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The True Story of Yonie Kauffman

(as adapted by Brad Igou)

Recently, I came across the story of Yonie Kauffman, an Amishman in the Big Valley area of Pennsylvania. It is certainly one of the most unusual stories to come out of Amish culture, and it is true. It was put into novel form by Joseph Stoll, an Amish writer at Pathway Publishers, the Amish publishing house in Canada. The book is called The Wasted Years. The story is fascinating, and it also points out that much of our story of Jacob and the dialog seem to be rooted in reality. If our story of Jacob’s Choice is not exactly the norm, then certainly the story of Yonie Kauffman is even more unusual and bizarre. Nevertheless, it did occur. It is reminiscent of the French film Return of Martin Guerre and the American version Sommersby. Following is my synopsis of the story, and some actual passages from the book by Joseph Stoll, published in 1993.

In 1900, Yonie Kauffman was 20 years old. In fact, he was almost twenty-one. In two months, and he would have a birthday, and then he would be on his own. That was what Yonie was thinking about as he rested against the hoe handle. On his own---free to come and go as he pleased, to choose his own work, to be his own boss. Yonie heard a train whistle echo down the valley. Trains had always fascinated Yonie. They were a romantic symbol of the great beyond, of life outside this narrow valley... Oh, the time would come when he would get out and see the world.

Yonie’s mother shouted at him, for he was obviously daydreaming. Yonie thought about his situation as he got back to his hoeing. The humiliation of it all! Here his mother ordered him around as if he were a young lad... Yonie resented having to stay at home to hoe. But carpenter work was scarce, and his dad had made the decision that morning---Yonie would stay home and help the womenfolk hoe the garden. Now Yonie’s mother questioned him.

"What makes you so quiet, son?" she asked. "Is something bothering you?"

Yonie shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, I don’t know," he answered.

"Of course you know," she insisted, not unkindly. What point was there in telling his mother how dissatisfied he was? She would never understand. Why tell her how irked he became when Dad gave him orders. Yonie couldn’t stand being bossed around, and his dad still used him like a little boy, it seemed. Whenever he worked with his father, there was always tension and resentment building up inside him.

"Come, Yonie," she coaxed. "Tell me what’s wrong. You’re not the happy young man you used to be. What has changed you?"

What has changed me? Yonie wondered. Why am I the way I am? He wished he knew the honest answer to Mom’s question. But he did not, so he was silent.... How could he explain to his mother this restlessness that seized him and made him miserable? How could he make her understand when he did not understand himself?

There was much in this valley that was dear to Yonie, and he knew his roots should have grown deep. That was what perplexed him. Why should he have this urgent longing to get out and see the world, the strange places he had read about in his geography books and elsewhere?

Yonie’s mother thought maybe the sermon at the last church service, the communion, and ordination would have had a positive effect on Yonie. Indeed, his uncle’s becoming a preacher had moved him, but his inner dissatisfaction remained.

Yonie reflected on his home and family, and the stories his mother told him of the days when the Amish first came to the Kishacoquillas Valley, stories told to her by her parents. But Yonie’s thoughts were disrupted by cries, and Yonie saw that the Zook’s barn was on fire. Nothing could be done to save the barn, the fire started by a child playing with matches. When it was all over, Yonie’s little cousin was dead. Suddenly Yonie felt guilty for his dissatisfaction earlier in the afternoon. His problems were minor compared to what his Aunt Rachel was suffering at this moment.

Yonie ended up getting hired by the crew that would rebuild the barn. He wasn’t really too happy, because he had heard the man in charge was a tough boss. "What’s wrong? Don’t you appreciate a good job when work is scarce?" asked Dad.

"I guess." That was all Yonie would say. But inside he was rebelling... Dad had not even asked him his opinion, whether or not he wished to work for this man. On the job, as he expected, he was not very happy. Yet who or what was the main object of his dissatisfaction, he could not say. Perhaps it was Yonie Kauffman! Well, once he was twenty-one, he would find out. Then things would be different.

When Yonie learned his good friend Amos’s family was moving to Ohio, he wanted to go along and help them move in, seeing a little of the outside world along the way. Yonie asked his father, who replied abruptly, "No, I can’t see any point in that. You’ve no business in Ohio, and besides, how would you ever get back" Yonie knew the subject was closed. When he realized the trip to Ohio was forbidden, it seemed all the more desirable. But his father had given him no consideration. It was the same old story.

The summer of 1900 wore on. Yonie Kauffman’s twenty-first birthday passed, and the money he now earned was his own to keep or to spend. At home, the tensions between father and son did not lessen, as Dad Kauffman continued to be curt with Yonie, ordering him around as before. Yonie, for his part, was determined to now to bear the injustice in silence. He nursed his resentful feelings and kept them to himself as much as possible. And so the rift widened.

Then Yonie heard that there was work out in the Kansas Amish settlement. He had enough money to take the train, and announced his plans to go. His mother was upset. "But it’s dangerous. You never know what company you’ll get into. Why don’t you stay home, and join church?"

And settle down once, and get married. Yonie could finish what he thought his mother was thinking. But Yonie did not want to be tied down yet. What harm could there be in having a good time first?

"Let him go" Dad Kauffman told his wife. "maybe he’ll learn his lesson. My guess is he’ll come home broke, and then maybe he’ll appreciate what people have done for him here."

Yonie left, and after the harvest, still did not return, or even write very often. His parents became concerned. "Maybe I was too harsh with him while he was at home. I know I should have been more patient. But that doesn’t excuse Yonie. He knows better."

"We’ll have to keep writing, and urge him to come back," continued Mom. "We must pray for him, and trust that he will see his error."

But letters soon came back noting that Yonie had moved on, with no address. And so the months passed with no word.

Unknown to them, Yonie had tired of a nomad’s life and he was homesick for his family and his childhood home. Of greater importance, the burden of his conscience had grown too heavy, and he was ready for a change. He wanted to make peace with his parents and God.

He returned to the Big valley in 1903, resolved to make a new start, to right his wrongs, to join the church, to live a Christian life. He was willing to humble himself and admit that he had erred. And he was aware that the more than two years he had spent out west had been wasted years---a time when his life had lacked direction, and he had gone from one job to another, without aim and without purpose.

Yonie was sick of such a life, and he knew now he could live a better one, if only... If only he got a welcome from his family and former friends. If only he could be accepted by them, and then was worthy of their esteem. If only he could overcome the temptations that came to him, the periods of discouragement, the feelings of resentment and rebellion. If only...

Things went pretty well for Yonie when he returned. He got a job in the sawmill, and even survived what could have been a fatal accident. Luckily, the blade would only leave a big scar on his left shoulder.

As the summer progressed, Yonie’s shoulder healed rapidly. He attended the young folks’ singing regularly, and joined heartily in the singing of the old martyr hymns. He had an exceptional singing voice and enjoyed using it.

For some time Yonie had been giving serious thought to getting married and starting a household of his own. But he was still unsure of himself. There was only one girl that was of interest to him, and that was Mary Stoltzfus... He was thinking of how highly respected Mary was, and of his own record of the past --- his disobedience in going out west, his moody spells of discouragement, his bouts with his temper... Dad and Mom Kauffman were pleased with Yonie’s interest in Mary. If any girl could bring out the best in Yonie, Mary was the one.

But Yonie had a rival in seeking Mary’s affection, his distant cousin John Kauffman. Even though Mary would let Yonie take her home from the singings, she never really seemed to make a commitment to him.

Time passed, and one day Yonie found himself cutting stone up in the mountains. Deciding to come and finish the next day, he carefully hid his pick and shovel in a crevice between two rocks where no passing hiker or tramp might find it. He wanted to return home and be sure to get to the young people’s corn husking that night, and see Mary again.

But at the husking, he fell in with a group of boys who had brought some hard apple cider along, and they succeeded in getting Yonie to drink too much. Rather than have to face Mary in such a state, he decided to simply go home with his sister. As he left, he saw Mary being taken home by his rival, John.

The next morning Yonie woke with a bad headache. At that moment life was hardly worth living. If he indeed lost Mary, what was the use of trying? Yonie was disappointed, discouraged, despondent --- more so than he had ever been in his life.

Mary Stoltzfus was genuinely sorry, but she had made up her mind that their friendship should end.

Thus, when Yonie learned of a group of young men planning to take a trip to the Amish settlement in Lancaster, he decided it would be good to get away for a while. His parents thought he might even find a young woman there that might strike his fancy. But when the group returned a week later from Lancaster, Yonie was not with them. Mom and Dad Kauffman debated what to do. Mom wanted Dad to go to Lancaster. Dad thought Yonie wouldn’t listen to him, and that Mom would be able to talk to him better. But before they could do anything, a letter arrived from Lancaster from a friend saying Yonie had gone, and no one knew where he went.

Six years passed, and although the Kauffman’s waited every day for a letter from Yonie, none came. Now it was 1909, and Yonie’s sister was getting married, and wished her brother could be there. But by this time, Yonie had become a sailor, and was out on the oceans, visiting other lands. Still, he was sometimes unhappy with his life, with his companions, the card games, the drinking. So he resolved to return home. Unable to write to his parents, he wrote his sister...

"I should never have left home. I know it was a terrible thing to do, and no doubt Mom and Dad have long disowned me. Now I would like to come home, but I would like to know first if I am welcome. Please write and tell me the truth. I do not want to come back if nobody wants me back. But I would like to lead a different life."

Yonie would be in New York for two weeks, and he had a post office box, anxiously awaiting a reply. But he was shocked to receive his own letter back, unopened, and stamped "Refused."

Yonie was crushed. This was so unlike Mary. or had Dad given her orders? The truth was evident to Yonie. His family had rejected him. He was no longer welcome.

So Yonie determined to return to the ship and his life on the sea. Unknown to Yonie, however, was the fact that his letter ended up by accident at the home of an old maid (named Mary like his sister) in the Big Valley, who thought someone was playing a joke on her, and refused this supposed letter from the long gone Yonie Kauffman.

Then, in 1915, a friend of the Kauffmans ran into a 35-year-old man in Ohio who he was sure was Yonie. Of course, much time had passed. It was decided that Dad Kauffman and a sister would go and see him. Dad had his doubts, even more so when he met the man in the hotel room. Sister was not quite sure. They asked him to reveal his bare shoulder and see the scar, but none was there. The man offered no information, refused to say who he was, and did not speak the dialect. No response came when Dad said all was forgiven if he would just come home and be their son again.

Back home Mom Kauffman was distraught. She wanted so to believe her Yonie had been found. As the family talked, it was learned that the scarred shoulder was actually the left one. Could it be it really was Yonie, and he had purposefully showed them his right shoulder only?

Several months passed, and a tramp arrived at the Kauffman home. Mom saw his face, and suddenly her heart jumped. She asked if he was Yonie, and he said that indeed he was. Thus, in 1916, the mysterious man from Ohio had come home, and admitted to being the long lost Yonie. However, some people had their doubts, including Dad Kauffman. Besides, Yonie’s lifestyle was less than desirable. He came and went. He did odd jobs. He still had a drinking problem. He still disliked interference and advice. Thus neither Dad, Mom, nor the ministers could persuade him to change his life. People continued to argue about whether this really was Yonie. As time went by, he joined a Mennonite Church, but then was expelled for his drinking problem.

One day Dad Kauffman did not arise from bed. As Mom talked to him, she feared the worst. He spoke these words about Yonie as he lay dying...

"I see now we were too hard on Yonie when he was a young lad. Or at least I was. I meant it for his good, because I saw so many boys growing up without restraint, and I didn’t want to make that mistake. Yonie is natured a lot like I am, and I often wished my dad would have helped me overcome my temper when I was a boy. Now I see that I was too harsh with Yonie.... Sometimes I feel my life has been wasted if Yonie doesn’t repent."

Yonie seemed affected by the death of Dad in 1923 at the age of 78. He came to visit Mom more, and did chores around the house. Then the day came for the reading of dad’s will. When Yonie heard that all dad was leaving him was $25, and that the rest of the estate would be divided equally among the other children, he was angry, and heard to mutter, "Twenty-five dollars! Chicken feed!" He felt that his older brother Crist was to blame for his being shut out of Dad’s will. One night a fire broke out in Crist’s barn, and it burned to the ground. Yonie was suspected, but there was no way to know for sure.

Ten months later, Mom Kauffman passed away at the age of 70. People thought this might finally change Yonie, but he came to the funeral with the smell of liquor on his breath.

As some time went by, the family members talked among themselves, and decided to try and help Yonie buy a home of his own, since it appeared Yonie was making a decent living, and perhaps could be convinced to put some money into a place of his own. This is what happened, and Yonie got his place in a town far enough away that he wasn’t seen all that much anymore, although they heard he was getting married.

By now, most people had probably forgotten the controversy over whether this really was Yonie, but the real Yonie was indeed somewhere else. He was still a sailor, and had now reached the conclusion that he had to return home. He arrived on a Sunday, not really wanting to be seen. He managed to enter the house through an open window. It became clear that one of his sisters lived her now, and that his parents were both dead. He longed to return to the days when he was young, sitting at the table, hearing Dad read from the German Bible. Yonie felt he had wasted his life. He was alone, no wife, no family. He thought of what might have been. Yonie couldn’t decide what to do.

As night came, he decided to look for a barn to sleep in, and maybe for a meal. Tramps were not unusual visitors to the Amish in those Depression years. He went to the Levi Yoder farm, and made his request. But Levi surprised him by saying that he looked for all the world like Yonie Kauffman. Yonie broke down, and admitted that indeed he was. When Yonie’s sister and others in the family heard the news, they could not believe it.

They went to meet the new Yonie, and Mary knew it was indeed her brother as soon as she saw him, and also wondered how she could have been so fooled by the other. To put all doubters to rest, Yonie bared his left shoulder, where the scar from the sawmill accident was still clearly evident. A few days later, to further prove his identity, he took some people up into the mountains, and there located that pick and shovel he had hidden in the rock crevice some thirty years ago.

Yonie was a changed man. He was repentant and very sorry for the pain and sorrow he had caused his parents by his disobedience. But it was too late to make amends to them. What a waste his life had been. The most he could do now was to live the remaining years of his life in a way that would have been acceptable to them. Only thus could he hope for God’s forgiveness, and for grace and mercy for his soul.

Who then was this other Yonie Kauffman? Yonie heard of the impostor, and on August 25, 1932, the local newspaper reported on the meeting of the two Yonies. The impostor, now married, had heard of the news of the real Yonie’s return, and told others how he had come to the Kauffmans, at the urging of friends, perhaps convinced of receiving an inheritance. He seemed almost relieved now that his fear of this happening was over, and he could admit what was in fact the truth. As the newspaper noted when the two men met, the impostor showed "no reluctance to admit the imposition and he found the man he wronged just as ready to forgive and forget." The imposter also admitted to having set fire to Crist Kauffman’s barn after Dad Kauffman’s death.

And thus ends one of the strangest stories in Amish history. It is a story of sadness and deceit, or disappointed parents and a disobedient son, of years wasted in sinful living.

The only happy portion of the story is the somewhat brighter ending, but even this is tinted by regrets and sorrow over what might have been. The End.

Amish Country News Article by Brad Igou

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