Amish bidders will let him further study their purchases, he said, and will also most likely eventually donate some of the papers to an Amish historical society open to the public, the Pequea Bruderschaft Library in Gordonville, Pa., where Mr. Parmer and a few other non-Amish scholars have volunteered to help organize the uncomputerized catalog. He is especially eager to look through the diaries from around 1890 of Jacob Beiler, which cost about $50 at the Horst auction.

“One of my Amish friends explained to me, ‘Do you know who this Jacob Beiler is? This was the father of Aaron (Rhymie) Beiler,’ ” Mr. Parmer said. “Rhymie was famous for aggravating the church fathers no end by rhyming during services, speaking in both Pennsylvania German dialect and English. Legend has it that a collection of his rhymes and sayings had been written down somewhere, but nobody knows where it is. I’ve looked for it for years. Maybe the father’s diary will have some evidence of the son’s rhyming and eccentricity, some explanation. I’m very curious.”

Slave Potter
From the 1820s to the 1860s, while enslaved by pottery factory owners near Edgefield, S.C., an artisan named Dave made smooth vessels that could hold up to 40 gallons. About 175 of his works survive, including 30 that he inscribed with lines of poetry, whether self-promotional (“Great & Noble Jar”) or romantic (“Dearest miss: spare me a kiss”).

“An excellent Stone Ware Turner,” a newspaper ad called him in 1847, just before he was auctioned for $800.

A descendant of one of his owners, Leonard Todd, has written Dave’s first biography, “Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave” (W. W. Norton & Company, $25.95). A newspaper article in 2000 about Dave alerted Mr. Todd to his family’s connection. Mr. Todd, a historian in Edgefield, has interviewed descendants of slaves, combed archives and trolled through the ruins of local kilns, trying to determine how Dave learned to read and write while engineering and glazing huge pots.

No one quite knows why owners allowed him such latitude, given the state’s antebellum ban on educating slaves. “Every week I still find out more,” Mr. Todd said. Scholars keep contacting him with more clues about slave potters’ lives, and forgotten pots have turned up: “I just heard from someone who may have one of the little pots Dave made for his owners to bury gold for safekeeping before the Civil War,” Mr. Todd said.

The book has also spurred museum interest. On Feb. 24, the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina will unveil the first of several Dave vessels it has acquired. “Leonard’s book certainly was a big motivation” for the purchases, said Thomas W. Styron, the director of the Greenville museum, which will present a two-handle storage jar with a dreamy inscription about constellations:

the sun moon and—stars =

in the west are a plenty of—bears