“Do you work on barns?” I shouted toward the three Amish men working on a roof in downtown Middleton. They were re-shingling a tall Victorian house on University Avenue, the main street. I needed a new barn roof. A friend had suggested I check out the Amish. Seeing them here, just three miles from our Ashton farm, felt like destiny.
While the two young men in the crew pounded in nails with single blows, the third, the eldest, delivered the bundles. From the top of his ladder he looked down. “We don’t do barns, but my nephew does. I can give you his cell phone number.”
“He has a cell phone?” I asked in surprise. The “he” would be John, and yes, John, an Amish man, had a cell. Though the Amish are steeped in strict centuries-old religious customs, they make modern concessions to make a living. John, who lives near Reedsburg, runs a small construction business that works throughout southern Wisconsin. He needs a phone.
Today was Thursday. When I called John, he said he would stop by Monday morning around 9. On Monday he was here with his driver promptly at 9.
(Click on images to enlarge.)
I believe John was the first Amish to step foot on Brabender Century Farm and the first that I had met. Years earlier I had sat next to two young Amish men at a busy breakfast counter in Brodhead, Wisconsin. We didn’t talk, but they bantered with a loud balding man across the counter.
“What do you know today?” bellowed the bald guy.
“Oh, not much,” the Amish next to me replied quietly.
“Well, maybe you’ll learn something today.”
“Well, I don’t think you’ll learn much from me,” said the Amish, as laughter broke out.
“A guy’s probably better off if he doesn’t know a whole hell of a lot,” came the reply. And so it went.
Like the Amish men at the café, John was young, about 30, with a beard, a sign he was married. But he had no mustache. Lip hair is considered vain in Amish culture. Since the weather was cool the day John arrived, he wore a stocking cap, not the straw hat that I had seen in Amish photos. He sported a homemade Amish blue jacket and trousers on his wiry-strong frame with store-bought suspenders, shirt, and work shoes.
As we started to chat, I realized how much John looked like my paternal grandfather, Hubert, whose wedding portrait hangs in my kitchen. Both were handsome, each with a slender face, Roman nose, thin lips, and piercing eyes. I smiled to think that my grandfather, a Catholic farmer who had died over 90 years ago, had returned for a visit, reincarnated as an Amish man.
John immediately set out to measure our barn roof. He propped a ladder against the hay barn wall and then extended it to its full 28-foot length. When he scaled to the top and then stretched so his measuring tape could reach all the way to the peak of our 40-foot barn, I had to look away. When I told him I could never climb like that because I feared heights, John said that was nothing. Wait until I see the climbing ability of the guys in his crew, he said.
“You mean they climb like monkeys?” I asked, immediately regretting what I had just said.
“Better than monkeys,” said John with a smile, no disrespect taken.
We had John’s hand-written estimate within a week. His price was so reasonable that I knew we would hire him, but first I had to check his references. A client named Adam said he had hired John to build a lean-to addition on his barn. “I’d recommend him in a heartbeat,” Adam told me over the phone. “He doesn’t piss around. The crew is there on time and they get right at it.” At Stewart’s place, John had put a new roof and siding on the house. Stewart said, “John knows what he’s doing. He’s a hard worker and makes his guys work hard. They don’t swear, they keep their shirts on, and they don’t play music. They just work.” At Patrick’s farm, John had built a 30 x 90 foot barn. “John’s awfully professional,” Patrick told me. “He’s really organized, meticulous, doesn’t waste anything. And John’s a really nice guy. You won’t go wrong.”
We hired John and his crew to remodel not only our barn, but also our milk house, silo room, shed, and granary, and to bird proof our barn and silo. They replaced the shingles on our house. They were always here on time. They never complained about the cold or the rain or the wind. Like Stewart said, they just worked.
When I asked John if I could take photos of his crew at work, he said sure, just no close-up portraits, please. One day at lunch I gave them a stack of 4 x 6 inch prints to look at as they ate their cheese and sausage sandwiches, apples, carrots, mounds of cookies, and thick slices of apple pie.
As they passed around the photos, silence gave way to chatter. Moses, 18, hazed his brother Freddy, 16, for the way he appeared in a couple of photos. In return, Freddy made comments about Moses. But they saved their biggest digs for John, especially when they saw a photo of John sitting on the grass while talking on his cell phone. “Yeah, we do all the work while you do all the talking,” Freddy teased John. John had the last laugh: “Well, I’m the boss,” he said with a grin.
I’m not sure they kept my photos because the Amish believe that images of one self are also vain. But I still send a farm photo to John each Christmas as thanks for his fine work here. I won’t stop until he tells me to.
We had John and his Amish crews back for work so often that we have become friends. They’ve invited me to their homes for breakfasts and fish fries, fund-raisers for Amish who need help paying medical bills.
When John built a variety store on his 40-acre farm, he asked me to take photos of his products and create an insert for a shopper that goes to Amish businesses and families throughout Wisconsin and to many in Minnesota – 5,000 copies in all.
The ads in the shopper confirmed my admiration for these hardworking, humble, and honest people.
In the horse ads, an Amish named Ben said his Morgan mare “would make a scholar’s horse, but is a slower traveler.” Daniel said his Percheron workhorse was “not the best traveler because a scar on her hip shortens her step a little. We used her some through town, but she shies from traffic on small roads.” Joe gave this reason for selling his Belgian quarter horse: “Too rambunctious for a produce farmer.”
In the cow ads, a young Holstein “would make a good family cow, but can’t be in pasture with other cows. Will suck them.”
In the house ware ads, a Kitchen Queen cook stove in fair condition was for sale, but beware: “Oven didn’t bake well from day one.”
In the “Notices” section, Andy wrote: “Whoever got a free handyman jack, would you send it back or pay $73.50 for it, as it was put on the wrong pickup on Wednesday at Neillsville Machinery Sale. Thanks.” Levi paid for a notice looking for someone who had left a big suit coat hanging on his wash line after a recent funeral. “If it’s yours,” he wrote, “contact me.” Henry encouraged everyone to contribute to a “money shower” to help a family pay hospital and doctor bills for their three “special children. So let’s help them with $10 or whatever you wish.”
And boxed at the bottom of page 10 was this Amish bit of wisdom: “Poverty is not dishonorable itself; but only when it comes from idleness, intemperance, extravagance, or folly.”
Author’s note: I upload posts as I complete them, so one written about a recent event may precede posts about earlier events. The introduction to each post shows where it fits into the history. For an introduction to my memoir, visit Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story.
This blog is a book in the making. If you're a new visitor, read Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story. You can also find a copy in Prologue.