Sunday, February 28, 2010

One Little, Two Little, Three Little Amish Kids

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

As Ruth and I prepare for our annual “hard-core” photography trip, I am reminded of last year’s trip to the Ohio River Valley. There were so many wonderful rural scenes to discover, but we were also on a mission to capture as many Mail Pouch Tobacco barns as we could during the 8-day trip.

Ruth had done hundreds of hours of research prior to our departure, and she brought along a 40-pound bag of research materials to prove it. She had meticulously marked our Ohio Atlas & Gazetteer with highlighters, sticky notes, and sticky arrows so that we could locate the subjects quickly and efficiently.

One morning we were heading down the road and she said, “Okay, coming up in about a mile is another Mail Pouch Barn.” As we came close to it, we could see that there were a couple of modern pole sheds in front of the old Mail Pouch barn and there was no way to avoid getting them in the picture unless we went down the driveway. So we decided to stop and ask permission.

When we drove in the driveway, we discovered that an Amish family lived there. The father was working near the front porch of the house. Across the driveway from the porch was an empty vegetable stand that would be used in the summer to sell the vegetables they raised. And inside the vegetable stand were three young children, climbing around in the wooden bins of the stand. And, as all older siblings do, the boy, who appeared to be about four, was picking on his two little sisters.

“Rupert!” the dad hollered, but Rupert paid no attention.

“Rupert!” the dad hollered again as he headed towards the vegetable stand. And then he finished his scolding in German as he physically pulled the kids apart from their fighting. When the commotion had ceased, I asked politely if I could go down by the barn to photograph it. The man said I could and then I confirmed that no pictures could be taken of the children. After all, they were very cute in their traditional Amish clothes - blue shirt, black pants, suspenders, and a straw hat for the boy; plain colored dresses and bonnets for the girls.

I carried my tripod and camera down the driveway to the barn and set up in front of a wooden fence to capture the faded old Mail Pouch barn. As I studied the scene and took my photographs, I sensed that I was being watched. So I turned to the left and looked behind me. Sure enough, the three little Amish kids were behind the fence, leaning on it and watching me intently. So I thought I would try to strike up a conversation.

“Do you have a dog?” I asked. In our travels we’ve noticed that almost every Amish family has at least one dog.

They just stood there looking at me. So I tried something else.

“How old are you?” Still no response -- too shy, maybe.

As I continued to photograph, I started thinking about how their father had spoken to Rupert in German. Hmm, maybe that’s what they’re used to, but I don’t speak German. I wasn’t ready to give up yet, so I turned to the left again to try something else, but they were gone. Then I turned to the right and looked behind me and there they were -- three little Amish faces peering through the fence at me. Oh, how I wish I could have captured that, but I do respect their ways.

“How old are you?” I asked Rupert again. And then I put up my fingers one at a time until I reached four fingers, and raised my eyebrows in a questioning look. A big smile spread across Rupert’s face. He nodded in agreement. Then I pointed to the oldest girl with a questioning look. Rupert put up one finger, then two, with an impish grin on his face. And then his sister slugged him in the arm and put up three fingers. I responded with an understanding nod. Then I pointed to the youngest girl and I held up one, then two fingers. They all nodded a big YES!

As I walked back to the house with the three little Amish children close behind, I couldn’t help but have a big smile on my own face. As I approached their dad, I said, “Your kids sure are cute. I wish I could have taken a picture of them, but I respect your desire to not be photographed.” He thanked me for that and I thanked him for allowing me to photograph the Mail Pouch Tobacco barn. Even though I have no photos to share of these sweet little Amish children, I have an image that will stay in my memory for years to come.

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Just Call Her Mary Poppins

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

The back of Joann’s car is always loaded with a “just in case” bag. It is filled with extra clothes and her rain gear. She is well prepared for whatever weather we encounter in our backroads travels.

On our trip to Ohio in April of 2009, we started with sun -- way too much sun and no character in the sky, and we wished for better conditions for photographing. Well, our wishes came true and, for most of the rest of the trip, as Joann photographed, it had just rained, was threatening to rain, or was raining. And she was happy.

Abandoned Farm, Brown County, Ohio

Joann is well prepared for the rain. She has her purple rain suit, and there are always several umbrellas in the car. She likes the even lighting when there is a light rain, so she will don her rain suit (in a porta-potty, under the back hatch of the car on a country road, or in a gas station restroom if we are lucky enough to be near one) and we continue to photograph. I’m usually in the car waiting unless I’m needed to hold the umbrella for some reason.

Ohio Bicentennial Barn, Morgan County, Ohio

Often, she opens the umbrella and props it over the door as she gets out her camera equipment. Then when she has everything she will need, she takes the handle of the umbrella and says “Just call me Mary Poppins” and then laughs as she closes the door to go take the pictures.

On one of the rainy days, it was raining too hard to photograph, so we decided to drive from one of my planned routes to another. On the way, we were passing through a town that had a Mail Pouch barn at the edge of town. The barn sits on a hill behind a McDonalds with development all around it. We hadn’t passed very many red Mail Pouch barns, and this one was in very good shape, so we pulled into the McDonalds parking lot. We found a place to park at the edge of the lot next to the dumpster, and Joann saw that she could get a pretty good angle and eliminate the development. The only problem was that we had driven into this hard-pouring rain, so Joann hadn’t put on her rain gear.

Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn, Belmont County, Ohio

We sat at the edge of the parking lot for a while trying to decide if she should try to get a picture or two or if we should go on. The problem with going on is that we try not to go back to the same place twice, so it was now or never for a picture of this barn. I watched her as she got ready to make a mad dash for the back door to get out her equipment, and then she went for it. Out the door and into the back seat, then grabbed the umbrella and put it over the door while she got her camera set up. Then she took a few pictures quickly and stored the equipment away, shook off the umbrella and laid it on the floor of the back seat.

As she slid back behind the wheel, she said “Done,” and then her back touched the seat. She was soaked through and now she could really feel it.

Cruisers Diner, Adams County, Ohio

Farther along our route, we came down a road with several Mail Pouch Barns. One sat very close to the road, and as we approached we came to a small side road with a metal bridge across a creek. We pulled over and Joann got out, propped her umbrella open, loaded up everything she needed, and carried it across the road to the old metal bridge.

Rusty Metal Truss Bridge and Gray Barn, Monroe County, Ohio

She took a lot of pictures from that location – misty pictures of the Mail Pouch barn in the distance; pictures of the rusty old metal bridge; pictures of the old gray barn down the little side road; and pictures with the road, bridge, and barn. All the while, the rain came down steadily, and Joann struggled to keep her camera equipment dry and to manage the tripod, camera settings, remote control, hand-held filters, and the umbrella, all with only two hands.

Rusty Metal Truss Bridge and Gray Barn, Monroe County, Ohio

I watched as she finished up and started to head back to the car. Then, as often happens, I watched her turn around for a few more shots. Sometimes she gets an idea on another angle and returns to capture it. She bent down and lined up some photos of the Mail Pouch barn through the openings in the bridge, and then I watched her kneel down on the wet gravel road to get a better angle.

Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn Through Metal Truss Bridge, Monroe County, Ohio

When she returned to the car, she packed away her equipment and the umbrella and got in. As we started down the road, she put her hand to her knee.

Joann: “How did I get my pants all wet?”

Ruth: “Well, you knelt down on the bridge.”

Joann: “I did?”

She is often so engrossed in capturing the scene that she doesn’t realize what position she’s taking to get the shots. As we continued on, I told her we would be passing a barn we had passed yesterday. I don’t normally direct us to drive the same road twice, but it was the quickest way to get to my next marked area. It was a barn with a WOW Chewing Tobacco ad on it, and when we had passed it the day before, the lighting had not been good and there had been a vehicle parked close enough to prevent good shots of the barn. This day, the vehicle was gone and since it had been raining, the pictures were much better.

WOW Chewing Tobacco Barn, Noble County, Ohio

Everywhere we went for the next few days of the trip, the ground was saturated with all of the rain, but the pictures were great. We stopped at a very interesting covered bridge to get some photos. The Otway Bridge is a traditional covered bridge on one end, with a metal truss bridge on the other end.

Otway Bridge on Brush Creek, Built 1874, Scioto County, Ohio

The Otway Bridge was built over Brush Creek in 1874. It is a Smith Patented Truss bridge with an original length of 200 feet. At some point it was shortened to the current 171 feet. The wetness from the rains with the bright green of early spring all around us made it a very beautiful bridge.

Metal Truss Approach Span to Otway Bridge on Brush Creek, Scioto County, Ohio

On our last day in Ohio, we ate our breakfast near an old covered bridge on a dead end road. The road was narrow and there wasn’t a good place to turn around, so we drove to the end hoping for a turnaround. What we found was a farm whose driveway went through the creek. The creek was high and muddy due to all the recent rain and the driveway was impassable.

Farm with Swinging Bridge, Brown County, Ohio

Luckily, there was a place to turn around, which is probably the place where they park their vehicles when the creek is too high. In that case, we assume they get to their farm by walking across the swinging bridge we discovered near the turnaround.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this mix of rainy day photos as much as we enjoyed finding and capturing them.

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Country Churches

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

There’s something about the little country churches that we encounter on our backroads journeys -- something that gives me pause.

They come in all shapes and sizes. Some have steeples, some don’t. Some have open bell towers, and often the bell has long since been removed. Some have cemeteries next to them with gravestones from the 1800s through today.

Some of them look more like old-fashioned schoolhouses and, in fact, were used as both the school and the church for the small rural community surrounding them. Often, there are words from long ago and far away etched in the stone or glass -- words that came from the old country, like “Kirche,” a German word for church. Sometimes they are locked up tight and sometimes they are open for private prayer.

A large number of these country churches were built during the mid- to late 1800s or early 1900s, and many of them have had active congregations since they were built. Others no longer have an active congregation, but have been lovingly cared for over the years and are used on special occasions or at special times of the year.

We have also seen numerous churches that have been repurposed. Some have been converted to homes. This is more common with country schoolhouses, but we have seen a good number of churches now being used as homes. Some now sit lonely and dilapidated at the edge of private farmland, with stacks of hay inside or outside, or with cattle mulling about. Some have been donated to or purchased by historical societies and are now church museums. The Salem Ragatz Church in Sauk County, Wisconsin, was built in 1875 and is now a church museum.

The ones that really make me stop and think, though, are the ones that have been completely abandoned -- the ones that have broken windows and peeling paint, rotting roofs and overgrown shrubs.

In spite of the state of ill repair, these are the churches to which I am drawn. A long time ago, a rural community built a church with their own hands. They felled the trees and sawed the boards. They erected the timbers and pounded the nails. Someone carved the pews and poured the bell. Someone cut the glass and soldered it together to make beautiful windows. And when they were finished, they came together to worship.

In these simple, yet beautiful structures, they prayed for their crops, they gave thanks for their bread, they begged God to be spared from the epidemics, they celebrated the birth of their children, and they mourned the death of their loved ones.

But then, at some point, they stopped coming and they stopped caring about a building that once meant a great deal to them or to their ancestors. And, as time wore on, the roof began to sag and leak, the windows began to shatter, and the shrubs overtook the entryway.

This leads me to ask, “How does a congregation just disappear?” I’m sure the reasons are as varied as the abandoned churches we’ve encountered. It could be that the railroad bypassed the town and the inhabitants dwindled to a point where the small congregation could no longer be supported. It could be that the congregation needed and acquired a larger church. It could be that there wasn’t a priest or minister to lead the congregation.

Whatever the reason, it’s unfortunate that these beautiful churches, which once echoed the voices of a sacred community joined together in hymns of praise, have fallen silent and, oftentimes, into a state of disrepair.

On February 13, 2010, Ruth and I visited Otter Creek Church in a rural area of Iowa County, Wisconsin. It is a beautiful stone church that was built in 1872 and it is surrounded on all sides by the church cemetery. After photographing the outside of the church, I discovered that a member of the congregation was inside cleaning. I took advantage of this opportunity to learn a bit about the church.

She told me that the current congregation consisted of roughly 70 total members, with only about a dozen attending the one service held each Sunday. There isn’t enough money to heat the church, so winter Sunday church services are held in the meeting hall downstairs, which is heated only for the short time needed on Sunday mornings. This small congregation cannot support a full-time minister, so a minister comes from a nearby town to conduct the Sunday service.

As I trudged through the snow on my way back to the car, I couldn’t help but wonder what will become of this beautiful country church as time goes on. I hope you have enjoyed my musings on country churches. When you’re on the backroads and you pass a country church, take the time to consider the part it played in our heritage.

Happy Shunpiking!

Photos in this blog post can be purchased as wall art, paper prints, downloads, phone cases, and keepsakes by clicking on the photo. You will be taken to the gallery website where you will see a big blue "BUY" button. Or to see all photos available, click on the "Browse Galleries" button on the menu at the top of this page. Thank you for your interest!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Milling Around Wisconsin

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

Whenever we’re out shunpiking, we’re on the lookout for old mills: grist mills, saw mills, woolen mills, feed mills, etc. We love all old mills.

We drive every “Mill Road” that we come upon out in the country or in the towns we pass through. Wisconsin is not a state that is noted for its mills, but there are more mills around than you would think.

We have several well-known mills, one of which is Hyde’s Mill in Iowa County. It is a small mill with a wooden waterwheel set on a mill pond. Joann and I have visited this mill multiple times in every season. It is such a peaceful place.

In May 1996, after a trip to Spring Green with family, we stopped at Hyde’s Mill on the way home. The owner, Ted Sawle, was home and when he saw us down by the mill, he came down the hill from the miller’s house to talk with us. He asked us if we wanted to see his collection of antique tools and equipment. We did, and we accompanied him into his personal “tool museum” to see everything that he had inside.

As we left the tool museum, he talked about running the mill as a saw mill during the war. And as he spoke, we could tell that he had a reverence for wood. He said that most of the trees surrounding the mill were walnut trees and he loved the strength and grandeur of those trees. And then he put his arms around one and hugged it tight.

Ted loved old mills and helped to restore or recreate waterwheels for mill restorations into his 90’s. He passed away in January 2009 at the age of 103.

Wisconsin also has several mills that have been restored by local historic groups. We are very thankful to these dedicated people who spend their free time researching the mills, drumming up funding, and restoring the mills to their original splendor. If it weren’t for them, these mills would eventually disappear from the landscape.

The Messer/Mayer Grist and Sawmill was on a list of mills that Joann and I have had for years. We went looking for it several times over the years and always ended up driving up and down the road we thought it was on and not finding it. We would slow down along the road at every creek crossing and peer into the woods for any sign of a mill.

Finally, several years ago, we decided to drive down one of the driveways on the road and found the mill. It was in the very early stages of restoration. Today the mill is well marked with a sign, and the public is welcome to visit and enjoy the restored mill and park.

Another restored mill is the Beckman mill near Beloit, Wisconsin. On the way to a Christmas celebration on New Year’s Day, I thought about how close we would be to the Beckman Mill. We had never photographed it in the winter, so we decided to leave our celebration in time to stop at the mill before sunset. Our family already knows that we almost always get side-tracked on the way to and from anything we attend. We try to leave a little early to account for these side trips, but we don’t always make it to the party on time. We consider this to be just one of the little perils of shunpiking!

We made it to the mill as the sun was sinking low in the sky and the mill was beautiful in the snow. It was a bitter cold day and as the sun was setting it became colder. Because we hadn’t really planned to photograph that day, Joann wasn’t dressed very warmly and she didn’t have her boots, but we couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this. I watched from the car as she walked down the road taking photos at various spots. And then I watched as she walked gingerly across the snow to get closer to the mill. Soon she was trudging farther through the snow to get to a view of the mill with the water pouring over the dam.

After watching her take quite a few pictures from the dam, I started the car and pulled up so she wouldn’t have too far to walk back and, as I waited in the car, I watched her walk even further back along the mill pond. She liked that view the best, but I was worried about how cold it was.

Finally she came back to the car and climbed in. Taking off her gloves, she touched my hand with hers, and they were freezing! But she was very happy because she said the best view was from along the mill pond above the dam. These winter photos turned out to be the best pictures we have ever gotten of Beckman Mill.

There are also mills that we didn’t know about and just stumbled upon. The Marytown feed mill is one of those. We were out shunpiking years ago and as we came to a small crossroads town, we passed this mill. It was still an operating feed mill at the time, but it wasn’t open, so we stopped and took quite a few pictures.

It reminded us of the old feed mill we had gone to with our dad almost 50 years ago. In the fall of 2007, we returned to find the mill no longer operating but still very beautiful in its abandonment.

So, when you’re out shunpiking, keep an eye out for old mills. If you find any, let us know!

Happy Shunpiking!

Photos in this blog post can be purchased as wall art, paper prints, downloads, phone cases, and keepsakes by clicking on the photo. You will be taken to the gallery website where you will see a big blue "BUY" button. Or to see all photos available, click on the "Browse Galleries" button on the menu at the top of this page. Thank you for your interest!