Amish friends douse the hurt of an arsonist's torch

March 22, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

BELLEVILLE, Pa. -- Esle Hostetler was deep in his dreams, buried under blankets on a cold, blustery midnight last weekend in the Big Valley. This was Amish country, with only the bright moon for a night light in his home without electricity. Outside, the family buggy was parked and still. Cattle and horses slumbered in the barn.

But when the rumble of trucks awakened his family a half-hour later, Mr. Hostetler threw open his front door to a hot orange light. The barn was in flames, its roof collapsed, the walls soon to follow. Inside it, 31 of his animals were dead or dying. Firefighters swarmed from their trucks onto the lot, but it was too late.

Elsewhere in the valley, five other Amish barns were burning, set afire by unknown arsonists who completed an 18-mile route in less than two hours. Only one barn was insured.

The losses toted up that Sunday morning were more disastrous than the million-dollar price tag implied: 139 cattle, the main livelihood on these dairy farms; 38 horses, among them the big Belgian draft animals that pull plows and hay wagons; the plows and wagons themselves; seed for the upcoming spring planting; milking sheds and equipment; and four threshing machines that, while old and creaky, are almost irreplaceable because the Amish have religious rules against using more worldly technology.

Now a year of hardship is ahead for the Big Valley Amish, a community 60 miles northwest of Harrisburg. But the same values of passiveness, simplicity and community that made them easy victims last weekend began putting them back on their feet in the days that followed.

On Monday morning, bearded men in dark clothes and wide-brimmed hats began arriving with picks and shovels at all six farms, clip-clopping up the manure-dotted roads in buggy after buggy.

By late afternoon they had cleared the rubble and buried the animals. On Tuesday they marked and dug foundations for new barns, and scores of more bearded, hatted men began arriving in vans and buses from other Amish communities across Pennsylvania.

By the middle of next week, more than a hundred will be working at each site, neglecting the chores of their own farms to begin raising the frames of new barns, using oak beams sawed last week from the forests at the edge of the valley.

As Mr. Hostetler stood Tuesday on the ground where his barn used to be, he had nothing to say about who might have done such a thing. He offered only a shrug and a blank look, as if he had left such thoughts behind. It's the Amish way to do so, without retaliation, and it's the same thing that makes them conscientious objectors in times of war.

Normally on a late winter's day like this, with a dusting of snow on the hills and gray clouds hanging low, he would be hauling manure or getting in fodder for the livestock. Instead, he has tucked a green pencil into the narrow brim of his black hat and is thinking about the design of his new barn. Behind him 20 men are hacking at the ground with picks

and shovels, while two small boys and a round-faced girl watch from a gatepost. A bed of concrete is already drying in the foundation trenches.

"Tomorrow," says Mr. Hostetler, pointing toward the men, "three times as many will be here."

Swelling their ranks will be men like the eight who arrived for lunch Tuesday at the Honey Creek Inn, a country diner a few miles from the Hostetler farm. They had come 80 miles from Franklin County by van, which is allowed for longer trips as long as someone else drives. The elder man of the crew explained in English that he had packed along his framing tools for help in the barn raisings. He then turned back to his lunch, chatting with his sons and neighbors in the Germanic lilt of Pennsylvania Dutch, the language the Amish use among themselves.

The unity of the Amish in times of need is extraordinary enough given their modest means. Clair DeLong, who won the trust of the Big Valley Amish during his 30 years as Mifflin County's agricultural extension agent, said that some of the families are lucky to clear $3,000 from a year's labors, and that's without losing a barn full of livestock. So, dropping everything on the verge of spring planting to help a neighbor a few weeks is to risk financial ruin.

The cooperation is all the more amazing considering the many fractures that have splintered the Amish through centuries of debate over seemingly tiny differences.

Mr. Hostetler, like four of the other farmers whose barns were burned, is a white-buggy "Nebraska" Amish, a nickname that comes from a Nebraska bishop who moved to the valley in 1881. Of the 1,500 or so Amish in Mifflin County, about 500 are Nebraska Amish, and they adhere to the most rigid of rules regarding displays of worldliness. Their clothes are the simplest, fastening with hooks and eyelets. Their tools are the most primitive. Even their homes are simpler -- it is considered too fancy to have eaves.

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