Nebraska Amish Settlement Revisited
by John E. Sharp
The windmill is a lone sentinel of an extinct Old Order Amish
settlement in Gosper County, Nebraska. It turns in the wind on
the former property of Bishop Yost H. Yoder, whose sudden death
in 1901 closed the door on this 24-year dream to establish a
church "without spot or wrinkle" on the Great Plains.
The first settlers, in 1880, were nine Yoder families from
Juniata County, Pennsylvania, led by Bishop Yost H. Yoder (1843-1901).
Others came and some left, but the settlement never grew much
larger than a dozen families. There were years of sufficient
rainfall and good harvests, but drought and a depressed economy
had a devastating effect on the transplanted Pennsylvania farmers.
Eventually, by 1904, all the families had scattered to various
other settlements, including Mifflin County, Pennsylvania.
I visited there, camera in hand, in September 1999. The homesteads
of the Amish were gone. In their place were acres of lush irrigated
corn. Corn like this grew only in the hopes and dreams of the
former Amish farmers. The only structure left to mark a homestead
was the windmill. The cemetery was well hidden by the tall corn
and weeds, though it was marked by a weathered wooden sign. The
sign had been crafted by a boy from a neighboring farm who earned
his Eagle Boy Scout award by caring for the cemetery. Now the
half dozen gravestones were nearly lost in the uncut grass.
I found the gravestone of Bishop Yost H. Yoder. I remembered
that it was he for whom the "Nebraska Amish" in my
home community in the Kishacoquillas Valley of Mifflin County,
Pennsylvania had been named. In 1881 Yoder had been called there
to help organize a dissenting Old Order group. Because Yoder
was living in Nebraska at the time, the group was nicknamed the
"Nebraska Amish," a name still used to designate this
most traditional of all Old Order Amish groups.
I wondered whether anyone in the neighborhood still remembered
that this Amish settlement had existed. I was pleasantly surprised
to discover neighbors who did, indeed, remember. I found Janet
Renken, a schoolteacher, and mother of the Boy Scout caretaker,
who has a deep interest in this community's history. From her
files she retrieved a hand-drawn map of the former Amish landowners
located within the square mile that she and her husband owned
and farmed. She had newspaper accounts of the Amish settlement
and the names of various Amish families from Mifflin County,
Pennsylvania, who had visited the cemetery in recent years. They
usually left a bit of money for the upkeep of the cemetery. She
directed me to another neighbor, Caroline Langenberg, who had
also, on occasion, received Pennsylvania pilgrims, looking for
the cemetery of their ancestors. And I recognized the names,
some of whom had been my neighbors in the Kishacoquillas Valley.
Behind Caroline's house stood a schoolhouse that had been used
by the Amish, and since had been moved to her farm to shelter,
not scholars, but farm tools.
I drank coffee in Bertrand, the little village of 300 across
the Phelps County line. Bertrand was the post office that served
the Amish after the coming of the railroad. I thought of Abe
Yoder, Sr., a neighbor and friend of my grandfather, who wrote
about growing up in this south central Nebraska settlement. He
wrote about their sod house, prairie fires, the dry years, the
good years, the grasshoppers, leaving home, riding the train
to Mifflin County where he married and raised his family, and
his later visit with former neighbors in Gosper County. They
were all good years, even the tough times. But then, Abe Yoder
would think so. I remember him as congenial and optimistic. He
would admit that the settlement failed, but I doubt he would
think of it as futile. Of course, they had discovered some spots
and wrinkles of their own. Perhaps the most contentious wrinkle
was the marriage of two young people despite of the disapproval
of the bride's parents. This flaunting of the parents' authority
and the resulting dissension was more than the small community
could bear. At least that's how one descendant of the disapproving
parents remembered it. But then, Abe Yoder, would be the first
to say that the Gosper County settlement was not unique in discovering
its spots and wrinkles. Nor is this the only short-lived settlement,
as David Luthy makes apparent in his volume on extinct Amish
Despite the demise of this settlement, I'm sure Abe Yoder,
who died in 1968, would be well pleased to know that the rather
tenacious Amish impulse to create visible spiritual communities
continues in many places beyond Gosper County, Nebraska.
John E. Sharp has been editor of the Mennonite
Historical Bulletin and director of the Historical Committee
of the Mennonite Church since 1995.
For more on this settlement see:
Hostetler, John A., "The Amish in Gosper County, Nebraska,"
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, October 1949, p. 1-2.
Kauffman, S. Duane, Mifflin County Amish and Mennonite Story,
1791-1991 (Mifflin County Mennonite Historical Society, 1991)
Luthy, David, The Amish in America: Settlements that Failed (Aylmer,
Ont. and LaGrange, Ind., 1986), pp. 271-276.
Yoder, Abraham S., Sr., My Life Story, 1963, reprinted 1999.
Available from Abraham S. Yoder, Jr., Belleville, PA. 17004.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, January 2000