Amos and Bertha: A Tribute by a Niece
by Ruth Hieser Oyer
Condensed and adapted by Donna Birkey from an unpublished manuscript archived at East Bend Mennonite Church, Fisher, IL.
Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue (Vol. XXXV, No. 1)
Illinois Mennonite Heritage Quarterly (http://www.imhgs.org)
(Used with permission of original publisher)
After a four-year courtship, Amos Hieser and Bertha Birkey (shown at left years later by their home) were married. For their wedding day they chose the second anniversary of Amos’ older brother, John, and wife, Mary—January 23, 1908. Bishop Peter Zehr performed the ceremony that took place at the home of the bride’s parents, Valentine and Phoebe Birkey.
Ancestry and Early Life of Amos Albert Hieser
On December 11, 1881, Joseph Heiser, the fifth son of Jacob and Katherine Wagler Heiser, married Barbara Bachman, one of John and Barbara Sutter Bachman’s twins. They made their first home in Tazewell County in the Deer Creek area. To this union were born three sons: John Emil (b. Dec. 4, 1882), Amos Albert (b. Feb. 18, 1885), and Joseph Aaron (b. Aug. 22, 1888). [As adults, John and Amos both spelled their surname as Hieser. Joseph retained the Heiser spelling.]
In the spring of 1889 Joseph and Barbara Heiser decided to join others and moved their family to Champaign County, Illinois. At this time the children were still small: John was 6 years old, Amos 4, and Joseph 7 months. Joseph’s brother, Jacob Heiser, and brother-in-law, Peter Zehr, were already living in the East Bend community. Peter Zehr was the first minister and bishop of the new East Bend Amish Mennonite church. Joseph and Barbara Heiser made their move on March 4, 1889. They bought the land that lay to the north side of his brother Jacob’s property.
Since there was no house on the property Joseph and his family purchased, they lived temporarily in a small house on his brother Jacob’s farm, until he could get their own home built. When Joseph’s brother-in-law, Peter Zehr, needed help to get some hay into the mow, Joseph, a strong robust man, helped pitch the hay into the barn. While working he suddenly became ill and a doctor was called. The doctor left some medicine but had not come to an exact diagnosis. Joseph passed away on March 27, 1889, at the age of 29 years and 4 months, three weeks after moving to Champaign County. It was later determined that death was due to a pulmonary hemorrhage (ruptured lung artery) that caused internal bleeding—the result of overexertion.
This surely must have been disheartening to Barbara, who was left with her three small sons and great responsibilities. She was faced with a new home to build, help to hire for farming the purchased ground, and many difficult financial decisions. But at all times she trusted in the Lord to see her through.
For about five years Andrew Eyer, a native of Germany, farmed for Barbara. On June 17, 1894, Barbara married Andrew. To them were born two sons, William (Feb. 8, 1895) and Daniel (Feb. 1, 1899). About nine years after their marriage, Andrew found himself battling a mental disability. He was taken to Kankakee [IL] State Hospital, where he spent the next seven years. About three weeks before his death, October 8, 1910, he was brought home. Once again Barbara Bachman Heiser Eyer was left without a husband. She now had five sons.
Parents and Early Life of Bertha Birkey Hieser
Valentine Birkey and Phoebe Good grew up in the Hopedale area. They married and established their first home about a mile from the Hopedale Mennonite Church. It was here that Mollie Ann and Bertha Ellen were born—Mollie Ann on Nov. 25, 1882 and Bertha Ellen on March 27, 1885. While they were yet small, Grandfather Joseph Birky decided to move to the state of Kansas. It was the parent’s desire that all their children follow them to Kansas, even though some were already married. So in the spring of 1887 Valentine and Phoebe and their two small daughters also made the move to Decatur County, Kansas and settled on a farm northwest of Selden. The family lived with the grandparents until their sod house was built and baby brother, Joseph Christian, had come to join the family on Sept. 3, 1887.
Valentine had taken out a homestead. Theirs was a timber claim that required them to plant a large number of trees. Once this was completed the 160 acres became theirs. Two mules, Dick and Jerry, were purchased to serve as farm workers and wagon pullers. Mollie, being the oldest, assisted her father in the field even though she was yet young. They had a few cows and pigs. The pigs grew up on the milk which wasn’t needed for house use.
During their stay in Kansas, son Alvin Rudolph was born on Nov. 13, 1891 and daughter Kate Elizabeth on April 25, 1894, adding two more to the family of five. The eight years the family spent in Kansas were hard years. Even though they worked hard, the crop failures were many. Year after year the results were about the same. Aunt Bertha remembers how they would search through the cornfield and find a nubbin about six inches long now and then. They were also successful in raising a few potatoes. However, the hand of our gracious Lord watched and cared for them. He always supplied their physical needs, not their wants, as our Lord does so wonderfully in His faithful way.
As Aunt Bertha related just a few of their experiences, my faith was strengthened more. Her father would butcher a small hog now and then that the family would soon use up without waste. With their small potato supply, milk, and bread baked by Mother Phoebe, they survived. Often times their supper or evening meal consisted of bread broken on their plates, then clabbered milk poured over the bread, followed by a small amount of sweet milk—all seasoned with salt. This course was known as Dick an Deen, or “thick and thin” in the English language.
To the northwest ran Sappa Creek. In the woods along the creek could be found wild fruit such as currants, berries, wild plums and cherries. The family would pick what they could. They also had some mulberries which came from trees planted as required in the homestead agreement.
In the winter the entire family could not attend church all the time because of means of transportation. As Aunt Bertha recalls it, in the summer the children all went to church barefooted. The supply of clothes was limited so on Sunday mornings Mother Birkey would put a clean dress on the girls and clean clothing on the boys. After wearing these clothes to church they were worn the rest of the week. During the week the soiled clothes would be washed up and readied for the next Sunday.
In the winter when shoes were needed, Father Birkey would take a piece of stick (not a ruler) and measure each foot on the stick. He would make a notch for the proper length, then hitch up Dick and Jerry, his mules, and go to town to purchase shoes for the needy ones. This today would be a most interesting shoe-measuring device.
Aunt Bertha recalled the rainy seasons. During these times the rain would come right through the roof of the sod house and soil the beds and other things. At such times Father Valentine would load his family in the wagon and take them over to Grandfather (Joseph) Birkys, one of the fortunate few who had a frame house. As the rain diminished and the sod house was dried out and livable again, they would return to their home.
After eight years Valentine and Phoebe had enough of Kansas life. Through the help of Valentine’s brother-in-law, Christian Birkey, of Hopedale, they were able to make the trip back to Illinois. In the fall of 1895 they loaded their few belongings, and Jerry, the remaining mule, on the train and started back to Illinois.
The family stayed with the Good grandparents at Hopedale until Christmas. Aunt Bertha recalls that for Christmas each child received a small card with fringes on it as their gift made by Grandmother Good. The family then moved to a farm in the Fisher area owned by Chris Birkey, Valentine’s brother-in-law, but occupied by Chris Eichelberger and family. The Eichelberger family shared three rooms with Valentine’s family until such a time that the Eichelbergers moved out. Aunt Barbara Bachman sent some clothing, smoked meat, and other items to help the family get established again.
Shortly after arriving in Illinois the Birkey children, still hungry, made their way across the creek into a hickory nut grove where they proceeded to satisfy their hunger with hickory nuts. Here was something to gather which they could eat rather than something to burn as they were used to gathering in Kansas. Aunt Bertha overestimated herself and ate too many of those hickory nuts and became quite ill. It was necessary for Dr. Dowd to call at the home and leave some medicine for the ailing child.
The remaining Birkey children (Silas, b. May 21, 1897; Joel, b. May 15, 1899; Ada, b. Aug. 15, 1903; and Edna, b. Mar. 6, 1907) were born at this place, making a total of nine children in the family.
Youth and Marriage
When Amos Hieser was growing up his eyes caught sight of a young Bertha Birkey. I can remember my mother (Mary Cender Hieser) relating Amos’ experience on his first visit to the Valentine Birkey home, but not to see Valentine, of course! Amos had a little help from two of Bertha’s teenage brothers, Joe and Alvin. While he was giving his attention to Bertha in one room, Joe and Alvin, being typical teenagers, were hiding Amos’ cap before going off to bed. Amos was not aware of the smuggling going on in the other room. When it was time for him to go home, no cap was to be found. Even with the help of Bertha, the cap remained elusive and Amos went home bareheaded. Today no one would mind, but in those days a cap was considered very important. Perhaps if Amos and Bertha had been very quiet they could have heard some noise coming from under the bedcovers where two very wide-awake boys were chuckling. In effect, they were merely lending Amos and Bertha a helping hand, as Amos went back a second time to reclaim his cap.
Amos, no different from other young men of his day, purchased the all-important buggy and a team of horses named Prince and Nell. Not only did this make it easier to call on Bertha more often, but now they could go riding away from Father Birkey’s house and those “helpful” brothers.
One evening during their courtship days they heard that the great world evangelist, Billy Sunday, was holding outdoor meetings at Gibson City. So Amos and Bertha, escorted by Prince and Nell, went to Gibson City to hear the prominent speaker. Believe it or not, there was a thief in the bunch. Uncle Amos had just purchased a new buggy whip, and that night it was stolen. [See more below.]
In those “good old days” the young folks got together for oyster soup parties. Evidently these parties became quite frequent as Amos and Bertha, John and Mary Cender Hieser, Dan and Mollie Birkey Zehr, Peter and Elizabeth Zehr Cender and John and Katie Zehr Cender became known as the “Oyster Soup Gang.”
After a four-year courtship, Amos Hieser and Bertha Birkey were married. For their wedding day they chose the second anniversary of Amos’ older brother, John, and wife, Mary––January 23, 1908. Bishop Peter Zehr performed the ceremony that took place at the home of the bride’s parents, Valentine and Phoebe Birkey. No doubt Bertha’s brothers, Joe and Alvin, enjoyed the day and perhaps even claimed a little credit for matchmaking.
Amos’ Mother Eyer furnished the duck for the wedding meal served to the immediate families. She brought flowers from a Christmas cactus plant for decorations, but while traveling by buggy the flowers were frozen before they reached the Birkey home.
The first year of their marriage the couple lived in the dwelling owned by Amos. He worked and farmed for Mother Eyer for $25 a month (his own chores consisted of one cow). On Dec. 15, 1909, his youngest brother, Joseph A. Heiser married Fannie Schrock. They made their home with Fannie’s father, John Schrock, and Joe took up farming for him. Mother Eyer had a public sale of her property, and Amos and Bertha moved from their home into the adjoining rooms of Mother Eyer’s home. Her husband, Andrew, remained hospitalized until about three weeks before his passing on Oct. 8, 1910. Then Amos resumed the full responsibility of farming for his mother and himself until 1923 when he retired. Although he retired from farming, Amos still kept livestock and continued his gardening and plant breeding experimentation.
In 1919 Amos’ brother, John (my father) died. At the time of his death he was superintendent of the Sunday school at East Bend Mennonite Church. That same year the church called Amos to fill the vacancy left by his brother’s death. For twenty-two consecutive years the church called on Uncle Amos to serve in that capacity.
Uncle Amos had a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures and stood firmly on what they taught. He lived what he taught and leadership was an outstanding characteristic of his. I will always cherish the memory of him summarizing the lessons each Sunday after class. Some expressions were common to him. He used the word “Christendom” many times, and I can still hear him use the phrases “feed my sheep” and “feed my lambs.”
In my younger girlhood days our family spent much time with Uncle Amos and Aunt Bertha. I felt very keenly the lack of my earthly father so I often thought of Uncle Amos being what my father would have been had he lived.
At our home we had horses, milking cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, guineas, and other pets. However, we never raised sheep. Uncle Amos, on the other hand, had many nice sheep on his farm, so I learned from him that sheep are unique animals—you don’t drive them, you lead them, and they learn to recognize their shepherd’s voice. We children would call all we wanted, to no avail, but when Uncle Amos called, the sheep recognized his voice and came immediately. Christ referred to himself as the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep, and the sheep know the shepherd. In my girlhood days I saw this object lesson enacted many times in the life of Uncle Amos as he tended his sheep.
After retirement Uncle Amos kept his livestock and bees, and continued to garden and experiment with plant breeding. I followed him as he went to his shop to put on his large hat with a gauze-type covering and leather gloves, in order to tend the beehives. I watched as he brought in honeycombs that the little busybodies had worked so hard all summer to make. And I ate that honey many times.
As a sideline, my Aunt and Uncle raised baby chicks, geese and little goslings, Bantam chickens and guineas. Pheasants were very scarce in those days, and Amos was persuaded to attempt raising a few. He tried hatching some pheasant eggs with an old setting hen. Pheasants were wild and raising them was rather difficult. They required special feed and it was most interesting watching Uncle Amos feeding them. He had a particular call which those little birds recognized. We could not imitate the call to the satisfaction of the little pheasants, but when Uncle Amos called the young birds would come slipping out of the bushes and flowers for their food. The next year at our house we also tried to raise pheasants but were only successful with one.
Another project of special interest was tree grafting. Amos would graft a small twig from one kind of tree into the branch of another tree. This took special care as he carefully broke the bark of a larger tree and slipped in the twig, wrapping it carefully with cloth so it could grow. He succeeded in raising three kinds of apples on one tree. If Bertha missed her husband she could usually find him engaged in experimental work on this technical project.
There came a time each growing season when the fields blessed by rain and sunshine needed to have the weeds uprooted. As a family group we went through the fields to do this task. Soon we would see Uncle Amos coming through the orchard gate for the mere enjoyment of being with us. As we pulled the weeds together with fun and laughter, we had many discussions, along most any line of thought imaginable. As we went back and forth from end to end in the fields we enjoyed many religious discussions.
Uncle Amos was multi-talented. One talent not so widely known was music. He enjoyed playing the fiddle, or violin as more commonly known today. As a family we spent many evenings in their home with my sister, Florence, playing the mandolin, and brothers, Vernon, the guitar, and Emory, the banjo. It took time to get the instruments tuned together, but once in tune we spent many enjoyable hours around the fireside singing and playing the old familiar hymns.
Bertha’s married life was one of a meek and quiet spirit, one of submission and faithfulness as the wife of the Sunday school superintendent of East Bend for so many years. About three years after their marriage, Bertha was afflicted with tuberculosis. The months she spent in a sanitarium in Ottawa, Illinois were not easy ones. Amos was able to go by train to Ottawa only twice, and two other persons she knew were the only visitors she had while there. However, she gained strength again until some time later when she had thyroid surgery. This was a serious operation in those days and it took some years to fully recover.
Bertha’s fancy was being in her garden with Amos and the beauties of God’s creative work, where there were growing vegetables and many different kinds of flowers: cock’s comb, hardy phlox, geraniums, and petunias lined around the house, along with other varieties to experiment with.
Even though Amos and Bertha had no children of their own, they enjoyed children very much. So years after the Chicago Home Mission first began its Fresh Air program to allow children who had good attendance at Sunday school to enjoy a two-week respite in a country Mennonite home, Uncle Amos and Aunt Bertha offered their home and became Mom and Dad during many summers of their life.
As a very small girl, Susie Riban [now Mrs. George Bowbin] came to their house for the first time. She returned year after year until the age limit was reached. Later she became a Christian mother and taught Sunday school and Bible school. No doubt if she told her personal story she would not overlook the years spent in the home of Amos and Bertha Hieser.
My greatest impression of Uncle Amos is his clear portrayal of the picture of Christ, the Good Shepherd. He died at age 57 on September 17, 1942, of blood poisoning caused by injuries received eight days previous when he was gored by a bull on his farm northeast of Fisher. Of Aunt Bertha, the traits of quietness, meekness and submissiveness express her entire life. Following several strokes she died Oct. 9, 1970 at the Mennonite Hospital, Bloomington, Ill., at age 85 years. She survived her husband 28 years.
There are so many joyful memories of the pleasant visits and fellowship we six children and our mother shared with Uncle Amos and Aunt Bertha.
Sunday Arrives in Gibson City for a Month-Long Revival
Rev. Billy Sunday arrived in town in June of 1907 for a crusade that was scheduled to last for a month, but according to the archives of The News-Gazette.com he preached for seven weeks. A large tabernacle was built specifically for the revival at 6th Street and Sangamon Avenue. (1)
Author Lyle Dorsett, in his 2004 book, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America, says it was in 1901 that instead of using a tent, the first tabernacle was built by the inviting town. In 1906 Rev. Sunday insisted this be done or he would not come—putting him in the league of Dwight Moody and J. Wilbur Chapman, other evangelists of the time. He concluded his sermons by inviting people to “walk the sawdust trail” to the front of the tabernacle to indicate their decision for Christ.
Unusual for American evangelists, Sunday also addressed social issues of the day. He supported women’s suffrage, called for an end to child labor, and included blacks in his revivals, even when he toured the deep South. . . . On one of the hottest topics of the day, evolution, he walked a tightrope: he had no sympathy for evolution, but neither did he warm up to Genesis literalists.
However, he was never a friend of liberals: “Nowadays we think we are too smart to believe in the Virgin birth of Jesus and too well educated to believe in the Resurrection. That’s why people are going to the devil in multitudes.” (2)