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
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 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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.