By Wilmer Otto
The Arthur, Illinois, Amish settlement
began with an 1864 scouting trip by two residents of Somerset
County, Pennsylvania, Bishop Joel Beachy and Mose Yoder. They
traveled by train through Wisconsin, Missouri, and Illinois.
Preferring Illinois, they returned in the fall and purchased
several farms. On March 3, 1865, Mose Yoder, Daniel D. Otto,
Daniel P. Miller and their families arrived by train at Arcola
and settled on the West Prairie, seven miles west of there. Within
ten years, 20 to 25 families from Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa had
also moved to the area. The resultant economic boom helped to
establish the village of Arthur, eight miles northwest of Arcola.
Today the community consists of 22 church districts of approximately
35 hundred residents. This is the story the Illinois Amish Interpretive
Center at Arcola, Illinois, tries to place in perspective.
The state's largest Old Order Amish settlement around Arthur,
Illinois, has attracted increased interest to the area with the
advent of the "Amish Tourism Industry." This industry's
treatment of the history and culture of the Amish, here as in
many other states, often is characterized by banal, disrespectful,
and utterly erroneous presentations. One example of this is the
depiction of barns with hex signs painted on them; such decoration
has never been an accepted part of Amish farmsteads in Illinois
or anywhere else.
Another example is a listing of mangled English phrases offered
to tourists in this community as typical of the Amish. Contrary
to the stereotype which this sort of misrepresentation perpetuates,
linguists have long been impressed with the excellent command
of English exhibited by the Amish. They have commented on the
Amish pattern of bringing phrases from their second language
(English) into their primary language (Pennsylvania Dutch) while
refraining from transporting phrases from their primary language
into the English, as do some groups.
Ironically, one of the earliest written references to the Illinois
Amish, written ten years after their arrival at Arcola, addressed
this very issue. The author, Henry Niles, a Douglas County historian,
generously opined in 1875 that their English was as good as his
own, and "in the dark one would never suspect the presence
of a German speaking person." This is hardly the stuff of
restaurant place mat ridicule.
Those examples, as insulting to the Amish as they are confusing
to visitors, exist because no one in the community had organized
to present a more accurate picture. Because many visitors sincerely
desire an educational experience that includes some connection
with Amish history and culture presented in a respectful milieu
rather than through the sugary caricatures presented in most
tourist brochures, the Illinois Amish Interpretive Center was
To distinguish our efforts from the ubiquitous hucksterism found
attendant to most Amish settlements, four businessmen-organizers,
Chris Helmuth, J. B. Helmuth, Fred Helmuth and I, established
a not for profit corporation in 1994 to provide the following
combination of services to both the Amish and the nonAmish:
· Provide a series of permanent exhibits to relate the
European history of the Anabaptist/Amish movement
· Relate the history of the Arthur Amish settlement from
its 1865 beginnings
· Preserve historically significant artifacts from the
· Provide an exhibition area that will help attract traveling
exhibits in some way related to the subject of the Anabaptist/Amish
We leased a 1916-era former Ford garage, containing 10,000square
feet in downtown Arcola. We hired Stan Kaufman, a design consultant
of Berlin, Ohio, to develop the interior plan, find the artifacts,
do the research, design exhibits conveying the content of his
research, and to oversee exhibit installation. Work commenced
in March of 1996. The facility opened on November 8, 1996, with
the expectation that exhibits would be completed by May 1, 1997.
This sounds far less interesting than the actual events turned
out to be.
We organizers were all fully engaged in running our own businesses.
We imagined that by working through the not-for-profit corporation
we could accomplish our goals, while avoiding the complexities
and problems of a community-based museum association, such as
lengthy committee meetings (while consensus was sought on every
question, mundane or profound), political infighting (over whose
heirlooms were appropriate for display), and interminable delays
(while volunteers dithered over their assignments).
We were surprised on several counts. Hiring an experienced consultant
may have saved committee meeting time, but not time overall.
The consultant debated for hours with himself over such issues
as the shade of gray for the baseboard trim and the shape of
the baseboard itself! Political infighting was avoided. Instead,
the increasingly enthusiastic organizers spent hours visiting
with the consultant, distracting him from his assignments, and
ultimately creating a problem worse than infighting in delaying
completion of the exhibits! (I was a major culprit.) In the rush
toward completion, the designer hired assistants, whose monthly
stipends caused increasing consternation for the organizers.
Searching for Facts and Artifacts
In the absence of a local historical society, we were apprehensive
as to the availability of a large selection of artifacts. Consultant
Stan Kaufman conducted the search for artifacts with the bemused
assistance of several of the retired Amish, who introduced him
to residents of the community's oldest homesteads. Amazing articles
were discovered, such as the following:
A suit (Mutzi) from the 1880s
The Amish typically recycled their older clothing into scraps
for carpeting, and so forth, but this suit happened to survive.
After its wearer, minister Daniel Schrock, died from a fall off
a railroad trestle while in Kansas on church business in 1890,
his family saved it for sentimental reasons. The trousers were
laced up in the rear, possibly indicating that suspenders had
not been approved for this community in 1890. The coat is cut
in almost a swallow tail style, which is a surprise to many local
Amish, who are unaware of this tradition. Textile historians
are interested in the suit's unique coarse gabardine fabric.
We also found a secretary bookcase made by Daniel Schrock.
A business ledger
This ledger was kept by Daniel D. Otto (1831-1908),
one of the founders of the 1865 settlement, surfaced in Kokomo,
Indiana. Its entries from 1857 to 1893 revealed much about life
in Pennsylvania before the move to Illinois: the cost of hiring
help to pick rocks out of fields; means by which to gain off-farm
income, e.g., digging and hauling coal, carpentry work, dealing
in dry goods, hiring out unmarried minors at twelve-and-one-half
cents per day during harvest. It names some forty individuals
with whom Otto carried debit or credit balances, and indicates
how the balances were incurred. Strangely, no entries could be
connected to preparations for the move to Illinois. The ledger
simply resumes thirty days after arrival in Illinois with a listing
of meals provided for and charged to Mose Yoder and his sons.
A compilation of 110 letters
The letters were sent by Andrew Diener (1860-1943),
to his sister in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, from 1885 to 1938,
and provided narratives of daily life. Diener, single in 1885,
left Lancaster, stayed in Ohio for a few months, and then worked
his way across the continent, eventually arriving in Oregon in
1890. Whimsical observations about his fellow Amish travelers
included: "Minister Dan Beachy said to Chris Gingerich (who
was demonstrating a handstand on a train traveling sixty miles
per hour), `That's not very Christlich.'"
These letters provided the astonishing news that up to thirty
to forty single Amish boys would travel to Illinois from the
East to help the twenty to twenty-five Amish families living
in Douglas County by the 1880s with the fall harvest. Not so
astonishing were the notes that many of the boys, including Diener,
fell in love with girls in the community--sometimes the hired
girl or a daughter of the host family--married and stayed in
Each of Diener's letters opened with a devotional salutation
and closed with a request for prayers. In them he told of the
weather, the latest crop prices, loan arrangements by Eastern
Amish to Amish in Illinois, and health problems among the Amish
in the community. There were no self-revelations, no references
to the wider turmoil within the Amish Mennonite Church, and no
allusions to the still nascent aversion to technology which was
to become such a dominant part of their culture after the turn
of the century.
A Froschauer Bible
This Bible may be the most significant discovery. Dated 1586,
it is in average condition and has pictorial decoration characteristic
of the work of printers of Zurich, Switzerland. It is an unusually
small size, approximately eight inches by fourteen inches. It's
provenance is traceable only to the Esch family known to have
resided in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, in the 1830s.
A six-board blanket chest
This artifact was brought to the area in 1865 by original
settler Daniel D. Otto. Its rather primitive workmanship contrasts
sharply with that found in a blanket chest brought by Daniel
P. Miller, another of the pioneer families,. That chest, constructed
in the Soap Hollow style and excellently crafted and stenciled,
is a significant early example of skill in the wood-working crafts
which so dominate Amish off-farm income sources today.
A rope bed
This bed, covered with the original milk paint, dates from
the 1840s.. Assuring us that there was absolutely nothing of
historical interest left in his attic, the owner had been kind
enough to let us look anyway. There it was!
A rare quilt
Dated 1881, this quilt is among the earliest known to have
been made by the Amish, who began borrowing this art form from
their neighbors in the mid 1800s. Even more unusual is the placement
of the creators' names in the stitching! Interestingly, the provenance
of many of the items we found was well established because of
the traditional Amish interest in genealogy. Despite the interest
in genealogy, often there is little sentimental interest in retaining
heirlooms. As a result, many artifacts have been lost from the
community through estate sales, sometimes because the heirs were
curious about the value of such items. The Interpretive Center
hopes to kindle interest in retaining artifacts within the community.
Rounding Out the Characters
We continually reminded the exhibit designer that although the
didactic approach--lots of text in small type, dense explorations
of theological themes, and abstract discussions of distinctions
without purpose--may be important to historians, and is one method
of imparting knowledge, the Interpretive Center is also partly
in the entertainment business. We wanted an insightful look at
a few specific areas, with subjects chosen, in part, because
of the ease with which they could be visually displayed. To that
end, we profiled some of the following personalities involved
in the early days of the settlement:
Bishop Joel Beachy
From Grantsville, Maryland, Beachy scouted the area with
Mose Yoder in 1864, advised that a settlement be started, but
never moved here himself. He loaned funds to many of the settlers,
bought a half section of land and subdivided it for resale, and
provided for his son Daniel to move his family in 1870. Daniel
became the area's senior bishop, serving until his death in 1938.
Unfortunately, little oral tradition remains about Joel, although
his influence was probably the most important factor in the establishment
of today's Old Order Amish settlement at Arthur.
Joel Beachy's generosity is still recalled around Grantsville,
where he lived out his life. It is said that anyone coming to
seek financial assistance when visitors were present was asked
to return the next day. If Beachy was alone when the supplicant
returned, Beachy would ask simply, "How much?" as he
opened a secret compartment in his ceiling. His devotion to the
ministry is cited in the tale of his stopping overnight at an
inn occupied by several drunken travelers on a trip between his
Maryland home and Holmes County, Ohio. When mockingly asked for
a sermon, he obliged and continued until his tormentors were
Allan Campbell (1809-1875)
Campbell owned much of the land in the area known as West
Prairie where the Amish settled. Because of its poor drainage,
Campbell acquired over 3,000 acres for as little as twenty-five
cents an acre during the fifteen years before the Amish arrived.
He sold some of the land for seven and eight dollars per acre
to the Amish settlers. Where Campbell had grazed cattle on unfenced
land, the Amish soon installed drainage tile, produced multiple
crops, and erected large homesteads.
As owner of the only ferry across the Kaskasia River, Campbell
was in a unique position, not only to sell land to immigrants
carrying large amounts of cash, but to rob and murder them as
well. He was accused of this in oral traditions extant among
the Amish today. Imagine our surprise in discovering a 1983 tape
recording by Campbell's eighty-nine-year-old grandson in which
he, with a chuckle, verified the tradition.
Campbell's tape recording also recalled cattle drives to Chicago,
which his grandfather organized, before the coming of the Illinois
Central Railroad in 1855. The phenomenal growth of Chicago may
have been responsible, in part, for the generally excellent prices
Amish farmers received for produce and cattle after 1865.
The colorful personality of this Amish pioneer is preserved
in local oral tradition. After walking from Pennsylvania to Illinois
in the 1860s to look things over, he decided to make the move.
Ignoring the excellent rail connections, he walked back to Pennsylvania,
sold his possessions, sewed his money into the linings of his
most ragged clothing, and walked all the way back to Illinois.
As an old man in the 1920s, he was still a husky, robust figure.
Orba Helmuth (1915- ) recalls Miller's opinion that if Jack Dempsy
would just come to Arthur, he could "still show him a thing
or two." The sight of a bearded Amishman climbing into the
ring with the legendary prize fighter undoubtedly would have
sold many tickets!
Isaac and Susanna Wefly
In March of 1865 these nonAmish honeymooners, rode the train
with a party of 24 immigrants: the first three Amish families
to arrive in Illinois. The Weflys wrote an account of their trip,
something none of the Amish families seem to have done. That
account was recently uncovered and used by the Wefly's grandson
in writing a paper for course work at Illinois State University.
He wrote that his grandparents helped the 24 Amish folks unload
their cattle and farm equipment when the train arrived at Arcola,
and that the hotel operator appeared reluctant to rent rooms
to this strange group until Wefly intervened.
The next day, March 4, 1865, the group struggled to the West
Prairie through mud so deep that the wheel hubs were dragging.
The Weflys then struck off for Bement, eighteen miles northwest,
visited relatives, and decided to stay in the area. The discovery
of their account is our best glimpse of the settlers' first impressions
of the Prairie.
One year after beginning this adventure, the organizers are considerably
wiser and somewhat chastened. The goal of an interpretive center
that gives more than the superficial tourists' interests in buggies,
quilts, and barns may have been achieved. On the other hand,
the designer insisted that the first exhibits one views upon
entering the Center should feature those three items "because
that is what the tourists are interested in."
We sought to respect the Amish aversion to photographers in our
introductory video. In a permanent exhibit, however, visitors
see a large photo featuring a group of women, one of whom is
looking directly into the camera. She is clearly unhappy at the
intrusion of the photographer.
We wanted to represent quality works of art in our gift shop,
yet some of the paintings border on kitsch. Some of the best
information on the Amish is found in books, many of which also
contain photos clearly taken surreptitiously, and probably published
without the subjects' consent. We proudly market Steve Nolt's
book, The History of the Amish, and John Ruth's video,
The Amish, A People of Preservation. But we wonder whether
by providing a market place, we also encourage authors and producers
whose works vary between the awful and the truly awful.
We wanted a well-researched history of the Arthur community to
be the dramatic focal point of the Center, but the cursory look
we offer is based on only three or four well-known, previously
published sources. There was no survey of early newspapers, no
search of court house records, nor any systematic interviewing
of the four or five nonagenerial residents of the community who
had direct contact with some of the early settlers. Perhaps we
are being naïve in believing so much could be delivered
in so short a time.
On the other hand, visitors to the Center are generally complimentary.
Many of their questions about Amish life are addressed, the floor
plan is unique, the text is professionally mounted, the track
lighting provides a professional atmosphere, and the video is
conducted in a narrative style in keeping with the subject. Over
time, the exhibits can be expanded and upgraded.
Having ventured into the "Amish Tourism industry" with
a certain squeamishness, we await the verdict of time. Will we
have provided a meaningful alternative to souvenir and T-shirt
shops, or will the success of this venture only speed the drift
towards a Disney World-like neighborhood and bumper-to-bumper
Winnebagos on country roads further intruding into the daily
life of the Amish? Will we preempt future eyesores such as reptile
farms, go-cart tracks and haunted houses, or will we simply attract
them, along with ever more outrageously dressed tourists? Will
the Amish develop a deeper appreciation for the value of their
family heirlooms, or will we simply draw more of the suave quilt
pickers who canvas door to door for our community's heritage
quilts and remove them to New York, having paid only a fraction
of their true worth?
Our hope is that future historians would succeed in unraveling
these questions, and that our experience would be a good resource
--Wilmer Otto is an adventurer-entrepreneur from Arcola, Illinois.
This article is reprinted with permission from Illinois
Mennonite Heritage, where it was first published, June 1997.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July 1997