The old Amish house
by Meghan Millea
Randy L. McKee photo
Three women and their children entered the old Amish house. Built in 1848, it was once home to an Amish bishop and his 11 children. They looked over their shoulders as they took in the entryway. There were hand-painted jugs resting on the table, covered in colorful depictions of nature or farm life. Another table was covered with homemade chocolate candies and canned jams for sale. They continued their perusal of the items as they headed toward the kitchen.
There they found the woman they were looking for. Leaning against the sink with her crutches hugged close to her body, Alma Hershberger greeted them.
“I’m making corn salad,” she said. “It has corn, cabbage, peppers and onions.”
One little boy peered into the large pot sitting on the modern stove, installed for the convenience. The 66-year-old Amish woman smiled as she filled them in with the details of the house, inviting them to take a look around.
“I love to get out of bed in the morning and come here,” she said. “It’s like coming home.”
That second home is Schrock’s Heritage Village in Berlin. The village was one of the first tourism sites in Holmes County, complete with a craft mall, Christmas store, antiques, leather, pet supplies and the Schrock’s Guest House, allowing visitors a glimpse of Amish life.
A big part of that glimpse is Alma Hershberger herself. When she arrived at Schrock’s 24 years ago, she was surprised to be given a great amount of leeway. She was told to bake whatever she wanted, decide whatever menu she needed and talk to the visitors. Nervous at first, Hershberger grew into the role of baker and tour guide. A people person, she loves telling stories.
Arguably some of the best stories are her own. When she was only 2 years old, Hershberger came down with Polio. Nearly eradicated today, it afflicted more than 60,000 children in the United States during the disease’s outbreak in 1952.
Despite her young age she can remember the details vividly. It was during one of their Sunday visits to a neighbor that young Hershberger would come in contact with the disease. The neighbor’s daughter was sick, but the rest of the children enjoyed the outdoors. Hershberger and her friends were running in the yard when she got thirsty. Heading inside, she drank the water from the girl’s glass.
A week later the she complained that her head hurt. Soon she was burning up with fever and terrified to discover she could not move. The doctor came in from Millersburg and told her parents the diagnosis. “What a shock,” Hershberger said. “My mom said it just went right through her.”
“I was completely paralyzed ‘til Tuesday. They took me to Akron Children’s Hospital. My dad went with me. I can still see my mom crying.”
She and the other afflicted children remained in an isolation room. Their only contact with their parents was to look through the glass window separating them.
After a month her parents took her home. The family remained quarantined for a time, and their house was fumigated. She would later be told that the doctors hadn’t expected her to live.
Eventually Hershberger would recover, but her body would retain the damage. Her spine would become extremely crooked, requiring her to use crutches and stopping her from getting around easily. As a result the family dynamic would also change. Her parents, Old Order Amish, installed indoor plumbing because their daughter couldn’t make it outside.
As she grew, she had to learn to accept her situation. She couldn’t do many of the activities her siblings and friends could, but she was able to participate and contribute. She often helped her mother with breakfast and cleaning chores and could play games with smaller children.
Her family loved her and tried to help her as much as they could. Traditionally Amish children spent a lot of time doing chores, but her parents allowed her more time to play and by extension her brothers and sisters who played with her. The middle of seven children, Hershberger was able to get her younger brothers to do favors for her. If they tried to tease her and run away, she was able to tap them with one of her crutches.
Her brothers weren’t the only recipients of her crutches. At one point she and her siblings were trying to get to church, but the horse was pokey. Losing her patience, 12-year-old Hershberger poked the horse in the butt with her crutch. The horse took off with only one problem: the crutch was stuck. “It finally flew out, and I told my brother, ‘You go back there and get it.’”He was adamant in his refusal. “I will not pick that thing up,” he said. He picked it up. For what it was worth, they arrived on time.
It was that same year that Hershberger discovered her love of painting and drawing. Her brothers also would collect smooth stones and rocks for her when she asked for them, becoming her first canvases. Today that talent serves as another source of income.
After a full day at work Hershberger will return to her home and paint. Using calendar or postcard pictures for inspiration, she will paint jugs or worn wood saws for artwork, which are sold at Schrock’s and other places in the area.
While she loves her life, there were times Hershberger felt regret. “Not many afflicted Amish ladies get married,” she said, noting that she has never dated or had children. She lives in her parents’ retirement home next to her brother, who purchased the farm in 1989. While she may not have had the traditional family she would have liked, she has loved being an aunt to 42 nieces and nephews and enjoyed the support of her three sisters and three brothers.
With her family’s support she was able to live independently. She ran her own bulk food store for 25 years, beginning at the age of 16. The store was located in her parents’ retirement home, which was on the family farm. Once they were old enough, they moved in to the one-level house with their daughter.
Hershberger continued to exert her need to support herself.
In 1982 she had multiple surgeries on her spine at the Cleveland Clinic to help her get upright and more mobile.
After running her own business, Hershberger began working for a chocolate store in Walnut Creek, but the cement flooring could be a trial to her, so her friend encouraged her to look at Schrock’s Heritage Village. The business was looking for someone to bake for them, and they accepted her with her disability, for which she is grateful.
She loves working in the kitchen every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., making food for the workers and visitors alike. She enjoys talking to the tourists, many of whom come to visit her again. She said she can’t complain about the little things, and having Polio as a child taught her that.
“It taught me a lot to be satisfied with what you got,” she said. “Try to be happy with what you got.”
And she is. “The Lord has been good to me I tell you. Letting me be here to work, I think that’s the Lord’s work. That is very important to me, and I hope I can do that as long as I live.”