This was the first of several visits to Sugarcreek, Ohio. The occasion was an Airstream rally coinciding with the Swiss Festival celebration in town. Sugarcreek is very near Holmes County, the home of the largest community of Amish in the country.
Friday, September 21, 1990
Mileage @ Start: 94000
We drove into Sugarcreek for a sneak preview on Friday, found the site of the rally, then went into town to check it out. There were a few Amish horse and buggies on the road buy they were not as much in evidence as in Lancaster County. We ate lunch at the Dutch Valley Restaurant then went back to New Philadelphia to do laundry. Upon returning to the campground, we found that the Schumakers had arrived and were parked next to us. Dave and I played a round of golf on the par 3 course on the grounds, then we drove into town for a pizza supper.
During the night it rained and turned the ground into a slick, muddy mess. None of the several Airstreams wanting to leave on Saturday morning could move only with help from a tractor. We finally got on the road and drove the fifteen miles back to Sugarcreek where we registered for the rally and got parked. As each trailer arrived, they were greeted personally over the PA system. The rally site is at Winklepleck Grove next to a beautiful golf course about a mile out of town. We were all disappointed that Lamar and Frances had to cancel their trip up to join us.
Church service was held in the meeting hall at 10:00am on Sunday. The collection was designated to go to the family of a local young man suffering from cancer. During the afternoon we lined ourselves up for some tours, a golf tournament, and two dinners in Amish homes. Then in the evening we were treated to a program by an Amish group who sang some of their hymns, then one of their ministers spoke very articulately, yet humbly, about Amish history, their beliefs and customs. His speech was a bit halting, but he held everyone spellbound with the story. That presentation alone was worth coming here for. It was a better explanation than anything I've read or heard about why they dress the way they do, why they abstain from the use of automobiles, electricity, television, etc., why they refuse to participate in armed conflict, refrain from voting, and stop formal education after 8 years. They believe strongly in strong family and community ties. They take the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount very seriously. There were seven families in the program, including two small children. They all came to the rally site in their buggies. There being no place to tie the horses, one of the rally men pulled his truck into an open area and let it be used for that purpose. Seven horses pulling seven buggies were tied around the truck. It was all very appropriate for a Sunday evening in Amish country.
On Monday evening we ate dinner in an Old Order Amish home, the home of Andy and Maudie Raber. She and three of her seven daughters helped prepare and serve the meal. There were twenty five couples of Airstreamers from the rally there. They started serving Airstreamers from the Sugarcreek rally several years ago and now open their home to other groups as well, as long as there are at least fifteen in the group. The meal consisted of homemade bread and butter, a salad, real mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, dressing, noodles, Swiss steak, fried chicken, date pudding, homemade pies, mint tea and coffee. And it kept coming for as many helpings as could be eaten. We did put away some food! The Rabers were very good hosts, and were ready to answer in questions about their life style. They were a bit more "worldly" than their Amish cousins in Lancaster County but they would not want to admit to that. They charged $8 each for the meal, and just that fact sets them apart from the Pennsylvanians. Their dress was not quite as drab, and they had pictures and ornate dishes hanging on the walls. But there were no electric lights or automobiles.
What we did on Tuesday was too incredible to adequately describe, but I'll try. Ernest Warther was a master carver, probably the best ever in the world. The son of Swiss immigrants, he lived from 1885 until 1973, and carving was his hobby. His father died when he was three years old, and at the age of five, he helped his mother support the family by tending their one cow as it grazed on free grass along the roadway. He found a rusty pocket knife, and to pass away the time began to whittle. What he created over the next eighty years with just his hands and knives is housed in a museum near his old home in Dover, Ohio. He never sold any of his carvings, and but for a few that he gave away to friends and family, everything he carved in his lifetime that he considered worth keeping is on display in the museum. And it is fantastic. We were just in awe for over two hours.
The museum is divided into three areas, each containing work from a different time period of his life. The first group of carvings was done primarily in his spare time after working a full time job at a local steel mill. The inside of that steel mill is itself the subject of his carvings. Wheels turn, men stoke furnaces, an irate foreman berates a sleeping worker while another worker is eating his lunch. Beneath the table is an intricate system of pulleys and gears that make the model steel mill work. Also in that room was a plier tree containing 511 sets of pliers, each hinged and workable, and each a part of the other, all cut out of the same piece of wood. When all the pliers were folded up they formed a block of wood about 10 inches long and two inches wide. In carving this, there were no shavings and no other waste. It was featured in the Chicago World's Fair and is one of Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" phenomenons. These things were all done when Warther was in his twenties.
When he was 27 years old he started carving models of steam engines. The second room of the museum contains the 64 working model history of the steam engine, each carved to a scale of 1/2" to the foot. One of the steam engine locomotives in this group contains over 10,000 pieces and took over 2,000 hours to complete. At this point in time he was carving primarily from black walnut and ivory, although the bearings for the moving parts were made from Arguto, an oil bearing wood. Some of the engines have been running for 60 years without lubrication or sign of wear. Around the room in show cases are models of every steam locomotive designed, including some that failed in the real world. His first locomotive was carved from walnut and cow bones, then he progressed to ebony and ivory. The intricate detail in these hand carved models is unbelievable. The Smithsonian Institute has declared them priceless.
The third room contains his work after reaching the age of seventy years. By then he was fully retired and could spend as much time as he pleased at his carving. Here, everything is made out of ebony and ivory. Each set of carvings depicts an historic event in the history of railroads. There is a replica of the first passenger train, models which depict the Driving of the Golden Spike when the engines from the East and West met, a replica of the Casey Jones Engine, models of the General and the Texas, the engines involved in the Great Locomotive Chase of the Civil War, a model of the Empire State Express, an 8 foot long complete train made from an 81 pound elephant tusk, and a replica of the Lincoln Funeral train. This latter is probably Warther's best work. It is made from ebony wood with all the working parts carved from the tusk of a hippopotamus. Hippo tusks provide the finest ivory for carving. The train is over 8 feet long and is complete in every minute detail, including a model of the casket in the Presidential car with Lincoln's head visible.
Mr. Warther was completely self-taught. His formal education stopped at the 2nd grade. He was not only an artist with an incredible talent, but was also a mechanical genius. When he began to work with ebony and ivory he could not find knives hard enough to stay sharp, so, using his knowledge of steel, he designed and made his own knives. To supplement his income he developed a business over the years selling these knives, and they are still made and sold by his sons and grandsons, but only from the museum. We were so intrigued by all of this that we had to buy a few for gifts. The museum is a must stop for anyone travelling to this area. It would be especially interesting to railroad buffs. It has to rate at the top of all the man made things I have ever seen.
For Tuesday night's entertainment they had Vane Scott, the president of a flag manufacturing company, present a program called "The Many Faces of Old Glory." He had samples of many flags which he used in presenting the history and evolution of the American flag. It was interesting and well presented.
On Wednesday morning we took a tour of a working Amish farm. That was interesting too, but it was not really a present day Amish farm. It had been once and had been converted to a tourist attraction. Even so, the Mennonite lady did a good job of telling us about the farm operation and explaining some of the Amish ways of living. We heard for the first time that there were seven different Amish orders in Ohio, the most conservative being the Old Order. An Amish girl was baking bread in the kitchen along with several varieties of cookies which were on sale. The bread looked and tasted very much like that my mother used to bake.
On Wednesday evening we went to another Amish home for dinner. This was in the Yoder home. Mr. and Mrs. Yoder were a young Amish couple that had taken over the farm just a year earlier when her father died. Her mother, Mrs. Miller, was still living there with them. In addition to making extra money with the dinners, they built Amish caskets and provided extra buggies for transporting the body and the family of the deceased to the cemetery on funeral day. This was a carryover from Mr. Miller, who had set up the unique workshop. For power, he had a 1940 International tractor turning a shaft which ran under the floor of the shop. Each tool was then rigged to be driven by belts from this shaft. Many of the tools were originally made to run on electricity, but of course that was against the Amish rules. One of the young Yoder sons raised chickens as his own project, and he had many varieties of chickens and other fowl. It was an interesting evening but not as good cooking as the meal we had at the Raber farm.
The golf tournament was on Thursday, and it proved to be a tough course. Everyone had a good time however. Mr. and Mrs. Raber came to the campground in the afternoon and made "putt-putt" ice cream for all the Airstreamers, and that was something! Mr. Raber had rigged up an old one cylinder gasoline engine to provide power to a large ice cream churn. Using fresh milk from the farm, they kept making churn after churn until everyone had had some.
Thousands of people descended on Sugarcreek on Friday for the Swiss Festival celebration. Streets were blocked off, bandstands and tents were set up, and the everpresent concessioners were there with fairway rides and booths. The rally people had arranged for bus transportation on every half hour so we would not have to drive in and find a parking place. We rode in early and took a train ride out into the Amish farmland countryside. It was an old steam engine with six passenger cars, all renovated and in pretty good condition. The round trip lasted about an hour. The rolling hills planted mostly with corn, the farm complexes, horse and buggies on the roads, horse drawn plows and other farm equipment, all provided a very scenic backdrop for a leisurely ride. Upon our return to town we watched a children's parade in which little children of all ages paraded with their Swiss costumes on. From the bandstand yodellers were singing traditional Swiss songs. After a few minutes of that, I walked about five blocks to the livestock auction house where horses were being paraded and sold. The place was full of Amish farmers looking over the stock. While I was there prices ranged from $300 to $1800.
At one point an older gentleman collapsed, apparently with a heart attack. The proceedings were stopped while he was attended to. He had not responded before the ambulance came, and there was a great deal of concern that he had died. The auctioneer asked everyone to remove their hats and bow for a moment in silent prayer for the family before resuming the sale. I never heard any more, but the manner in which everyone showed their concern was remarkable.
We decided to forego any more of the festival and head south, so on Saturday morning we said our goodbyes, hooked up and left our friends at the rally. Our next stop will be Hiawassee, Georgia where we will stay until after the colors change and then head for Brandon.