The Ballad of the Freemartin Town P.O.
How many ways can you spell Hostetler?
Painted mailboxes. (Photo by Mary Swander)
We had faith in Faith. We knew the Freemartin Town post office ran like any other local business, so we pulled together and supported it. But our previous postmasters stayed three months, maybe a whole year if we were lucky. One up and left in the middle of the night and our Budgets (the Amish newspaper) piled up in the P.O. like stacks of cord wood.
So, some tears were shed when Faith, who had been with us for years, wrote a letter to The Paper (our local rag), announcing her “resignation.” She was retiring, she insisted, but we all knew better.
Faith thanked the post office employees for their hard work, how they put in long hours, delivering the mail through rain, sleet, snow and gloom of night. How they were chased and sometimes bitten by our dogs.
Then Faith thanked the customers for their stories and postcards, and how out of kindness, they shoveled the sidewalk in the winter. She thanked the Amish for shoveling up their horses’ droppings, too, when their buggies were tied to the stop sign in front of the P.O.
But Faith, like all the postmasters who came before her, finally confessed our names drove her nuts. “I’ve loved this job, but how many ways can you spell Hostetler?” she asked.
In the early settlement days, there were only a handful of Amish who came here, and most of the 5,000 present-day Amish and Mennonites in this region are direct descendants of this original group. We may have 20 surnames tops with subtle multiple spellings of each name.
For example, we have Hostedlers and Hochstedlers and Hostetlers. We have Schlabaughs and Schlabachs and Slabachs. We have Bontragers and Borntragers. There are 500 Millers on my rural route, and probably as many Yoders. We have hundreds of Gingerichs, Troyers, Beachys, Benders, Ropps, Schrocks and Zooks.
Amish first names tend to come out of the Bible, multiplying like loaves and fishes. Mary, Eldon, Levi, Lydia, and Jake. There are so many similar first names with so few choices for last names, that middle initials are used to distinguish one person from another. If a father’s name was Tobias Yoder, each of his sons might take “T” for a middle name. So, we have Samuel T Yoder. Amos T. Yoder. Eli T. Yoder. Moses T. Yoder. And David T. Yoder. And we simply call that family “the Ts.”
Listen: “The Ballad of the Freemartin Town P.O.” with Melissa Capezio.
Among themselves, the Amish identify couples by both husbands’ and wives’ first names. David T. Yoder, married to his wife, Martha, becomes David T.-Martha, and Martha becomes Martha-David T.
It took longtime post office clerk Brandy to untangle most of the mysteries. Once, Faith received a letter addressed to Mary Yoder in Freemartin Town. No street address, no ZIP code.
Faith knew of at least 10 Mary Yoders in the area. “What am I supposed to do with this?” she asked Brandy.
“What’s the return address? Brandy asked, and when Faith showed her the envelope, she said, “Oh, that’s Mary Yoder’s brother’s wife’s cousin who married a Miller and moved to Ohio, so that’s Mary Yoder on 560th Street.”
And then there are the “M” names. Mary and Miriam are common women’s names, but they are easy to keep track of compared to the Amish men’s names. One nuclear family alone might have a Mahlon, a Merle, a Marvin, a Moses, and a Marlin.
If that isn’t enough, you might open The Paper and find that a Schwartzendruber has married a Schwartzentruber. Or a Yoder has married another Yoder and they are living temporarily in their parents’ basement or the grandpa dawdy house. Yet they still need a new address number and an identifying 911 stake pounded into the ditch in front of the farmstead.
On Faith’s final day, we all gathered in the P.O. parking lot and sent her off with a party of cake and ice cream, and a song, “The Ballad of the Freemartin P.O.” We thanked her for putting up with us all these years. She was the best.
Once, she raced out to the highway and picked up our mail from the road herself when a tornado hit one of the mail trucks. She sandbagged and stood nervously in the post office front door watching the 2008 flood waters lap at the step. Then the pharmacist next door let loose a raft of rubber ducks and she laughed, watching them float by. We tried to support her. We’ve never had anyone else with the name “Faith” in Freemartin Town.
Check out my podcast where you will hear more of this story: “AgArts from Horse & Buggy Land.”
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