Marriage and children

Examining an online copy of the 1910 Census entry book, I chanced upon an unanticipated detail. As children, Grandpa and Grandma had lived on adjacent farms. They never told any of us that detail, as far as I know.

What now disclosed this was Edna Ehrstine’s name at the top of a page just over the enumeration of Joshua Hodson and his family. Knowing she would have been my Aunt Edna Binkley, I backed up a page, and sure enough, there was the rest of Henry Ehrstine’s household.

Since Henry and his wife Susie “bought the old home place” in 1907, as recorded in Grandma’s notes, and since Joshua rented the farms he worked, we can put their two households on a stretch of road just north of Brookville and west of Phillipsburg – in sight of other farms owned by Susie’s kin: the Rasors, Swanks, Michaels, Nicewongers (in their many variant spellings), and possibly Henry’s Danner and Hess kin as well.

Most of Henry and Susie’s ancestors had been pioneer arrivals nearly a century earlier, relocating Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, often by way of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, or western Pennsylvania. Some of their lines likely lead back together to a few Swiss alpine villages.

The Ehrstine and Hodson farms would have been along the road where Grandpa had nodded once in the direction of the place “where Wolf Creek originates.” Maybe the farm he pointed out to me was simply the one where he had grown up, or maybe he’d been indicating further, to the one where my father was born. I was too young to be impressed, yet the memory somehow remained.

Not only did Grandpa marry the girl next door – or across the road, depending – but they must have attended the same one-room school, along with their siblings, and perhaps even worshiped in the same neighborhood church.

Maybe it was inevitable that he and his brother and half-brother would marry women of Pennsylvania Dutch extraction. If they were looking for qualities they found in their mother, they were in prime territory. Even if they weren’t, they were surrounded by its culture.

Today it is difficult to discern how pervasive the German influence was on much of America, much less that corner of Montgomery County, yet examining township maps from the 1830s and 1840s indicates that at least 90 percent of its properties were owned or occupied by what had been Pennsylvania Dutch families. These came from the first wave of German immigration into North America – largely rural in outlook, religious refugees who were frequently Mennonite, Amish, or Dunker – a stream that ceased before the American Revolution.

An 1851 description of the love-feast celebration at the Dunker meetinghouse adjacent to the Ehrstine farmstead in Madison Township remarks, “The worship service began with an English hymn. Following this anything but pleasant-sounding singing was a prayer in German by a preacher with a whining voice” (James H. Lehman, The Old Brethren, page 128). Thus, over several generations, these families struggled to retain their old language and customs while also adapting to their new surroundings.

This Colonial-era Palatine immigration to America was distinct from a second wave of Germans, largely in the mid-1800s, which was urban, educated and cultured, and often motivated by opportunities for economic gain or political liberty. Thus, to speak of German-American can invoke two distinct, contrasting sets of ambitions and experiences.

The outbreak of World War I, just a few years before Grandpa and Grandma married, brought on a denial of all things German-American. The situation must have been doubly difficult for members of pacifist denominations such as the Brethren and Mennonites – their refusal to bear arms spurred deep suspicion about their patriotism.

When I was growing up, we had no inkling of Grandma’s lineage, much less Grandpa’s. Some, like my mother, wondered if the Ehrstines had been Jewish.

Still, to wander through the cemetery where Grandma and Grandpa are buried, around the corner from their childhood farms, presents its own revelations. The two halves, one old, one new, are bisected by the old National Road and sit adjacent to the former Arlington United Brethren church, the denomination of Susie Rasor’s ancestors. Originating as a German-speaking Methodist movement, it drew largely on Reformed, Lutheran, Mennonite, Dunker (or Brethren), and even Amish families for much of its membership – stock all represented in the headstones in this corner of Montgomery County, Ohio. Indeed, this array of surnames could as easily be found in a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, graveyard.

There could be many reasons for the shift in religious identity. Sometimes it was a consequence of relocating to an area where few coreligionists lived. Sometimes it was a flight from strict discipline or an attraction to trained preaching, organized Sunday schools, and instrumentally accompanied singing. Often it was a consequence of intermarriage, which typically led into the wife’s denomination. This was the case with Grandma’s parents, and then Grandpa.

Grandpa and Grandma were not married inside the sanctuary. Instead, they were married on Lincoln’s Birthday, 1921, in what I had thought was his parent’s farmhouse parlor. He was 21; she was almost a year younger. A surviving snapshot identifies the five standing subjects as the Rev. Ivory Zimmerman, Elmer Ressler, groom James Hodson, bride Erma Ehrstine, and Ruth Jones (who was still Ruth Hodson). The minister was a popular United Brethren pastor then serving in Brookville; over time, he also held nearby pastorates in Vandalia, Clayton, and Union City, before going to the suburbs of Cincinnati. I have no idea who Elmer is, other than the presumed best man, but Ruth was one of Grandpa’s sisters. The parlor has wallpaper with large flowers, and the two visible framed pictures are, I’ve been told, portraits of Grandpa’s grandparents – Pleasant and Eunice Hodson, in North Carolina. But why was a Hodson house chosen, rather than the Ehrstine’s, for the wedding, or why Grandma did not have her own sister, Edna, as her matron of honor?

For that matter, why Elmer rather than Grandpa’s own siblings, Leroy or Samuel, as best man?

Still, the choice of February 12, rather than Valentine’s Day, is telling: it was the birthday of the cornerstone of the Republican Party.

The 1920 Census presents a much different landscape than the one I had envisioned. Perhaps it was a consequence of the war and its economy.

Joshua Hodson had returned to Spiceland, Indiana, with his wife and two daughters. Leroy, curiously, was living as a “servant” on the Henry Ehrstine farm, where my grandmother was still present. “Hired hand” would seem a more likely description. Grandpa, meanwhile, was living in his half-brother Samuel’s household – in Ward 6 of Dayton. Within a few decades, Leroy and Grandpa would wind up with their own plumbing and heating companies in the city, while Samuel would become the farmer. So the question remains, what were Samuel and Grandpa doing in the city at this time?

The marriage must have been in Samuel and Grace’s parlor. The portraits did pass down afterward through their line. The revised location might also explain why Grandpa and Grandpa chose the Rev. Zimmerman, rather than the minister at Arlington United Brethren church.

With a good wife, a man just might make a go of farming. Sixteen months after Grandpa and Grandma’s marriage, their first child – my father – was born on a farm near New Baltimore, which was also known as Verona. Grandpa took me to it once; I remember daylight poring through the slats in the barn.

Grandma’s recorded observations in My Baby’s Book: A Record of Interesting and Important Events provide glimpses into their lives in this period. There’s a space for “first photograph,” but no photo. She did keep a curl of his hair and “his first Sunday School paper,” Beginners’ Stories, with a text on “Loving One Another.” There are also outlines of “Marion’s hand, 2 weeks old” as well as “The Boy Jesus Visits the City” in the Bible Pictures for Our Little Ones (published quarterly) series. The church publications seem aimed more at the mothers than their infants, not that we should be surprised. The list of First Visitors begins with Arlie and Edna Binkley, Grandma’s sister and brother-in-law, and continues through relatives and what, from the 1920 Census, would appear to be farming community neighbors. While other entries include Weight (9¼ lbs.) and Height (21 inches), the First Journey is to Arlie Binkley’s, age 3 weeks, to Emerson Haddix’ (Grandpa’s brother-in-law), age 4 weeks, to Sunday School, age 5 weeks, and to Spiceland Ind., age 8 weeks – the last journey coming after the First Outing, to the Ehrstine Reunion at Haines’ Grove at Gordon, Ohio, Sunday, August 20, 1922. The First Smile, “Three weeks old.” Tellingly, the entry for his first birthday has his Grandpa Ehrstine making him “a little wagon” while Grandma Hodson gave him a quarter. “Father and Mother gave a pair of slippers.” Under Mother’s Notes: “We weaned Marion on Tuesday Sept. 18, 1923. Age – nearly 15 mo.” And so on.

Curiously, Christening is left blank. Perhaps the Anabaptist influence, appearing here in the Brethren heritage, was strong enough to argue against infant baptism, instead contending baptism is an adult decision accompanied by a trip to a winter river. The Quaker side would have insisted that any outward ritual would have been meaningless, that baptism was solely an inward working of the Holy Spirit – an outpouring of fire in the soul.

Somehow, I’m surprised by the thoroughness of Grandma’s observations and her faithful effort to record them, especially considering the demands on her  as a farmwife.

A surviving snapshot of Dad, around age three, shows him in a bonnet and standing in a wagon filled with potato crates. In the corner are horses, an indication of how Grandpa was trying to make a living in the mid-1920s.

After the birth of Dad’s first sister, Myrl, in December 1924, Grandma tried to record some of her second child’s passages in the same book, but quickly petered out. Considering the effort of trying to keep up with two small children, one can empathize. Sometime during this period, Grandpa made a crucial decision; he would learn the plumbing trade from his brother Leroy and give up the precarious struggle of farming. By 1928, as one of Grandma’s Baby Book entries shows, the family was living in the city: Dad entered Fort McKinley School on September 10, where his first teacher was Miss Cassel – another old Brethren name.


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