Tuesday, April 28, 2015

MOP April 28--Hunting Our History

We just might have found the place where my grandma jumped off the train.

We called both of our grandmas "Mommi" to their faces, but Dad's mom was Kansas Mommi when we spoke of her, and Mom's was Iowa Mommi.

This story is about Iowa Mommi, Anna on legal documents but always known by the Germanized "Ennie," and when she married Adam she was Adam-Ennie til she died, and long after, too--just a few months ago someone "placed" me by being told I was Adam-Ennie's granddaughter.

Mommi's dad was David Schlabach, an Amish bishop, married to Sarah.  David loved to move from one place to another all over the country, buy farm equipment and rent it out and, apparently, have children.  16 of them, my book says, 14 of whom survived to adulthood.

The family lived in Oregon from 1909 to 1912.  Oregon is a long way from other Anabaptist population centers now, and back then it must have seemed as far off as the moon.

Three years wasn't that long, but certainly long enough to equate Oregon with the Garden of Eden in Mommi's mind, for ever after.

She would have been about 19 when they came to Oregon, and 22 when they left.

In our Midwestern farmhouse she would reminisce about the fruit in Oregon.  Ooooh, it was just so wunderbar, apples and cherries growing right in your backyard, free for the taking.  Blackberries in the woods, strawberries in the fields, and everything so nice and big and delicious.

Oregon was beautiful, too, and you could see Mt. Hood.  Ach my, was there anything as wunderbar shae as Mt. Hood?  Mommi would take her spoon, push her mashed potatoes or her ice cream into a careful mound, and then swipe upwards with the back of her spoon and form the mound into a perfect cone.  "That's Mt. Hood," she would grin, and then she would eat.

We were Midwestern kids, used to hard winters and flat horizons and soybean fields and expensive fresh fruit that was often trucked in from Michigan.

I remember trying to imagine mountains in general and Mt. Hood in particular, picturing numerous upended cones, all snow-capped.  But truthfully, we couldn't comprehend Oregon or its wonders or its iconic status in Grandma's memories.

Then, strangely, I ended up living in Oregon, years after Mommi had died.  And I just now did the math for the first time ever and realized that she and I were both 19 years old when we first arrived.  Except that she came on the train and I flew, and as the plane descended toward Portland, a gigantic snow-covered mountain loomed off to the left, level with my window, more massive than any earthly object could possibly be, and the pilot said it's Mt. Hood, and it was almost a spiritual moment to see Mt. Hood, come to life from Grandma's plate and memories, before my astonished eyes.

Oh wait, I was going to tell you about Mommi's adventure with the train.  This is what happens when I get started with family stories--my train of thought gets derailed and I go off over the countryside like Tootle the Train, chasing butterflies.

Mommi was the third oldest of the family.  She used to reel off their names--Noy, Ketty, Ennie, Sussann, Dafe, Vina, all the way to the end.  In English, those six were Noah, Katie, Anna, Susan, David, and Lovina.

The three oldest girls were apparently best friends and workmates and partners in crime and at times the determined and resourceful lifeboat that kept the family afloat, such as when they picked cherries in the back yard and took them to Portland to sell.  They wouldn't sell, though, because the housewives wanted to know what kind they were, and the girls didn't know.  So they had a little consultation and decided to call them Black Pippins.  After that they sold them all.
I love this picture of  Katie, Susan, and Dave's wife. Unfortunately, my grandma isn't on this shot.
I'm amazed at how different these girls look from the Amish today.  Those oddly-shaped kapps, and big bows!
Among their many adventures was going to Portland on the train every week to work as maids. All the employers were wealthy people--a Judge Shields, for example, and someone called H. Wise Jones.  Or maybe it was H.Y.S. Jones.  They always said it so fast, says my aunt Vina--HWeissChones.

Recently I visited Vina in Iowa, and her cousin Leona, who had lived in Oregon in recent years, was also at Vina's for dinner.

They recalled the story of the train.  The three girls used to get off the train at Whiteson, a few miles from home, after their week in Portland.  However, the train, heading south, would actually pass by their house before they got to Whiteson, and it seemed a shame that they couldn't get off closer to home.

They got an idea.  A mile or two north of Whiteson, the train always slowed down to go around a curve and then over a bridge.  If they did it right, they could jump off when the train slowed down and then walk home.

So on their next trip home, they were ready.  The train slowed down for the curve, and one by one they leaped off.  Unfortunately, it wasn't as easy or safe as they expected, and Sussann barely made it off before the train started over the bridge.

The next time they got on the train, presumably the following Monday, the conductor sternly told them to NEVER EVER try anything that foolish again.

So they didn't, but their zest for life never diminished, which is why Mommi would go out by the pig shed and hoe thistles when she was 86 years old.

I'm not sure why, in all my years in Oregon, I never tried to look up where the family had lived, probably because it was an hour and a half away and I had no idea where to start looking or even what I was looking for.

Then someone gave me a little booklet called The Amish of Amity.  It tells the history of the Amish community and includes maps and directions on driving to and through the 4-mile-square area where the Amish lived, and which of their houses are still standing, and so on.

Unfortunately, it doesn't say a word about where the Schlabachs lived.

Recently my brother Phil moved to Newberg, which isn't far from Amity, and last Saturday we spent a few hours with him and decided to see if we could find the old Schlabach place and the place where the girls jumped off the train.

I didn't have much for clues.

The little booklet, as I said, told me the general area but not the specifics of their farm.

Phil remembered that Mom took him to see the area some 20 years ago, and at that time the original farm was a golf course.

And of course, I had the clues of railroad tracks, a curve, and a bridge.

So with Paul driving, me reading directions, and Phil in the back seat, we headed south on 99W near McMinnville, headed for Whiteson.  Our first stop was supposed to be Trestle View Lane, which would give us a good view of the old railroad trestle.  This seemed like a Clue.  Surely it couldn't be far away.

Shortly before we got there, we passed a golf course!  What?  Was it the same one, and how could it be so easy that we'd find it first, without even trying?

So we nosed around the countryside, stopping at the golf course and Trestle View Lane, where we could see the railroad bridge over the deep ravine of the Yamhill River, and the long wooden trestle sloping to the south.  Then we took a back lane through the field across from the golf course, hoping to get closer to the tracks to verify the geography there.
If this was the view that my grandma saw every day, minus the pickup trucks, it's no wonder
she thought Oregon was next thing to Heaven.
Suddenly, there we were, ON the tracks, since they glide quietly right through the field and aren't up on a big ridge of gravel.

We looked south, and yes, there was a slight curve, but it didn't seem like enough to make a train slow down enough to jump off.
Me and my brother Phil, with the curve in the tracks behind us.
But the other details fit, such as the bridge, which was very bare and very high, and I shuddered to think of Great-Aunt Sussann barely making it off before the train rumbled away above that deep ravine.
You really don't want to fall off that edge.
Some of the ties looked like they could be a hundred years old.

It was a Special Moment.  Not quite as amazing as seeing Mt. Hood for the first time, but still very special.

Of course, there were absolutely no doubts that Mt. Hood was the same mountain Mommi had seen, and I wasn't so positive about the tracks.

But never mind.  It was somewhere close, if not right here.

We moseyed on, down Hook and Eye Lane, past lush farmland that once belonged to Amish families, and on to the little town of Whiteson, where the two railroad tracks still come together, and where the girls probably boarded the train on many dark, rainy Monday mornings.
A--the golf course and probably the original Schlabach place. B--the site of the Leap Off the Train  C--the railroad junction at Whiteson
Then we went back to Newberg and dropped Phil off, and went home, and I hope I am wise enough not to jump off a train, but I also hope I have some of that spunk and adventure still bubbling in my veins.

The Amish cemetery.

The long trestle in the distance.  And I have no idea what kind of trees those are.

The Weirich house.

Whiteson, where two tracks merged and where the girls got off the train, except for that one time.
Quote of the Day:
Me: This post is taking me a long time.
Jenny: And you just want to make all these motions with your hands and put them into the blog post and you can't and it's so annoying!
Me: Exactly!!


  1. I LOVED this one!!! And I always did wonder what happened to that community in Amity. Did they go back so as not to be so isolated? Did they assimilate into the world around them? Die off??? I wish there was more history available...

  2. I love genealogy history! A couple of years ago when I was in Holmes County, Oh. where I grew up, my niece took us on a "tour" of where our maternal "grandfathers" were buried, plus gave some stories about them. It started with my 5x great grandfather, born in Germany in 1751. It was very interesting!

  3. Why are the ladies dresses so different than what Amish women wear today? Their dresses are so much more tighter/form fitting than what are worn now.

  4. Their dresses are very similar to what the Swartzentruber Amish still wear. The reason the bodice is so tight, with a cape tightly crossed in the front is to keep their boobs tied down. In other world they didn't wear the bra.

  5. I think I remember the funeral of this grandma. It was winter and the church was very full as everybody stood in line to view the casket. It certainly so out of the norm for a small girl like me that I remember to this day. "Who's in there?" I asked my auntie who was holding me. "Amos Sarah's Mom," she told me.

  6. This story is absolutely fascinating, Dorcas. I enjoy virtually all of your stories, but this one is especially delightful. I can understand why that train engineer "sternly" warned the girls never, ever again to jump off of that train! Your pictures are so vivid and the map so clear. As I went back to re-read your sleuthing details and study your map, I am certain that you have designated Point B correctly as the probable spot where the girls jumped off the train. How amazing is that! It just has to be the spot! No other interpretation would make sense.

    What I also want you to know is that this is the area where my husband and I live. If you drove through the little town of Whiteson ("little" is the key word here, right?) from your points A, B, and C on your way back to Newberg, you would have driven right by our house. Our house is located on Amity-Dayton Hwy, also known as Hwy 233. Your map shows Hwy 233 forming a triangle with the lower right corner of the map.

    So if you drove through Whiteson and continued along Whiteson Road, then turned left onto Hwy 233 as if headed to Dayton and eventually Newberg, you had to pass our house.

    It is located about two miles past Whiteson Road and is on the left, immediately after you make a very, very sharp left turn in Hwy 233. In fact, our little 7-acre "farm" is located right in that curve of the sharp turn and the house sits back from a horseshoe driveway lined with Coast Pine trees and a white rail fence. So next time you plan to visit your grandmother's old stomping grounds, let me know. I'd love to invite you in for a cup of tea.

    Once again, this was a very special post, and I hope you'll include this outing and your interesting findings about the family history in your next book.
    --Ruby Isaac

  7. Thanks so much for sharing your trip back into your family history. Since we moved to this area in 2013, I've been looking for information on the area history. I have the booklet "The Amish of Amity" but your post gave me a better picture of local life a century ago. We live at the end of Hook and Eye Lane (just over the railroad track on the Amity side) and I can see the Weirich house from my kitchen window. It's still the same vivid blue. The farmer who owns the land now (our neighbor)has quite a few of the Amish farming implements on display.