When I was a child, many of our family gatherings took place at the Binkley farm about ten miles northwest of Dayton, Ohio. At the time, I had no awareness of how deeply the western half of Montgomery County is rooted in Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Yes, I would overhear mention of dishes such as scrapple or panhas, but they weren’t served on our tables. Admittedly, my Hodson grandparents had little to do with earlier traditions; they had, after all, left the farm for the city and had even joined Masonic organizations, the secret societies the Old Ways had forbidden. Even when we passed one of the pristinely stark, white-frame Old Order German Baptist Brethren meetinghouses on our way to the Binkley farm, none of this German presence clicked in my awareness. We weren’t they. Ehrstine? Maybe it was Jewish. Now, of course, I have clues to the extent to which the First World War obscures our appreciation of how widespread German influence is in American history. To a surprising degree, the search for my grandmother’s roots makes visible what’s been hidden in plain sight. The Old Order German Baptist Brethren, dressed in a Plain style resembling the Amish, are far from an anomaly in this land; they are a visible remnant of a much more pervasive heritage. Nearby cemeteries have surnames identical to those in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Driving from the farm to Brookville, my sister and I pass a Lutheran church in Phillipsburg; its original cornerstone, moved to a newer front on what had been a simple meetinghouse, is in an elaborate German script, an indication that ours is not the only Germanic culture in this place.
The search for my grandmother’s roots, then, originates with her parents – Henry Ehrstine and Susie Rasor – great-grandparents gone before my recollection.