This is chapter 1 of Emma: A Widow Among the Amish. Copyright (C) 2007 by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA, 15683. All rights reserved.
Emma Stutzman plied her hoe between two rows of peas in her large garden patch. The black soil warmed her bare feet as she chopped at the small weeds poking their way into the May sunlight. “Ich hasse die Rewwer Bodde Grund. I hate this river bottom soil,” she mumbled to herself in Pennsylvania German as she pushed back a strand of brown hair from her forehead. “It must have been too wet when we plowed it.” She whacked at a large clod with her hoe. “The ground back home isn’t hard like this.”
The Stutzman’s dwelling lay not far from the English River that ran through Kalona, Iowa. The rich gumbo soil on the flood plain was easy enough to till when there was adequate rain. But when it was dry, hoeing could be like whacking at a rubber tractor tire. In contrast, the soil in Emma’s native Kansas was sandy and light.
Emma straightened up to survey her vegetables. She couldn’t really complain about the way things were growing. The corn was pushing up shoots to join company with long rows of carrots, beans, and potatoes.
“It’s time to get these tomatoes staked,” she said aloud to herself. She made her way to the storage shed and found a dozen collapsible tomato racks that her husband, Tobe, had fabricated in his metal shop. She unfolded them and pushed the four-cornered wire supports into the soil around the foot-high tomato plants.
“And I must dust these potatoes,” Emma lamented as she looked at the leafy vegetation. “Those potato bugs will soon take over.”
“If it weren’t for this garden,” Emma mused, “I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to put food on the table. We just don’t have the cash. But I must buy potatoes. There are none left in the cellar. It’ll be more than a month before these are ready to dig.”
She took a break from hoeing to harvest several handfuls of radishes and onions. Then she cut off two heads of lettuce and put them in her dishpan with the other cuttings. These would make the salad for Sunday dinner.
Not since the Depression years could Emma remember thinking so much about money. It was a constant worry. Emma’s seven siblings seemed to be doing well. Three years earlier, in 1953, each of them had received an inheritance—a choice of forty acres of land or the same value in cash. But to keep Tobe from getting his desperate hands on Emma’s inheritance, Emma’s father deeded it to her younger brother Raymond Nisly. Raymond lived on the home farm next to Emma’s promised forty acres in Kansas, so he agreed to farm Emma’s promised acreage in return for a share of the crop.
Emma hoped that she and Tobe would be able to pass on an inheritance to their children. But at the rate things were going now, they would only pass on a debt. After having grown up to believe that one should avoid debt whenever possible, she felt deeply shamed by her husband’s recent bankruptcy proceedings.
Money problems didn’t seem to bother Tobe in the same way. Even through the legal process, he’d expressed optimism. Not long after he lost the ownership of Kalona Products Company in May of 1955, he started a new business. With the financial sponsorship of an Amish neighbor named Harvey Bender, Tobe built a thirty-by-fifty foot block building for a manufacturing shop. As a member of the creditors’ committee of the bankrupt business, Harvey helped Tobe equip the new shop and get started.
Not long afterward, Tobe talked Harvey into letting him build thirty-by-thirty-six-foot living quarters onto the end of the shop. Harvey agreed to put up the money, and Tobe supplied most of the labor. All this happened after Harvey had lost parts of four fingers in the shop’s metal punch press. Emma marveled at the man’s trust and generosity.
Emma didn’t enjoy living in an unfinished house, but she consoled herself that it would soon be done. Perhaps even this week, Tobe would finish laying the linoleum in the kitchen. And he had promised he would put up the ceiling and install the inside doors soon. Until then, she’d need to be content to look up at the rafters. And she would manage with privacy curtains in the doorways.
Sometimes Emma felt a bit guilty about expecting Tobe to get things done on the house when he desperately needed to get his work done in the shop. If the metal parts weren’t fabricated, they couldn’t be sold. And if Tobe didn’t have time to make his sales calls, he wouldn’t get the orders he needed.
Emma had never met anyone who matched Tobe’s energy and drive. He built the business at the same time that he was building the house. Between shop management, sales trips, and house construction, Tobe was busy from early morning till late at night. The children and Emma helped in the shop whenever they could. On most days, the three older children worked in the shop after school. At urgent times, Tobe kept them home on school days to help get products out the door. At this point, he couldn’t afford full-time employees.
Emma wondered if life would ever be normal in the Stutzman household. Would Tobe ever be content to live like other people? Would he settle for a regular job with a steady income and a relaxed family life? At times she felt like she was riding in a buggy hitched to an ill-tamed horse.
After Tobe had dragged the family from Kansas to Iowa in 1951 to take up metal fabricating, Emma had hinted to him that someone else might better manage the shop finances. She’d suggested that he pay more attention to the counsel of his investors. She’d urged him to pay back his outstanding loans before borrowing even more. In the end, he hadn’t paid much attention to her suggestions—as though to say that women didn’t understand business.
How Emma longed for Tobe to change his course now, in the face of the deepening debt! Why couldn’t he be content to be a farmer like her brothers back in Kansas, or to take on a day job with an hourly wage? What was she to do when he gave no heed to her counsel? She sensed that Tobe was driven by a compelling ambition that she could not fully comprehend.
Emma worried that if the business didn’t turn around soon, they could lose their right to stay in the house. She shuddered to recall their eviction from a property in July 1954, when they couldn’t come up with the balloon mortgage payment. Emma never could have imagined that she’d have to sign legal papers delivered by a sheriff.
The family had moved five times since coming to Iowa from Kansas five years ago. Most of the landowners gave them cheap rent or allowed them to pay with some kind of work. But moving frequently meant that it was difficult to develop a really productive garden. There was no time to build up the soil or get plants like asparagus growing. It also meant that the children had attended three different country schools—Prairie Dale, Evergreen, and Pleasant Hill—and finally the town school in Kalona. At least Mary Edna was out of school now, having finished the eighth grade just last Tuesday.
Since participation in the Amish church districts depended on one’s place of residence, their moves had also meant a change in church attendance. Each district had its own different bishop, with his idiosyncrasies and differing ways of interpreting the Ordnung, or church discipline, the guidelines for Christian conduct. Emma felt rootless, numbed by transplant shock. She wished they could live back home in the house they had built in Kansas.
Tobe felt differently. As long as they had a roof overhead, he was satisfied. And he was always optimistic that things would eventually turn out for the better. Rather than argue or try to change her husband of fifteen years, Emma determined to concentrate on keeping food on the table. Even though Tobe at times lost money by the shovelful, she would do her part to save by the spoonful. “That’s where a good garden makes all the difference,” she mused as she leaned her hoe against the garden fence and walked toward the house, with her vegetables in hand.
Emma put the vegetables onto the kitchen counter and stepped into the living room, where Mary Edna was ironing. The three-year-old twins, Ervin and Erma, were playing on the floor nearby. Eight-year-old Edith, slowed by a mental handicap, was mumbling to herself in a nearby chair. “Thanks for watching the children,” Emma said to Mary Edna. “It’s good to have you home from school.”
“Dad says he wants me to help the boys weld up some hangers today,” Mary Edna replied. “I’ll do that as soon as I get done with this ironing.”
Emma washed and trimmed the vegetables and put them into the refrigerator. Then she stepped into the shop, where Perry and Glenn were working. “What are you working on?” she asked.
“Dad asked us to weld up these seven bundles of steel while he went to town,” Perry said. Although Perry was only going into the eighth grade, he stood much taller than Emma’s five-foot, two-inch frame. With the way he was growing, Emma expected that he would reach the six-foot, one-inch height of his dad before long.
Glenn was about sixteen months younger, shorter, and less stocky than his older brother. And he found it more difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. At least the boys were out of school for the summer now, so they wouldn’t have to miss classes to get the shop work done.
Emma surveyed the shop with its saw, press, bender, roller, welder, and other heavy tools. She was amazed that Tobe had managed to assemble all of this equipment so soon after losing everything in the bankruptcy case. During his trips to Chicago and elsewhere, he often took the opportunity to buy good used equipment. Although Harvey Bender owned the things now, Tobe expected to pay for them when he got back on his feet.
She glanced at the stock of tin hog feeders and feed scoops that Tobe had recently made. Soon, she hoped, they could be sold for a bit of income.
Emma was preparing supper when Tobe got back to the shop. He helped finish the last of the bending and welding for the day, filling an order for hangers from a company in the nearby town of Fairfield. The Fairfield company used the hangers to make garment bags for closet storage. The bags were large enough to protect a dozen full-sized garments.
As soon as the quota of hangers was finished for that day, Tobe worked on his latest idea, a rack to display gloves for retail sales. He called Emma into the shop as he put the finishing touches on the prototype. “I’m going to take this with me the next time I go to Chicago,” he said. “I’ve been to a lot of places that could use a better way to display their gloves.”
Emma nodded politely and then went back into the house. More than anything else, Tobe loved to exercise his inventive mind by creating new products. If the buyers were as excited as he, the new shop would soon turn a profit. But Emma wasn’t convinced that would happen anytime soon.