An overview of my Ohio legacy

On our genealogical outing, as my sister drives between Phillipsburg and Brookville, I notice that the land is much flatter than I remember from childhood. Maybe it is because more of the woodlots have been felled for agricultural productivity. The fields are no longer fenced, as they were when livestock would be turned out into harvested fields. The ground itself is blanketed in a rare prolonged snow cover. Off in one field, a large brick barn catches my attention. It’s larger than the white barns common to this area, and while not as large as some of the palatial barns that approached a city block in length, this one must have embodied some of that grandeur. Actually, the two ends are brick, perhaps half of the long side, while a large earthen ramp leads to the wooden doors, or what would have been the doors. For some reason, I suspect this particular barn would have a similar ramp on the other side, allowing haywagons to pass on through the structure, rather than having to back out. Now, however, the barn is in disuse, the roof sags, and I wonder how long any of it will remain.

The style itself reminds me of some of the oldest barns in Pennsylvania, where limestone rather than brick would be used. Still, these were substantial buildings, meant to last an eternity. The basic idea was to store the hay and grain in lofts above the livestock, so that the animals could be fed from above through the winter, especially. The more common version of these Sweitzer (or “Swiss”) barns would place them in a hillside, with the ramp on the higher side of the barn and an overhang, giving the livestock some protection, on the other. As I recall, the overhang should be on the south side of the barn, but as we drive, I notice the remaining Sweitzer barns seem to have it facing north.

When I mention the brick barn to Wayne Watkins at the Brookville Historical Association, he replies that it was related to my lines, built by John Swank, who was both a very successful farmer and a powerful River Brethren preacher.

The image of that barn, perhaps a half-mile off from the road, somehow becomes emblematic of this quest. Wayne remarks that he hopes someone can save it. Barns, of course, come from another era, when horses provided the horsepower, and mixed agriculture, invoking a range of crops and animals on every farm, was the norm. The business of farming has changed drastically from the time when it supported my families, and many barns are simply too small to accommodate the large mechanized machinery required today.

The moment of glimpsing this imposing edifice before it vanishes also symbolizes this quest. Without the history, so much of this legacy would be invisible and otherwise lost.

Growing up, I had no idea how pervasive this German influence was in much of Montgomery County. Few today would suspect that in looking at records where many of the first settlers were recorded as coming from Virginia, as well as North Carolina, Tennessee, or Kentucky, that they were really Pennsylvanians who spoke German, rather than some stereotypical Southerners. Yet, despite these origins, the majority of the settlers in the northwest corner of the county – perhaps the entire western half of the county – were Pennsylvania Dutch, with a larger spattering of Quaker thrown in than I’d suspected. Maybe I didn’t see this because it wasn’t the German of Wagner’s Ring Cycle or even Beethoven, for that matter, much less Haydn or Mozart. Mine were lines that came to the New World when Bach was drawing on Reformation hymns from a century earlier. Mine were lines aligned closely with an energic, primitive Christianity and the interplay of survival within the seasons and their soil.

I do a rough survey of my Ehrstine ancestry, and see that two-thirds come by way of Virginia or North Carolina; only one-third straight west from Pennsylvania. Examining an 1836 property tax map of southern Randolph Township, I find only four names that might be English, rather than German, out of the eighty I examine.

In much of my genealogical research, I’ve not worked much with property records or, for that matter, court documents. While many researchers do, I’ve put my efforts into Quaker minutes and other denominational history, Census records, and similar sources. Now, as Wayne enthusiastically produces township property maps, I see something else happening. The township cemetery maps his organization has put online become especially helpful when I return to New Hampshire. There’s more than a sense of walking the land of one’s ancestors, or even in the burial grounds where no stones remain. What emerges in this turning is a matter of relationships: Ehrstines on a farm next to Swanks next to Rasors. These were people you could walk to in less than an hour.

My impression of their migrations has also changed. I see now that few of my ancestors came straight from Lancaster County to Montgomery County, the way the Binkleys apparently did in their Conestoga wagon. Now I even wonder if one wagon was sufficient. When I initially encountered the genealogies that had families moving into Huntingdon and Bedford counties for a decade or two before leaping on to Ohio, I pictured the hardscrabble country of the Allegheny Mountains. I didn’t expect the beautiful valleys between the ridges, with their farms still arrayed below the forests, many still worked by Plain people.

The move to the South, however, still startled. Even Maryland, after all, is south of the Mason-Dixon line, not that such considerations were of much import then. The Brethren and Mennonites who remain in the Shenandoah Valley no longer appear as an offshoot, but rather as an important bend in the river.

By chance, I come across two historical items online.

One, from the Dayton Daily News of Sunday, April 23, 1916, is an account of the fiftieth anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. John Pierson at their county home north of Brookville. The accompanying photo show a man with large mustache and wearing a rather Plain-style coat seated next to a woman in a white blouse and dark skirt, her hair pulled tightly back. The entire guest list is published, including Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ehrstine, Mr. and Mrs. Harley Ehrstine, Miss Edna Ehrstine, Miss Urma Ehrstine [my grandmother, Erma], and Arnetts, Carmonys, Frys, Hessemans, Hublers, Huffmans, Schlepecks, and others.

The second is the obituary for Mrs. Martha Jane Rasor Lees, who died at the home of her granddaughter, Mrs. J.D. Huffman in Covington.

The element connecting the two is David Rasor and Delilah Swank, whose daughters are listed as Mary Ann Pierson, Martha Jane Leese, Sarah Ann Carmony, Amanda Elen Scott, and Susannah “Susie” Ehrstine. The German connection is no longer apparent.

* * *

As we drive, I realize that most of the barns are white. Some are Sweitzer barns; others, large sheds built without foundations, close to the ground. An occasional tobacco barn remains. Back home, coming across photos from Amish country, I make another connection – theirs, too, are white barns. When most people think of Pennsylvania Dutch barns, hex signs come to mind. But my Pennsylvania Dutch were from the Plain, rather than Fancy, variety. No hex signs around here, unless by recent imitation.

Even when my Anabaptist ancestors formed a majority in their own neighborhoods, they were still a minority within the larger society, set apart by their dress, their language, their refusal to join in military service, sometimes even their decision to not vote in political elections. Today’s practice of lumping American whites together as WASPS, for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, obscures ethnic strands and distinctive values, as well as the struggle to maintain a counterculture identity in the face of political, social, and economic confrontation. The Amish and Old Order German Baptist Brethren stand out as they visibly continue to live as a “peculiar people” closely retaining the heritage of earlier generations.

In many ways, my Ehrstine story comes together in Montgomery County together for nearly a century, drawing on its earlier roots in Colonial Pennsylvania and then moving away from both this locale and its traditions. When James H. Lehman’s The Old Brethren (Elgin, Illinois, 1976), focuses on the 1840s, he examines the larger issues confronting my family as well as their culture. Lehman calls this “a decade from the so-called ‘wilderness period,’ when, according to some historians, the Brethren were ignorant and narrow, so that I could show that while they lived in the wilderness and were unschooled, they were neither ignorant nor unattractive. On the contrary, they were warm and vigorous, very much to be respected, and quite worthy to be learned from. The 1840s were convenient because they were not so far back that little research material existed. It turned out that this decade was a good choice because it was the last decade before the beginning of the cultural changes that today make the Church of the Brethren so different from the Brethren of that day.”

There is also a curious matter of numbers. While my research narrows down to my great-grandparents, Henry Ehrstine and Susie Rasor, and opens out wider with each earlier generation (even when names and dates are missing, there are still blanks to fill in eventually), the Brethren numbers work in the other direction – there are fewer to draw on in each earlier generation. Despite its German culture and, often, language, the Brethren grew from a small fellowship of only 1,500 in 1790 to a church of 20,000 members in 1860; in the next two decades, moreover, growth soared to roughly 58,000 members in 500 congregations. Faced with increasingly irresolvable differences – regional, economic, educational, and even generational – the movement then underwent a three-way division, beginning with the withdrawal of the Old German Baptist Brethren in 1881 (also known as Old Order), who have kept to the “ancient” ways, and the “progressives” in 1883, who then reorganized as the Brethren Church. The remaining mainstream continues today as the Church of the Brethren. Related streams include the Dunker Church and Grace Brethren Fellowship. (Similar tensions resulted in the Brethren in Christ, arising from the old-style River Brethren, who are also part of my ancestry.) For an authoritative presentation of the larger Brethren history, faith, and practice, I recommend Carl F. Bowman’s Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a Peculiar People (Baltimore, 1995).

In my ancestry, a final twist came in our being raised Evangelical United Brethren (E.U.B.), a denomination arising from the 1948 merger of the United Brethren in Christ (commonly referred to as United Brethren) and the Evangelical Association, two German-based Wesleyan denominations formed in Pennsylvania and neighboring Maryland. I now sense that the United Brethren church, with its strong dose of Methodism, often served as a kind of “fast-lane” for Dunkers and Mennonites attempting to escape some of the strictures of those more disciplined faith communities. What I didn’t realize was just how much the United Brethren originally drew from their older neighbors. Some congregations, for instance, practiced foot-washing – even when some Mennonite congregations no longer did. In The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Tom Crouch writes, “Like a good [United] Brethren, Milton was a pacifist. During the Civil War, he did not enter the Army or preach sermons to the troops, yet there was no doubt where he stood on the issues.” Bishop Milton Wright also opposed Freemasonry and other secret societies, something that led him to participate in a schism that erupted in 1889 in his denomination. My line, coming from the majority side of that split, no longer possessed a pacifist witness and even some of its bishops were Masonic lodge members. In other words, the original identity of the movement had been obscurred.

With that background, one can see how each of the Hodson boys – raised by a Quaker father and a Pennsylvania Dutch mother – married into Brethren descendants. Samuel married Grace Binkley; Leroy, Anna Lyon (a variant of Le Long, Line, or Lein?); James, Erma Ehrstine and, after her death, Edna (Hefelfinger) Huffman. More remarkably, Samuel joined his wife in the Old German Baptist Brethren; Leroy and Anna became Church of the Brethren; and James and Erma eventually joined the Brethren Church. Furthermore, James’ second wife also had solid Brethren ancestry. And to think, we have an Irish surname to thank for that Pennsylvania Dutch patterning!

When I was a child, two of the routes we took to my Aunt Edna’s farm passed plain white meetinghouses that intrigued me; as I recall, they were still partly encircled by horse sheds. I had no idea that one of these two “Dunkard” churches was on land possibly donated by Grandma and Aunt Edna’s ancestors. Sometimes, investigating Grandma’s ancestry, it seems there is no story. The participants left almost nothing, so far as we’ve been able to determine – nothing more than a few very elusive dates of births, marriages, and burials. I’ve found no letters, a few wills, very little even by way of family Bible. For the very core of my family’s story, even military participation would have been anathema. The Biblical admonition of being a people apart, a peculiar people, a people separated from the world and its devilish ways, has brought about a paradox: they were at once invisible and yet, because of their Plain clothing and ways, highly visible. As visible as the Amish, whom they resembled.

It becomes tempting to say that no other family has been in America as long and left such a slim contribution, for better or worse, as the Ehrstines. What this viewpoint overlooks, of course, is that fact that living as a righteous people may be an art in itself; a lack of monuments may simply be a reflection of dwelling peacefully in the land and with their neighbors.

My mother said the Ehrstines were a strange family. “They weren’t close,” is how she explained it. What she said was what they said, perhaps the others who had married into the family. Perhaps as they gathered at family reunions. But then, they said the Hodsons were also strange, in a different way. Now that I know both descend from “peculiar people,” as the Biblical phrase was applied, I have a clue. For instance, Bowman describes a self-denial that refused even to celebrate birthdays (something the Brethren had in common with my Quaker ancestors). Moreover, the Brethren put members “in avoidance” if they were non-compliant in their religious practice, and this meant distancing them within the family as well as from the holy kiss shared among the faithful male fellowship.

Not knowing of her Anabaptist roots, we had wondered if Grandma’s lineage was once Jewish – a concept that is not so farfetched when one discovers that many Mennonite families had indeed been European Jews until they refused to lend the pope more funds for his crusades – and were then converted to Christianity at the point of a sword. No wonder, then, that at the time of the Protestant Reformation, so many from this strand willing embraced their radical split and endured heavy persecution, from Lutherans and Calvinist Reformed as well as Roman Catholic – some even being sold into slavery to the Turks. Which of my ancestors and their kin were among them?

Among my possessions is an old-fashioned, bone-handled fork, one that I always chose to use at my grandparents’ table. Another possession is a leather belt of sleigh bells, whose origin now puzzles: the Brethren had forbidden the use of such ornaments.

I suppose that much of my inquiry focuses on the problems of living our faith, of maintaining fidelity to our beliefs. There is a phenomenon in which religion has two sides – those heights, the idealistic wonders, achieved and lived – as well as the murky, ugly underside, of schisms and legalism, where guilt appears rather than radiance, and self-righteousness rather than loving. In this I wonder, too, about illness, especially mental illness, and about unmarried sons and daughters and whether they felt short-changed or deprived.

I have examined Brethren photos – including those in the comprehensive Brethren Encyclopedia – until I grew sick of the sight of bearded, ragged frontier farmers and their seemingly deranged families, their ramshackle homes and meetinghouses and muddy barnyards, the image of “dumb Dunkards” whom the later college-trained missionaries and pastors attempted to overcome. And yet this is a major part of my genetic legacy.

My sister and I wrap up our session in the genealogical files and drive back toward Brookville, passing the deteriorating brick barn. This time, I see it rising from the flat fields like a Maine lighthouse that stands above flat ocean. (Like the barn, lighthouses have been made obsolete by technological change.) We pass the Binkley farm, now painted bright yellow; the farmhouse has been remodeled and doubled in size; the windmill, larger barn, and all of the outbuildings except for the modified Switzer barn have been removed. A large new house sits just north of the farmhouse, seemingly crowding together. Other houses sit in what had been the woodlot, itself larger than I recall.

It is as if I were seeing all of this for the first time.

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