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John and Mary Schrock - An Unlikely Couple

The Personal Story of an Illinois Amish Mennonite Family

by Donna Schrock Birkey
Originally published in the Spring 2006 issue (Vol. XXXIII, No. 1)
Illinois Mennonite Heritage Quarterly (http://www.imhgs.org)

This story is based on remembrances of a grandchild who shared their lives and knew this John and Mary intimately. AHD lived next door, down the road, and eventually with her grandparents John and Mary Birky Schrock. She has eagerly shared her memories of my great-grandparents. At 90, AHD is the last living grandchild and lives in the house that was built by John for his son Albert’s family. I clearly remember being the recipient of Mary’s handouts at church, and occasionally while visiting her home being on the receiving end of her “sermons”—given mostly in German!

How John and Mary met and married

John Schrock was born 28 May 1862 in Elm Grove Township, Tazewell County, where John’s parents, Peter Schrock and Anna “Nancy” Garber, lived as their children grew up. John was the oldest living child; little Katie had lived only a few months in 1861. Mary Birky, born 19 September 1862 in Morton, Tazewell County, was the first child of Andrew S. and Veronica “Fannie” Sutter Birky.

Both families had an Anabaptist and Amish Mennonite ancestry. The Schrock’s immigrated from France and the Sutter’s from Bavaria, but originally Switzerland was the homeland of both families. After settling in Illinois they were likely part of the same church community in Tazewell County, where Andrew Ropp was minister and bishop. When Andrew settled four miles southeast of Pekin on Old State Road in 1834, it was the beginning of the Dillon Creek Amish settlement. John’s grandparents arrived in Tazewell County in 1850 and purchased land near the Ropp’s, becoming their neighbors.

According to Steve Estes in Living Stones: A History of the Metamora Mennonite Church, Andrew Ropp “served as minister of the Dillon Creek congregation until about 1840 when he was ordained as bishop. He was described as a person made up of ‘a large measure of push and energy and prompt decision, driven by a wish to succeed in building up a home and accumulating property.’ Ropp was an agricultural innovator but a religious conservative. His sincerity inspired deep devotion among many, but others criticized him as a minister who did more scolding, faultfinding, and preaching on ‘dress,’ than preaching the Gospel. Ropp was assisted in the ministry by Peter Ropp (1815-1893) who became deacon about 1843 and Valentine Birky (1817-1856) who was ordained a minister of the word about 1847. Also known as the Pekin district, the Dillon Creek congregation became the Pleasant Grove Mennonite Church now part of the First Mennonite Church in Morton, Illinois.”

The Schrock, Sutter and Birky families were evidently loyal to Bishop Ropp, for he married at least three couples:Mary’s parents on 25 Mar 1858, John’s parents two years later on 8 Jan 1860, and finally John and Mary themselves. Surely the entire family was greatly influenced by the teaching and life of Andrew Ropp and the Dillon Creek church community.

Although John and Mary had the same backgrounds and no doubt had the same set of young friends, how was it that the gentle, quiet, reserved John Schrock managed to attract a dashing, daring, high-spirited woman like Mary Birky? Their marriage settled (but didn’t answer) the question on 19 Feb1885 in Morton. They were both 22 years old, and as mentioned above, the presiding minister was Andrew Ropp. While living in Morton their two children were born: Albert Elmer in 1886 and Fannie Ann in 1889, an unusually small family for an Amish Mennonite family of the time.

Early life of Mary Birky

It is very possible that the Andrew Birky family lived quite a few years with the Sutter grandparents (Johannes “John” Sutter and Barbara Oesch), because all the stories told later by Mary about her childhood seemed to take place in the Sutter home. And since Fannie was the youngest of the Sutter children, perhaps she cared for her parents until their death.Mary had great respect for her Sutter grandparents. She and her brothers were taught to treat them kindly, with love and respect. Her grandfather was an Amish Mennonite minister who helped with the preaching when church meetings were held in homes. He also compiled a book of prayers that was published in 1874 by John F. Funk of Elkhart, Indiana. In spite of his earlier history it took lots of patience to live with them, Mary related later.

When a small “Grossfatterhaus” was built for the grandparents very near to the back door of the Birky home, Mary was often given the task of carrying meals her mother had cooked to her “Grossfatter Sutter.” In his older years John must have grown quite belligerent, for many times if the food didn’t suit him, he would throw the food and plate back at her. After a time Mary developed the ability to dodge the plate quite well. Perhaps as he aged his mind remembered more clearly the early days on his beautiful estate near Neuburg in Bavaria, where he was able to order life to his liking.

The house in which Mary and her family lived was still standing in Morton in 1971, inhabited by a Kaiser family. At the time Mr. Kaiser told of old bricks turning up when he plowed the garden west of the house, probably remnants of the Grossfatterhaus. The homestead was a short distance east of the old Tremont road going south out of Morton.

Mary was a fun-loving child–the one and only girl in a family with four younger brothers. One of the children’s favorite games was hide and seek, and one time Mary ran into the basement through the outside cellar door and hid behind the vinegar barrels. She remained hidden for quite a long time before her brothers found her. In her 87th year she was taken to Morton where she pointed out the house and cellar door where she had played as a child.

Being the only girl and the oldest child, Mary helped to care for her younger brothers. When she was about seventeen years old her ten-month-old brother, Amos, wriggled out of her arms and fell down an open stairway, receiving a severe head injury from which he never recovered. Amos was mentally retarded the rest of his 33 years. Later in her life Mary would often warn her grandchildren to be very careful when handling little children, for her own experience had caused her much regret.

Mary spoke of her father with great respect. He was apparently quite a devout Christian, but too strict to suit Mary, who thought her social life rather dull and limited.  Especially bringing her joy was having a Hopedale uncle bring his children and their friends for the evening. At one of these visits the young folks were square dancing to the tune of “The Drunken Sailor.”  As they were singing, “What do you do with a drunken sailor,” father Andrew entered the room, the fun stopped abruptly, and the “Hopedale boys” were sent home.  Andrew, the stern disciplinarian, must have been more quiet and uninteresting than his wife Fannie, for there were always more stories about mother than father.

Mary’s mother had a real sense of humor and lots of spunk. She dressed chickens, ducks and geese, made noodles, butter, and cottage cheese among other things. On a weekly basis the family loaded them all into the spring wagon and drove across the Illinois River to the market in Peoria, arriving early morning in order to obtain a choice booth location. Mary stayed in the booth while her parents were purchasing supplies to take home. She watched as the wealthy ladies walked down the rows of booths, putting a finger in a pot of butter or can of cream to taste it, then moving on and doing the same in the next booth. Mary watched eagerly to see if the ladies would come back to buy her mother’s products.

Early life of John Schrock

John’s family lived in several homes in Tazewell County, all near the Mackinaw River where the men hunted, fished and cut wood. He obviously enjoyed those days for John spoke about them until the end of his life. His father Peter and his wife moved to Fisher about 1900, and it was there Anna died in 1902.  Peter was known for helping family members who came upon misfortune, and it seems that quality was passed on to son John. When John was 19 his little brother Moses died at age nine.  As a man in his eighties, John still talked about the family’s sadness at giving up little “Mosey.”

Young John Schrock in a tin plate photo. About age 18.

Young John Schrock in a tin plate photo. About age 18.

John received a better education than most pioneer boys, in both German and English schools. He no doubt went to school only a month or two each year since he was still studying German and English readers in 1884 at the age of 22 years. He loved to read and was interested in world events. Many years later his brother Joe, who lived in Ohio, sent a gift subscription to the Toledo Blade, which John read through each week and read or quoted parts to his grandchildren.

About the time of his marriage, and probably before moving to Champaign County, John took an exciting excursion to Harper, Kansas. The railroad was giving special rates in order to get people interested in settling the West. Again, John told and retold the events of that trip. He was evidently a very thoughtful young man who continually savored both the sorrowful and joyful events of his life through the years.

The move to Champaign County

For the first few years following their marriage, Mary and John lived in a little house just east and a quarter mile north of the Sutter house in Morton. What were those years like? Mary was vivacious, fun loving, artistic and very much an extrovert, while John was reserved, gentle and steady. There was less than a year to adjust to one another before the first child, Albert, was born. Three years later Fannie arrived.

About that time several of Mary’s Sutter aunts and their families purchased farmland and moved to Champaign County. In 1891, when children Albert and Fannie were five and two, John and Mary also made the move from Morton to Champaign County. They lived in a small house on the farm they bought in present-day Brown Township near Fisher while a larger house was being built.

John and Mary's house--built by John.

John and Mary’s house–built by John.

John was very precise in all he did and built the house and barn well. When his son-in-law, Joseph A. Heiser, later tried to take apart anything that John had built, it was difficult because he had used three to five nails where other builders used only one. Mary’s father, Andrew, knew that a new church had been started to serve the growing Amish Mennonite community, so in the spring of 1892 Mary’s parents followed their children and bought acreage in the same Section 24 as John and Mary. He also purchased land in Section 20 of present-day East Bend Township.

John and Mary Schrock's house in 2009

John and Mary Schrock’s house in 2009

In 1895 a meetinghouse was built for the church and Andrew wished to donate an acre of his Section 20 land for a cemetery. Later that year he died, becoming the first person buried there, and then it was left to Fannie and the children to sign the deed giving the land to the church. After Andrew’s death, Fannie and her son Amos lived in a little house across the road near John and Mary, on land owned by her son, Andrew, Jr. The house was most certainly built for them by John. Fannie cared for Amos until he died in 1914 at the age of 33, but John was legal conservator, making sure the physical and financial matters of both were cared for properly. When Fannie visited her daughter Mary she kept busy sweeping porches, sidewalks, and even the bare ground. She remained active until her death in 1927.  Mary was very much like her mother.

Farm life and family activities

John farmed his land with the help of his only son. But when Albert was 15 years old he contracted the measles and as was so common in those days the sickness caused lasting physical consequences. Albert was left with weakened lungs and later developed tuberculosis. Perhaps this disability gave Albert the chance to learn his father’s love of reading and study, for he became a student of the Bible. He taught Sunday school and was considered a possible candidate for becoming a minister of the East Bend Church. He married Josephine Yordy and they had three children, but Albert died at age 30 of tuberculosis. Before he died John built a house for Albert and his family just down the road from his own house. After Albert’s death, John took on responsibility for the well being of his daughter-in-law and her children, making sure they were cared for until they were able to care for themselves.

John was not an ambitious man, so was content and happy to farm the soil, milk his cow and occasionally build a barn or crib for a neighbor. He also painted houses and barns for neighbors. For about 18 years John tended his farmland, but when daughter Fannie married Joseph A. Heiser in 1909, he turned the land and farmhouse over to them. J.A. farmed the land and received half the income, while the other half went to Albert’s family. John built a small house for himself and Mary just down the sidewalk. From that time they lived on funds from the farm rent and what he earned from his painting and carpentry work. John would leave in the morning with his buckets and brushes lined up in the front of his buggy, Prince pulling. They went plodding down the road, both horse and man, enjoying the fresh morning air and watching the crops along the way. After the day was over and they’d had another relaxing ride home, John would clean his brushes and pails and prepare for the next day’s work. After supper he was ready to sit in his rocker and read the newspaper, the Bible and the Gospel Herald before going to bed. Some time later his family persuaded him to buy a car and drive to work. He tried it a few days, but soon sold it. The car was too fast for him and it spoiled the enjoyment of his buggy ride to and from work.

In the book “Just Pete,” author Jenny Schrock tells of a visit to Illinois with John and Mary Schrock:

“After dinner with Pete’s aunts, we drove out to Joe Heiser’s farm.  They told us that Uncle John Schrock was painting a farmhouse a short distance away, so we drove our car there.  I remember John Schrock as a small man physically, with kindness wrinkles all over his face, and very soft spoken.  He was on a very tall ladder painting the south side of a three-story house when we drove up.  He got down and went to his home with us, and it was a wonderful time of visiting. Aunt Mary was very tiny and very vocal.  She kept things buzzing.  You couldn’t help but love her and laugh at some of the funny things she said.  I’m sure no one who saw Aunt Mary ever forgot her.  Pete brought Aunt Mary some Tootsie Rolls when we were there, and she really liked them.  She said, “They never hurt my stomach.” Uncle John and Aunt Mary lived in their house, and their daughter, Fannie, and husband Joe Heiser, with their five children…lived in a larger house in the same yard.  They showed us the large, beautiful garden after supper that night, and although Aunt Mary was quite elderly at the time, she wasn’t about to be ignored.  “I pull the weeds after the rain when the ground is wet,” she said.  And I’ll bet she did.”

John, far left, joins his family and neighbors for a day of butchering.

John, far left, joins his family and neighbors for a day of butchering.

A neighbor, Bertha Zehr now 98 years old, remembers the extended families of Samuel S. Zehr and John Schrock getting together to butcher. “Usually a cold, clear day was chosen, the children stayed home from school and the day was begun very early. At dinner we had fresh liver, and sausage was sent home with the Schrocks. John and Sam were very particular about boiling the lard to make soap, and trusting no one else to the job, they did it themselves to be sure it was right. Boil it too little and it would not hold together. Boil it too much and it would get grainy. In the spring, from time to time the Zehr families would be treated to asparagus from John’s well-kept garden patch.”

Bertha continues, “Albert (Bert) and I were married in 1927 and lived with Bert’s folks for nine years. It was at that time that I learned to know John and Mary, as we only lived one fourth mile from each other. When Mary and Lena (Bert’s mother) were together they would converse in German. Mary liked to keep a quilt in her quilting frame and would invite me to come and help even though I did not consider myself a good quilter. Surprisingly, she never wanted her daughter to help as Mary thought Fannie didn’t make nice stitches.

“One day in the early 1930s John came to the house and asked if Bert and I would loan him $3oo for a note coming due. I suppose he thought since I taught school we would have some cash. We really didn’t have much but Bert and I decided to make the loan to him.  He was such a kind and gentle person. We did not wish to charge him interest but when he paid us back he insisted on adding six percent. I am sure that John and Mary’s family was affected by the depression as were the rest of us. Fisher had two banks at the time; The Fisher State Bank closed its doors April 14, 1930. [Although John would normally never have considered asking a neighbor or friend for a loan, he was willing to do so to help his family in those depressed times. As it turned out, God provided the $300 from a different source and the money was paid back very quickly. DB] Mary enjoyed playing Parcheesi with us on a board that Sam had made–she was a very competitive player. If it didn’t suit John to bring her in the buggy, she would walk over and I would take her home in our coupe. Mary was boss, and John went along, but in many respects they went their own ways.

“My son, Carl, was born on Mary’s birthday so she always gave him a gift. The first was a child’s knife, fork and spoon.  Not long after she gave me some pink and white gingham so I could make him a romper. Sometimes it was a child’s hankie or a card, but Mary didn’t send a card or gift to any of my other children—only to Carl because he had the same birthday.”

John was immensely helpful to his daughter Fannie, who had five children and a pastor husband often unable to help much with home duties. So besides his painting, John helped Fannie’s family with their work; milking every morning and evening, making sure the animals got an extra pan of feed, or an extra forkful of hay; butchering and threshing; he rode the binder at wheat and oat harvest while the rest of the family shocked the grain bundles. John stacked the straw on threshing day and protected the stack from five lively children who would otherwise scatter it.

Each Monday morning he carried water into his kitchen, put it into the boiler and heated it for the week’s laundry. Gardening was a favorite activity and John took good care of the asparagus, rhubarb and horseradish. For a canning day, John was there for his daughter, quietly hulling peas, stemming beans, cutting cabbage, shucking sweet corn, cutting tomatoes, seeding cherries, peeling apples–anything to help his family. It was during these times that stories were told by John and Mary about the “olden days,” remembering their earlier lives at Morton with aunts, uncles and cousins.

John dearly loved his grandchildren. He spent a part of every day talking and playing with them; and if any were sick he would go next door and talk to them before he left for work. He had heavy bushy hair until his death and many times the grandchildren would comb it as he sat relaxing on the bench under the tree by his house. Even though they might have been rough, he always pretended to enjoy the brushing. Mary was impetuous, plucky, self-willed and bossy, and often gave John a hard time. Most men with less patience and kindness would have quarreled with her, but John was patient, forgiving and peace loving and therefore kept life calm and pleasant.

After all his grandchildren were married, he made the rounds of visiting each one and kept each garden free of weeds with a three-cornered hoe that was always as sharp as a knife blade. (I thought of my great grandfather recently as I worked in my parents’ yard fertilizing the grapevines and hoeing out the pesky weeds growing in the flower beds. I could have used his help!) He also had a deep love and concern for his three sisters: Lydia, who was separated from her husband, and the other two, Ella and Lena, who had never married. In his quiet way he was an inspiration to his family.

John's horse and buggy transportation

John’s horse and buggy transportation

Once or twice a week John and Mary hitched Prince to a buggy and went visiting, sometimes with a grandchild or two in tow to relieve Fannie for the afternoon. On their “to visit” list were Preacher Daniel Grieser; Pete and Adina Heiser; Dave Springer family; John and Mary Springer Naffziger; the John Young family–all acquaintances from their earlier lives in Tazewell County; Peter, Ella and Lena Schrock (John’s family); John Garber family (first cousin to John); Valentine B. Birky and Andrew Birky families (Mary’s relatives); and Mary’s mother Fannie Birky. Many of these would return the visit, and sometimes Mary’s brothers from Morton, Peter and John Birky, would visit.

John and Mary were good neighbors. John and several of the neighbor men looked after the affairs of the Brown School district where both Fannie and Albert attended, keeping the school in repair and hiring teachers. They organized the threshing ring and cared for the machinery. These neighbors helped each other, worked together and shared good and bad times. Mary was the first to offer assistance when there was sickness in a neighboring family, while John did their chores and whatever other work needed to be done. Mary helped Dr. Sale deliver many of the babies in the community while, in the early years, leaving her own children in the care of their father.

John’s house was his haven. It was always thought of by the grandchildren as “Grandpa’s house,” since Mary spent much of her time across the yard at Fannie’s. John cleaned and cared for his house and prepared his own breakfasts and suppers. He ate the noon meal with the rest of the family next door. Most of the time he made his coffee in a blue and white pot, cooked his oatmeal and ate bread and molasses alone at his kitchen table. His Bible and eyeglasses, sugar bowl and spoon holder, and vinegar and oil cruets were always on the table. He saved every piece of string he found, rolled it on a cob and kept it in one of the drawers of the sink.

In mid-life Mary impressed her grandchildren as being a little old woman, wearing dark clothes, a little black cap and laced-up shoes, size 4 or 5. Granddaughter AHD describes her grandmother: “She never in her life weighed 100 pounds. Under the black cap that she wore on her head with ties under her chin, she had balls of cotton in her ears–most likely to keep from getting an earache rather than because she had an earache. She wore a chamois skin vest and heavy knitted slip under her dress, summer and winter, to protect her lungs. She combed her hair back, parted in the middle and rolled into a tight knot. Although she was lively and always busy doing something, she had convinced herself she was an invalid. She made regular trips to Fisher with the horse and buggy to see Dr. Sale, who kept her supplied with many different tonics and liniments.“

In her later years, when she was no longer able to maneuver events to her own liking, Mary got herself ready for church early on Sunday’s and sat in the car waiting for the rest of the family. She wore her black or navy blue dress, the little cap on her head, a big black purse with small snap pocket purse inside for small change, and some peppermint candies to pass out to special children she had in mind. She carried a large man’s handkerchief with a crushed geranium leaf in the corner that made her smell like an herb garden. Some of her grandchildren were embarrassed as Mary carried her special cushion up the aisle to her seat at the front of the church.”

Bertha Zehr remembered that Mary would voice her thoughts in church occasionally, and made sure the children sitting near her were quiet, but she never heard John pray publicly. John and Mary were very different types of persons, but both loved the Lord and praised him for their salvation.  Both loved to read the Scriptures and spent many hours with their Bibles. John seldom revealed his faith in words, but his every act was an example of a godly life. He went to church faithfully, sitting on the second bench from the front on the right hand side of the East Bend Mennonite Church.  John seemed to feel that his service to God consisted in helping on the farm and around the house so that his son-in-law, J. A., could be free for church work and evangelistic meetings away from home. (J.A. was the one chosen as minister by the church after Albert died.)

Mary's Bible. Note the design on the paper used as a bookmark.

Mary’s Bible. Note the design on the paper used as a bookmark.

Mary read her German Bible regularly and memorized many portions. Often she would begin lecturing on some biblical subject, basically preaching a sermon, while her grandchildren tried not to listen. One of her instructions was taken from Luke 17:2 about not offending. She stressed the frightful results of offending another. When Mary was a young girl, one of the ministers convinced her and others that it was a sin to have a picture taken, so she burned all her pictures and promised her parents she would never again have her picture taken. This promise turned out to be a burden to her in later years when family pictures were being taken. It is interesting to see so many photos with Mary just off to one side or pretending to be unaware that a photo was being taken.

In spite of her drab outward presentation, Mary loved beauty and bright colors. She just didn’t wear them! She was artistic and made more than one hundred quilts of brightly colored pieces, many also embroidered. One of the more memorable was a friendship quilt made for daughter Fannie. The badly worn quilt was found under Mary’s mattress being used as a cover for the bedsprings. A rescued block was embroidered by Katie Frances Zehr, daughter of Bishop Peter Zehr, who later married John Cender.

Mary purchased yard goods for quilts, embroidery thread, notions of all kinds and groceries at Koyen’s Variety Store in Fisher. She always bought products that had a glass dish included, or a piece of silverware. Many of these she would then give away as gifts to others. Mary painted freehand on felt for sofa pillows and drew all her own patterns for embroidering pillowslips and dresser scarves. She used her Minnesota Model sewing machine to make clothes for Fannie and the granddaughters, never using a pattern.

Hair art made by Mary

Hair art made by Mary

Her talents also included footstools made with tin cans, hair receivers, and paper flowers. More than once Mary would work far into the night all week long to make a hundred or more paper roses for someone’s wedding arbor. She would choose brightly colored crepe paper and without a pattern or instruction her flowers looked very real. Her garden and house plants always flourished under her green thumb, often becoming part of a beautiful bouquet. Evidently she also mastered the Victorian craft of hair work, as she made designs of hair; one containing hair from John and Mary and their two children.

When any of the family was sick or had a cold, Mary took charge. In keeping with her Amish tradition, she mixed herbs and teas, poultices of kerosene and goose grease, or a hot toddy. When her son-in-law, J.A. almost died from 27 bee stings, Mary arrived just in time with the whiskey bottle. It was usually hidden from the children on the upper shelf of her closet. She didn’t want them to know about it or they many have become alcoholics. During a bout with scarlet fever, several of the grandchildren were “quarantined” to “Grandpa’s house.” Every evening they would play Parcheesi and John and Mary proved to be good sports. When caring for her family, Mary had gentleness in her hands that everyone noticed when she bathed the children, washed their faces or combed their hair. They could feel her gentle touch. At other times she vigorously directed both households.

Mary was a cat person. All the farm cats were “Grandma’s cats” and she personally supervised their feeding and care. She gave her husband orders about how much milk to give them in the barn. All table scraps were hand sorted and divided among the cats according to their particular needs. She always knew when each litter of kittens was due and would find the right place in the coalhouse for them to be born. She would climb into the top of the coalhouse with only rafters and a few boards across for a floor, and arrange homes with the right amount of straw for each cat. Then, as she did for neighbor babies, she personally supervised all the kitten births. Those births were kept a secret until the kittens were old enough to be handled by the children. But the Heiser family dog, Dottie, learned how to impress Mary, and was privileged to sleep in the box behind the kitchen stove with her special cat, Beauty Belle. Mary used a fly swatter or a cup of cold water to keep Dottie in line.

In about 1942 J. A. and Fannie remodeled the little “grandfather” house and moved into it with John and Mary, while one of the grandsons took over the larger house and the farming work. Fannie began cooking all the meals and letting her parents eat in their own little kitchen. Mary’s progressing arteriosclerosis complicated life, and during the ten years they were together in this house, she became quite a problem to her daughter. But John was patient with his wife and kept things as peaceable as possible–much of the time by following her wishes. Mary seemed to enjoy and appreciate the care and concern shown by her family. In 1945 there was a 60th wedding anniversary celebration. Both John and Mary enjoyed the day, but it proved too exciting for Mary, so there was no 65th celebration in 1950.

During the last year of John’s life, his sister Lena became ill with cancer and died in June 1950. John was about 25 years older than Lena and he always had a special place in his heart for her. He felt the loss keenly when she passed away. Lena was much like her older brother John, with a sweet, gentle disposition, and showed much patience with her older neurotic sister, Ella. Ella became so disturbed after Lena’s death that she was taken to a mental hospital for a time, then to a nursing home where she died in February of 1951. About a month before Lena’s death, John and Mary’s daughter Fannie became ill and was in and out of the hospital until her death in December. Fannie’s death was extremely difficult for this kind, gentle father to bear. She was the third of his immediate family to die in less than a year.

The deaths of John and Mary

Granddaughter AHD, whose husband had died in March of 1951, decided she would take on the care of John and Mary after the death of Fannie. They moved into her home and John once again demonstrated his thanks by peeling potatoes, hulling peas, snapping beans, and even at age 89 occasionally hoeing in the garden.

Then one day in early July of 1951 AHD found John sitting in his chair, crying. She asked why, and he answered by thanking her for helping himself and Mary. But he had one more favor to ask if she was willing to promise. He requested that if he should die before his Mary, AHD would continue to care for her and not take her to a nursing home. He was afraid that since she was so difficult to get along with, anyone outside the family might mistreat her. Of course, she promised.

Later in the month, on the 28th, John’s son-in-law J.A. found him dead, lying on his cot. He had only lived with his granddaughter four months. It was difficult for her to give up this kind grandfather with the smiling face and honest blue eyes–his death left a tremendous void in her life. What a tough year it had been for the couple and their extended families—the death of Lena, Ella, Fannie, AHD’s husband, and John. John’s parents, three brothers and four sisters, and both children preceded him in death.

While living with AHD, Mary seemed not to be aware that her daughter Fannie had died earlier in the year. For the first few months she helped around the house, but after John died, she could never be trusted alone. She did enjoy talking with her visitors even though many times she wasn’t aware of their identity. Mary continued exhibiting her generous spirit by giving small gifts to people, but the downside was that when she had given away all of her own treasures she began to give away items belonging to AHD as well.

Her strong personality carried through to her old age, for when she didn’t want her body washed or her hair combed she fought like a child. Her eating habits depended largely on what kind of snack she liked at any particular time–tootsie roll candy, instant vanilla pudding, buttered bread and jelly–and she would eat nothing but that snack.

Soon after John died Mary decided to be bedfast and she remained in bed until her death in 1954. On the morning of her death she commented she couldn’t see the sunshine–she had become blind. At noon she could only eat a few bites of her favorite vanilla pudding. In the afternoon she took a few sips of water and one of the last things Mary said before becoming comatose was, “Maybe today I’ll see my Jesus.” That evening about 7 o’clock, with granddaughter AHD and a great grandson by her bedside, Mary took her last breath. She had outlived all her children and her siblings. Her life was now history. She was a simple, yet complicated, person–one-of-a-kind for sure–talented, giving, and helpful. She had at the same time a spellbinding character and an unpleasant one. Living with her was an interesting and trying experience, yet her family loved her very much.

John and Mary, and their children Albert and Fannie, all died and went to be with the Lord in the house John had built for Albert—the one where granddaughter AHD still lives. The parents of both John and Mary, and their children and spouses, are all buried in the East Bend Mennonite Cemetery donated by Andrew Birky. John and Mary left 8 grandchildren, 24 great grandchildren and one great-great grandchild. Both were original members of East Bend Mennonite Church.  Ezra Yordy preached Mary’s funeral. Noah Roeschley preached John’s.

This unlikely couple lived together for 66 years, raised a lively extended family, were active in their church and neighborhood community, and provide a quiet, but important behind-the-scenes legacy of Illinois’ Amish Mennonite community life.

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