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October 20, 2021

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John Ulrich Amstutz, an early entrepreneur

Our Swiss connection - part 18

This is the 18th installment in this series. See the map of the Amstutz farm at the bottom of this story. Click here for the previous installment.

This column features one of the most interesting Bluffton-Pandora area Swiss immigrants, John Ulrich Amstutz, and this column is a continuation of last week's feature.

This story is a reprint from an article written by Herman Hilty in the December 1988 issue of Mennonite Life.

By Herman Hilty
The first Mennonite museum in North America, perhaps anywhere, dates back to 1855, when 23-year-old John Ulrich Amstutz (1832-1919) purchased his parents’ 40-acre farm in the heart of the Swiss Settlement, midway between Bluffton and Pandora.

John Ulrich Amstutz developed a wide range of services on his farmstead, which for more than half a century was a community center.

The farmstead consisted of an undertaking establishment, sawmill, sorghum mill, cider press, general store and shop for casket making, blacksmithing and watch repair.

To add delight to all these services was a museum located in the combination store and watch repair shop.

J.U. Amstutz, a man of wide-ranging curiosity, was an avid collector of historical and natural science artifacts from the community and beyond.

As collector and curator of his museum, he welcomed everyone to come and see the collections while they lingered in the clock and watch shop or waited the completion of task in nearby enterprises.

Rev. Myron Hilty, whose parents, Amos and Helena Hilty, lived next to the farm on the east, tells how J.U. enjoyed taking people to see his collections and relating to them a full history of each item.

At the center of his collection was a small historical library of leather-bound books brought from Switzerland: a 1582 Bible, a Martyr’s Mirror, hymn books and several dozen other books.

Adding to this were a spinning wheel, flax breaker, rope machine, clocks, ostrich egg, many arrowheads and other items.

Anyone could come and see; no admission fee was charged. In the window facing the nearby road was a large clock that permitted passersby  to see the time of day without dismounting their wagons.

After Ulrich and his second wife, Barbara Klay Amstutz, moved to the Swiss Settlement area from Canton Bern, Switzerland, they bought 40 acres of land from the U.S. land office at Wapakoneta on Oct. 7, 1835. They probably built a log cabin first, but in 1848, they built the house, still standing, which was in 1988 the residence of the Paul Miller family.

The farmstead now in Allen County, lies on the south side of the Allen-Putnam Countyline Road, near the Suter Cider Press.

Ulrich had good help in building that house in 1848 and his older son, Christian U., was 19, and his younger son, John Ulrich, was 16.

After Christian had married and purchased his own farm, John U. bought the 40 acres from his parents on Jan. 13, 1855. His father, Ulrich, died that same year.

P.B. Amstutz book
In 1925 P.B. Amstutz wrote a history of this Swiss Settlement. Originally written in German, it was published in English in 1979 by the Swiss Community Historical Society, titled Historical Events of the Mennonite Settlement in Allen and Putnam Counties, Ohio.

He wrote the following about John U. Amstutz:
"John U. Amstutz saw the light of day in 1832 in Canton Bern, Switzerland, and came to America with his parents as a 2-year-old boy. With the passing of time, as he believed it was not good that man should live along, he entered the state of matrimony with the author’s sister, Katharina Amstutz, in 1856 and to them were born two sons, Noah and Samuel, and three daughters, Anna, Marion and Barbara.

"John U. had several skills aside from his main business of farming. On his farm he had a variety of buildings where he and his family followed the crafts of working with clocks, blacksmithing, lathe and other work with wood.

"In addition to this, they also operated a cider press and sorghum cane mill and press.

"His special interest lay in the collection of artifacts. These items were collected from the four corners of the earth and exhibited in a room built for that purpose.

"He began his unusual profession as an undertaker when he was still a young man in 1853. He carried on this occupation for 42 years and within this time conducted 399 funerals.

"He made the coffins himself until the very last years when he finally bought them.

"His hearse was an ordinary spring wagon, which was prepared especially to carry the coffin. The coffin was covered with a blanket made for that purpose.

"For these 399 coffins approximately $1,000 to $2,000 were paid out, which sum would hardly buy three or found modern coffins today.

"On the years 1864-67 and 1872 only one person was buried, whereas in the year 1853 (the year of a severe typhoid epidemic) 27 persons went to their eternal rest."

Amazing variety of activities
Such an amazing variety of activities prompts the question of what stimulated this flowering of enterprises. The original farm had only 40 acres; J.U. had to find other income to support his large family. The making of coffins led naturally to his supplementary wood-working business.

This led to the addition of a steam-powered sawmill. J.U. provided services that people could not readily do for themselves. All this he did at minimal cost to those served. As a versatile entrepreneur, J.U. cold have become a very wealthy man. Instead he remained the humble servant of the community, a man of modest means.

No information is available as to when the sorghum cane mill was started. Undoubtedly it was in operation in the 1890s and continued to operate until 1944.

Because there were some many men named John Amstutz in the early days, J.U. had a nickname that was almost always used when talking in Swiss about him, or his amazing place.

He was known as “Stutz Uhli Hans,” literally, Amstutz, Ulrich’s John.

Such distinguishing names were much used in the community. Other examples are Waggner Stutz, for the John Amstutz who made wagons and Gabla Stutz, for P.B. Amstutz, author of the community history. The latter had a wooden fork factory, so Gabla (fork) fit him well.

Delegating responsibilities
The secret to how Stutz Uhli Hans managed so many activities so well and still had time to sell and repair clocks and operate his rural store must have been that he was an expert in delegating responsibilities.

Neighbor Dan Amstutz would arrive early in the morning to make sure that everything was ready at the sorghum cane mill; he was also in charge of the cooking in the early days.

Dave Wenger usually operated the levers in the sawmill that moved the carriage with the log on it into the saw.

The same employees doing their seasonal jobs year after year insured smooth operations. The majority of these workers also farmed, so this employment provided a welcome source of additional cash income. No complaints have been recorded as to wages paid or services rendered.

In addition to the enterprises identified in P.B. Amstutz’s book, J.U. also had a building with a covered drive-on scale large enough to weigh loads of hay or grain. He owned a portable butchering outfit that was rented out at 25 cents per day. In the 1890s his son, Sam, acquired a camera and soon became the photographer for the rural community.

J.U. and his wife, Katharina, had five children. Noah, the oldest, was born in 1857 and died in 1893 without ever having married. Anna married John Winkler, and Marion married Carl Roethlishberger. John and Carl, the sons-in-law, established a cane mill on the Winkler farm, three miles to the southeast. Barbara married Solomon Welty. Sam, the youngest and the photographer, married Fanny Schnegg.

Katharina, J.U.’s wife, died in 1884. Several years later he married Elizabeth Moser Luginbuhl, a widow of the sister of Bishop John Moser.

She was grandmother of 13 Miller children, whose mother, Verena, had died of pneumonia and whose father could not support the family on their farm in Hoopeston, Illinois. Four of the Miller sons move to Bay City, Michigan, to live with an Oviatt family; three of the daughters moved to Bay City to live with another family.

The youngest three grandchildren, Ed, Rose and the baby Willie were welcomes into the home of J.U. and Elizabeth Amstutz.

John U. died in 1919 at the age of 87. His son, Sam, who lived on the homestead his entire life, died in 1927.

The farm was then purchased by Ed and Mary Wenger Miller. Ed was the grandson of J.U. Amstutz’s second wife. The artifacts in the museum, merchandise in the store, and tools in the wood-working and blacksmith shops were sold at public auction.

Ed Miller operated the cane mill until his death in 1944. Then the last of the buildings of this community service center – store, blacksmith shop, wood-working shop, sawmill, cane mill – were sold at public auction by his widow, Mary Miller, and were moved or dismantled. An era in the Swiss community had come to an end.

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