PAWNEE CITY, Neb. — Today the Amish of Pawnee County will mark a sad milestone.
They will conduct their first funeral since moving back to this hilly, rural country in southeast Nebraska, near the Kansas border.
They will gather for worship, for a meal that women have spent days preparing and for a burial in a donated field. Volunteers cleared the land Monday for an impromptu Amish cemetery. It is where young Rueben Yoder will be laid to rest.
The 17-year-old was killed Sunday morning when the horse-drawn buggy he was riding in on Highway 8-50 was struck by a car. The accident left his older sister Fannie Yoder fighting for her life in a Lincoln hospital.
The accident shook Pawnee City and its residents, who had feared that this kind of a tragedy would happen as more and more Amish moved here. Their horse-drawn buggies and pony carts share two-lane gravel roads and highways with speed limits up to 55 mph with semitrailer trucks, cars and other traffic.
In 2008, five Amish families returned to southeast Nebraska for cheap land, a change in home-school laws and a quieter, rural locale than the suburbanized part of southwest Wisconsin where they had been living.
Now, there are 37 families, two Amish schools and a number of Amish farms and businesses in or near Pawnee City, which at last count had fewer than 1,000 people.
Pawnee City is proud home to both Larry the Cable Guy and SchillingBridge Winery. Its darling downtown is restored and anchored by a jewel of a century-old courthouse. It is the kind of small town where everyone rallies with a bake sale and spaghetti feed to help the 4-year-old with a brain tumor. When new teacher Kelly Neels moved to town, she didn't have to introduce herself.
“Everybody knew me,” she tells me inside Haughton's beauty salon, “before I knew them.”
When the Amish started coming in 2007, they were a curiosity. The last Amish families in Pawnee County had been pushed out in the 1980s because of the state's then-restrictive laws on home schooling.
New arrivals have generally been young families who buy farms, build onto existing houses and start businesses.
The roadway, with its yellow horse-and-buggy warning signs, is the most obvious — and somewhat uneasy — sign of a shared life here.
Some have said the accident Sunday, horrible as it was, could have been worse. With big families, Amish buggies can be full. And during the school year, it's not uncommon for children as young as 7 years old to be driving a pony cart to school with their younger siblings in tow.
But road worries aside, the Amish have resettled into and around Pawnee City rather seamlessly, proving to be peaceful neighbors and reliable workers. The children, educated through eighth grade, will yes ma'am you, pitch in with housework and farm chores, and play with the kind of old-fashioned abandon that make older residents here reminiscent of their own childhoods.
The Amish shop at Nider's supermarket in town. They sell wares at the weekly summertime farmers markets. They are regulars at the Pawnee City Public Library, where the staff describes them as curious and smart, though they do need help getting hunting and fishing licenses online.
Some Amish have opened their own shops at home. They clean houses. They build houses. They are so skilled with carpentry and construction that they have landed many gigs around town and beyond. A Seneca, Kan., company sends vans up to shuttle Amish workers to its plant.
The Amish here are friendly, even outgoing. They have so charmed the Pawnee City residents I spoke to that some refused to comment because they wanted to protect their Amish neighbors, who eschew not only most modern conveniences but also publicity.
“My husband and I love these people. We feel they are an asset to the community,” says Clarene Fisher, who drives some Amish to jobs, hospitals and other locales too far for horse and buggy. “They are very private people, and they don't like their lives exposed.”
The Amish don't have their pictures taken.
And they are not out for show, as Bishop Jacob Schwartz matter-of-factly tells me.
Bishop Schwartz is an Amish religious leader here. He is a father of nine, including six who are married and starting families of their own. He lives near Pawnee City on a 150-acre farm, where he grows alfalfa, raises 30 dairy cows and has a stable of horses.
I drove onto his property Monday, unsure about the protocol. Where was the least offensive place to park an SUV? I decide at the end of the driveway and walk up to the main entrance, which appears to be the back of the house.
A girl in a plain blue shift dress answers and runs to get Bishop Schwartz, who meets me outside.
He is a tall man with an Abraham Lincoln beard, a straw hat, worn work boots and a pen tucked into the suspenders of his homemade dungarees. He looks at the ground or off into the horizon when we speak. He doesn't make eye contact.
He politely obliges my questions about life in Pawnee County, about being Amish, about feeling squeezed out of southern Wisconsin by big box stores and heavy traffic and about this sudden, terrible loss of life.
“Where we used to live, there was Walmart store, Menard's, Lowe's, Aldi's, just a lot of them big places about eight miles from us,” he tells me. “It was getting hard for us to go to town with horse and buggy. People got tired of it and just moved in to something that's not so heavily populated, I guess. But anything can happen. Just like out here.”
Schwartz tells me how Rueben and Fannie Yoder were headed to worship service, which is typically held in an Amish home. He tells me how the 56-year-old woman whose car struck their buggy was his wife's client. She cleans the woman's house each week. He tells me how his wife had tried to call the woman to see if she was all right but got no answer.
The Amish do have telephones, but not connected to their homes.
A minivan pulls up at that moment, and a number of Amish women pour out of the Schwartz home. They are barefoot, wearing the same style of solid-color shift dress. They are carrying cabbages, ice cream and other food, heading to the Yoder home place, Schwartz says.
If there is one human universal in death, it is food. A rooster calls, my iPhone bleats and I'm self-conscious.
“You must think we're nuts,” I tell him.
“I guess I don't think that much of it,” the bishop responds. “You people are you people and we are us.”
It's after 7 p.m. when I finally leave the area. Heading north on Highway 50, I pass the Yoder home.
A number of black buggies sit in the drive and dozens of people, clad in black, sit under big white tents.
Farther up the road is one of the yellow horse-and-buggy warning signs. Sure enough, driving in the southbound lane is an Amish man. He pulls his horse-drawn buggy onto the shoulder to let the car behind him pass.
And pulls back onto the road.
|FROM THE NOTEBOOK|
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.|