Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Gentle Residents of Casey County circa 1980

I'm learning why an archive of one's photographs is important.

Earlier this week I was contacted by a fellow, Elam Oberholtzer, inquiring about the images he saw of the Mennonite community in Casey County, KY. He was thrilled to find the gallery because many of the pictures were of his family. He says the family left the order in 2006 and he is now teaching English in Indonesia.

The photos were made in May and June of 1980 for the Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal's 4th of July edition. Dennis Dimick was the picture editor, Byron Crawford was the writer. Byron and I spent several days there after we were allowed to write and photograph with the only restrictions being no posed photos or photos inside the small house used as a church during a worship service.

A little perspective: 1980 was a rather crazy time. Joel Brinkley and I had won the Pulitzer in April and my youngest son Josh survived a near-fatal bout with bacterial meningitis. So, diving headfirst into the Mennonite project was cathartic.

Back to the story. I replied to Elam who is currently teaching English in Aceh, Indonesia asking him if he could help identify the people in the pictures (I can hear you editor types asking where my notes are). He responded with a two page detailed description of every image. He was born in 1989 and lived along South Fork until his family left the community in 2006. I'm waiting to hear the rest of that story! His grandfather, Jacob Oberholtzer, was the minister, farmer, log mill owner, and leader of the group. The young girls are his aunts.

He asked if he could get the digital files to make prints as his family doesn't have
internet. I told him I'd get prints made

and mailed to his family (still in Casey County) and that I'd try to find a copy of the original CJ article to send him. I called Luster to get Byron Crawford's phone number and rang up Byron. Mind you, we haven't connected in decades.

Byron has caller-id and when he answered he says, "Hey, I know why you're calling."

"You do?" I asked.

""You're calling about the Oberholtzers. I was just there today, been home about
three hours."
He told me he'd been there touring with a friend, stopped to talk with one of the Oberholtzers, bought a jar of sorghum molasses, recounted the story we'd done 32 years ago.

Next day, I get a second inquiry from another fellow, Alvin Shirk, wondering if I have any photos of his grandfather. The list of id's Elam gave me included the possibility that has grandfather was included; Alvin now says the man I photographed is someone else.

Today, another inquiry from a woman, Katrina Martin, saying she's from the community. Yep. Two of Jacob
Oberholtzer's daughters married her father's brothers. She also says the community is breaking apart. Change is inevitable and it's especially hard on communities like the Mennonites. I can't begin to understand the complexities of what the families have endured in the changes that have overcome them. I'm so grateful I had a chance to document the community as it was in 1980. Those photos now stand as a lasting testament of devotion to a lifestyle that few Americans will ever understand.

I've spent most of this week going back through every frame on the film and scanning everything that might be of interest to the extended Mennonite community now spread out over the state Kentucky and halfway around the world.


David Hutson said...

Interesting story and great photos, thanks Jay.

Dennis Dimick said...

Great pictures Jay, it was great fun working with you on this. I still have a copy of the layout here in my office.