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OREGON MENNONITE HISTORICAL AND GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY, VOL. 15, NO. 1, FEB. 2002,
THE YODERS OF YODER OREGON AND THEIR AMISH MENNONITE CONNECTIONS

The OMHGS Newsletter is published biannually by the Oregon Mennonite Historical and Genealogical Society. General Correspondence to Margaret Shetler, 5326 Briar Knob Loop NE, Scotts Mills, OR, 97375

Part 2 Bishop Jonathan Yoder Family - The Prairie Years by Joel E. Daniels

Pt. 1- Amish Roots in Pennsylvania and Illinois Pt. 2- Bishop Jonathan Yoder Family - The Prairie Years Pt. 3- Growing up with Yoder and the Yoders

If I were to name a patron saint of our Yoder family, I would not name St. Theodore of Switzerland from whom the name Yoder is derived, nor the good Bishop Jonathan Yoder, arguably one of the best known and most respected Amish men of his day. Nor would I name his sons Elias or Asa, both of whom were enlightened leaders of their community. I would not name any of their sons. Instead, I would think first about a young woman who has inspired many of her descendants by the eloquent journal she wrote that has been preserved through these many years - a testimony to life in Middle America in the middle of the 19th Century.

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Mahala L. Yoder: Writer of Mahala's Journal 1871-1876

Mahala L. Yoder was born in McLean County, Illinois in 1850, daughter of Elias (1825-1875) and Lydia Plank Yoder (1824-1859). Joining the migration of Amish to Illinois, they came from Pennsylvania in 1848 with their three sons, Jonathan Samuel (1844-1917), John Plank (1846-1892), and Levi David (1848-1941). Arriving with them were, Joseph and Catherine (Lantz) Joder and Yost and Leah (Yoder) Yoder. They came by canal and tramway to Pittsburgh boarded a steamboat, the Belle of the West, that carried them down the Ohio River and transferred to another boat, which took them up the Illinois River to Pekin, Illinois. On October 31, 1848, they bought 40 acres on the north edge of Danvers Township where they lived until 1850 when they moved to Brown Grove on some timber land which Elias purchased. They must have lived in small log cabins along the creeks, where they could farm the land and raise their livestock. In the historic town of New Salem, Illinois, one can see hewn log cabins that must have been similar. They chose to settle in these areas since they reminded them of the landscape they came from in Pennsylvania. The prairie was thought to be uninhabitable because the sod was difficult to turn, and it was alternatively swampy or desert like. Elias was joined in 1851 by his father, Bishop Jonathan and Magdalena Yoder and their younger children. After they had moved several times, the prairie land opened up for settlement, and methods of breaking the sod were developed. By 1860 they had bought and settled on the 80-acre prairie farm where they would remain until after Elias' death. On adjacent farms lived Elias' brothers Asa J. and Amos. Simeon Lantz owned adjoining property and on it is the Lantz cemetery where many of the Yoder family are buried. Tragedy struck on January 2, 1859, when Elias Yoder's wife, Lydia (Plank), died leaving the 38-year-old Elias with seven children between the ages of 2 and 14. In September 1859, a Catherine Stucky Frey in the community lost her husband, John, in a farm accident, leaving the 45-year-old widow with the eight younger of her twelve children still at home. In October 1860 Elias and Catherine were married, and the 15 children shared the Yoder home, although a few were old enough to be working for other families nearby. Catherine and John Frey had emigrated from France in 1834 where both were born of parents who had been driven from Switzerland in the 1700's. Catherine was traditionally Amish as were the Yoders.

An outcome of this second marriage was that Asa, Elias' youngest brother, married the eldest Frey daughter, Catherine, in 1862. In 1866, Elias' eldest son, Jonathan Samuel, married Barbara Frey and in 1872 his third son, Levi David, married Jacobine Frey. Descendants of all three couples in Oregon were "double cousins." It is in this merged family that Mahala began her diary in a notebook given her by her brother John P. as a 21st birthday gift. It was intended to improve her writing skills and to give her a place to reflect. She was crippled, apparently from birth, perhaps suffering from something like rheumatoid arthritis and depression. Although education was extremely important to this family, and some of the brothers broke with Amish tradition going on to higher education and becoming teachers, Mahala was never able to attend school. By the time she began her writing, John was away teaching and came home with or mailed boxes of books for her. She read books such as the latest Mark Twain, Stanley's How I Found Livingston, Little Women, The English Poets, Religious tracts and numerous periodicals. She comments frequently about her reading in the diary. I presume from one of her entries that reading novels was frowned upon, and she said some preferred to call them "stories".

One can infer from Mahala that there was some tension in this new family, which represented the blending of two cultures as well. The Freys were recent immigrants, German speaking, bringing Old World traditions and conservatism while the Yoders were part of the Pennsylvania Amish that had been in America for more than 100 years. They represented the New World, change-minded and progressive. The children were more comfortable speaking English. Mahala comments that one day the girls wrote a letter in German to their Frey sister, which was quite an undertaking. And, she wrote of going to church and hearing "Mr. Eicher preach such a sermon; not in horrid "Pennsylvania Dutch", but in pure, rich German that apart from the substance of it, did ones very soul good to hear. I've read somewhere that some people are religious not because it is right, but because it is beautiful... This kind of religion might not be much of a prop in an emergency, but I know that my church-going today, did me more good because the sermon was delivered in simple, correct language."

The family had an organ, which would be taken to Grant School on their property when there was school or for Sunday school. They often entertained visitors, one a Frenchman who was such a fine organist. Mahala wrote, "He is a music teacher, and plays splendidly. It's almost as good as a show just to see him play. His fingers seem made of India rubber, so quick and easy are his motions over the keys... The last two nights a lot of our set were here to hear Mr. Rengel play on the organ. This evening they are going to have a come-to-gether-ing at Asa's, for the same purpose." The young people would often gather in and play Authors or be in the yard until after midnight playing croquet, both diversions having been introduced by John. Despite the hardships of rural life, there was always time to put on elaborate productions, especially at Christmas. Mahala tells that "Asa was in town yesterday and got some more sheet music, for the exhibition. If this won't be the greatest exhibition ever held at the Grant Schoolhouse, it isn't for lack of "things'. The young folks were together at Asa's nearly all day, practicing. In the evening they all came up to sing here and forgot to bring the "Music". Mary Fry said that shows how much they have their mind on singing." Mahala was put to bed one evening before she could finish hearing a discussion about dancing. Her father, Elias, thought it was never indulged in properly but always led to extremes. Her uncle Asa thought it could be wholesome if kept in bounds and if the parents joined in and watched over the young people. Brother John thought dancing was never good but did not know what activity to replace it with. This led to dancing parties at Asa's that Elias probably did not know about. Once Mahala was able to go and hear a violin "played properly" for the first time. Later she comments that her brother Kit had taken up the violin, and it suited him perfectly. Christmas meant the gathering together of the large family despite the snow, sleet and rain. Excitedly Malaha writes, "John Plank is here... [H]e and Kit took the carriage and went for Ike... I suppose John is somewhere between here and Chicago, on his way home... After supper, -- Little did I imagine when I wrote that last line, who was on his way home in this storm! The girls were ironing, and the boys sitting round the table... when footsteps were heard on the porch, and then the door opening and somebody walked right in. "O, Lee!, You dear old Lee!" who was living in Missouri. What a joyful holiday that must have been. Agriculture was not a sure thing given the vicissitudes of the elements. Crop failures occurred, and money was scarce. Mahala wistfully wishes that father could get out of debt for once. In an early entry, she says 'the men folks' are very busy making hay. That is the only crop that the chinch bugs have left over. Father has no wheat, oats, barley, or corn, worth mentioning. "There's one good thing," said the girls, "There won't be any big dinners and suppers to cook, and no piles of dishes to wash." I call that looking at the bright side." Illness and death were a constant part of their life. "Last night Phebe and Mary were watching with Mary Joder. She is very low, -- lingering out the last stages of that "death in life" consumption." Mahala's father died of the same disease after a long illness, described alternately as rheumatism, intermittent fever and the ague. Elias' widow Catherine died a few years later of malarial fever, another disease plaguing the prairie. I remember hearing that in Missouri the bottle of quinine was always on the table at mealtime. After five years, Mahala's journal ends. Perhaps it was that she had told her story. The family had grown up, moved away, and now there were only mother and Mary beside herself. A neighbor, Joseph Swartzendruber is hired to run the farm and eventually, he and Mary are married. There is a new baby, and the cycle begins again. Her last entry, ""And he took a little child and set it in the midst". Therefore, all the family love clusters about, and centers in the baby... I have something to think of and something to do that is worthwhile. I helped to make her little clothes, and I rock her more than anyone. You can't rock a baby without singing for it, and you don't want to sing a baby to sleep with nonsensical songs. Nothing is nice enough but hymns, and you can't feel cross or have the blues while singing "Ninety and Nine" or "Heavenly Home". Mahala dies a few years later in 1879, four days after her 29th birthday. We are blessed to have this document, such a rare and intimate glimpse into the life of a young woman of that era. Mary saved the journals through her moves to Missouri and Oregon keeping them private until her death. Several years later they were transcribed for all the family to cherish. One thinks how easily they could have been destroyed. Once Mahala left them on the table to be picked up by an uncle who started reading aloud. Mary said she would burn them if Mahala didn't keep them in a safe place.

In 1869 the oldest son of Elias, Jonathan, his wife, Barbara, and their two sons traveled by wagon 600 miles southwest to Dade County, Missouri to an Amish settlement to begin a new life. The journey took somewhat longer than expected as the result of an accident where baby John Jay fell from the wagon, the wheel running over his head. He recovered, and the family was soon settled in a new colony where Jonathan worked for a bachelor neighbor breaking the prairie and planting crops on new sod. About 1871, his brother Levi joined him with a plan of joining forces, renting land and working together at whatever came their way. Lee traveled back to Illinois, claimed another Frey sister, Jacobine, and brought her to their new home. The two families lived and worked together for about 10 years, living on a rented farm of about 120 acres. The story is told that the wives who were sisters, wore the wooden spoon for stirring mush down to a point since one was left-handed and the other right. In 1874 Asa Yoder and family joined the others, and about 1881 the Joe Schwartz's move made the migration to Missouri complete.

The families bought farms, but the crops were poor, and drought worsened. There was only one big wheat year in the 18 years from 1870-1888. They had reached a point where it was time to look for another home to raise their large families and achieve any degree of prosperity. In 1888 Will Yoder (Asa's son) and Joe Schwartz made a trip into Nebraska and South Dakota to see whether the farming conditions might not be better, but their report was discouraging, so the families stayed on for several years. Then Mary Schwartz contacted her Aunt Catherine Lantz who came to Oregon a decade before and after several visits to the Willamette, the Yoders in Missouri caught the "Oregon Fever." Within two years the families had all moved and all that remained of their Missouri years today is four tombstones in the Greenwood-Kistler Cemetery near Golden City, marking the graves of three babies who died probably of a scarlet fever epidemic and a young child.

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J. S. Yoder Family: Taken in the 1890's. Back row: Aaron, Petty, John Jay, Louis, Rosa Front Row: Albert, Ralph, Jonathan Samuel Yoder, Nellie, Barbara Fry Yoder. (Nellie was born in 1886 and was probably about 8 years old)

 

Sources:

Steven R. Estes A Goodly Heritage: A History of the North Danvers Mennonite Church, Mennonite Press, Inc.: North Newton, Kansas, 1982.

Mahala L. Yoder, Personal Journal 1871-1876, an unpublished manuscript transcribed in 1942

Steven R. Estes and Myrna Park "Catherine Stucky Frey Yoder (1810-1811)": Part III and IV, Illinois Mennonite Heritage June and September 1992.

Orlando Perry Yoder "The Yoders in Missouri" an unpublished manuscript transcribed in 1976

Joel E. Daniels is great-grandson of Jonathan S. Yoder