An independent, strong people |

An independent, strong people

Tony Vagneur

Last week was a horrific one for the Amish in Pennsylvania and names like Joe Borntrager and Andy Mast have been going through my mind, taking me back to a time when I was involved, however minutely, with the Amish community in Iowa.One September, my wife Caroline and I loaded family friend and horse-trader L.E. Wheeler into our pickup truck, horse trailer in tow, and headed to Iowa for the annual Waverly Draft Horse Sale. We’d heard about it for years and had seen it advertised in Western Horseman back in May of that year, so what could go wrong?A lot, as it turned out. The organizer had died suddenly and the sale was canceled a month prior, unknown to us. Still in the mood to buy some horses, we asked around to no particular avail until one frail woman, of traditional librarian appearance, suggested we head to Hazelton and visit with the Amish. With a new goal in sight, we sang some songs and told even worse jokes, light in spirit at getting a second chance for something we didn’t know much about, anyway.Our plan was to post ourselves at Andy Mast’s Harness Shop in the heart of the Amish settlement and talk to farmers as they wandered in, rightly assuming that word would get out about our presence there. What we didn’t know at the time was that the Amish had their own horse sale coming up in a month or so and weren’t anxious to prematurely turn loose of any good stock.It took a couple of days, but finally some of the farmers began to talk to us and then one offered that he had a team for sale if we’d care to check them out. They were a good-looking pair and the owner put them through their paces for us, a splendid performance, but what was wrong with them? Their ears looked “different” for some reason, and as L.E. gave a little whistle off to the side, it became immediately apparent that the horses were deaf. We’d passed our first test, and the Amish began to upgrade the available stock until we finally purchased a well-matched pair of Joe Borntrager’s superb-looking Belgians, Pete and Pat, later made famous in song by entertainer Gary McMahan and Ted, a Clydesdale with a heart as big as the sky.Mary Eshbaugh Hayes and Chris Cassatt documented this foray into Iowa by featuring Pete and Pat (and yours truly) on a 1977 cover of the Aspen Times, detailing the story inside. What a contrast – celebrity held up against the backdrop of Iowa’s Old Order Amish, the Plain People.My friend David and I went back later for the horse sale and it was somewhat of a shock to be welcomed by the community as a long-lost relative. No fanfare, but they were genuinely pleased to see me again. Within minutes, we had curry combs and brushes in our hands and were busily helping get the young horses in topnotch shape for the upcoming sale. After work, four or five young, single men piled into my truck (a 4-door with a backseat) for a ride into town. Of course, they immediately found the case of beer we’d stashed back there and began helping themselves, wondering what kind of music my tape deck played. It was a raucous ride, but fun, although I harbored the thought that I might be shunned at the next day’s sale for leading the youth astray.The Amish are good, strong people that I respect tremendously. It is sad to know that a lone moron has caused them so much grief, including intense media scrutiny, but think of the apprehension that must occupy their thoughts now. Not fear of more gunmen, but fear that state or local governments will dictate that the Amish must give up their educational independence in the interests of safety. That will be a major assault on a “peculiar” people.Tony Vagneur writes here every Saturday. Send comments to

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