Friday, January 5, 2018

The Return Wins Award!

Interviews and Reviews Silver Award in Historical Fiction
The Return is being entered in a number of contests for 2017 book of the year in historical fiction. The first results are in, and book 2 of the Northkill Amish Series has won the Interviews & Reviews 2017 Silver Award! Thanks go to all the readers who voted for this inspiring story!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Pennsylvania German Barns

Do you like barns? I’ve always had this thing for these imposing structures. Which is probably to be expected since I’m the daughter of Mennonite farmers and grew up on a farm. You get a mystical feeling standing in an old barn with its huge hand-hewn beams and hay mows overhead, roof timbers soaring high above like the ribbed vaults of a cathedral, and dust motes lazily trailing down through the golden sunbeams that slant through the cracks between the weathered boards of the exterior walls. I even have a Pinterest board devoted to Barns and Farms. 

18th Century Swiss-style forebay bank barn
So today I’m going to indulge in my addiction and take a look at the barns of the Germans who settled in Pennsylvania during the 18th and 19th centuries. Descended from generations of farmers, the Germans who immigrated to Pennsylvania during the 1700s were among the best farmers in the colonies. The soil they found in this new land was unlike the over-farmed soil of their homeland in that it required little fertilization. So they went to work, and after building a house and clearing land for fields, they built immense Swiss-style bank barns like the one shown on the left of the James Barn, located in West Rockhill Township, Bucks County.
Berks County, c. 1820

The first log structures were soon replaced by barns built of stone, and later frame or even brick, with shingled, slate, or tin roofs. Most barns had 3 levels, with a threshing-floor and granary on the main floor and expansive mows for storing hay above. The lower level provided stalls for horses and cattle and a milking parlor. These buildings were anywhere from 50 to 60 feet wide and 60 to 120 feet long, and typically the main level protruded 8 to 10 feet beyond the lower level, as you can see in the picture at right from the Pennsylvania Historical Museum and Commission.

The classic Pennsylvania barn is most commonly found in the southeast and central parts of the state and was the most prevalent barn structure to around 1900. Most closely associated with the Pennsylvania Germans, it developed during the later 18th century with the spread of diversified grain-and-livestock farming that required efficient labor management to produce cash grain crops, primarily wheat; feed grain for cattle and horses such as oats, corn, and hay; and livestock that provided beef, dairy products, and pork to eat and to sell.

Barn at Carriage Hill
Some of these barns had stars, hearts, diamonds, quarter-moons, or other designs painted on their sides and ends. The picture above from my Pinterest board shows what we typically envision when we think of Pennsylvania German barns adorned with painted symbols. It’s of newer construction, and it has both plank and stone cladding.

Carriage Hill barn main level
Last summer I visited Carriage Hill Farm, an 1880s German Baptist farm in Huber Heights, Ohio. Although this farm dates to the late 19th century and is located in Ohio, the barn retains many of the features you’d see in earlier Pennsylvania structures. To the left is a shot I took of the barn’s main level. You can see the hand-hewn beams above the threshing floor. Obviously tobacco was a cash crop here. Below right is a picture of the grain bins along the right side of the threshing floor, each neatly labeled with the grain stored inside.

Grain bins
The last picture, below, is of the barn’s lower level, showing a walkway between one of the stalls on the left, with storage bins and feeding troughs for another stall on the right. Clearly these barns were designed for the greatest labor efficiency, with gravity allowing hay and grain to be fed down to animals on the lower level with the least amount of effort. Indeed the barn was the farmer’s most important tool for his work.
Barn lower level

Thursday, May 11, 2017

5-Star Review from ECLA

The response to The Return has been amazing, and we’re praising the Lord for His favor! Below is the latest 5-star review it’s received, this one from the Evangelical Church Library Association, written by Theresa M. Hughes, a professional writing major at Taylor University.


Beginning where the first book left off, this historical novel follows the lives of Jakob Hochstetler and his two sons, Joseph and Christian. Having been captured by local Indian tribes and now separated from his sons, Jakob struggles with plans of escape while longing to learn what happened to his boys. Joseph and Christian are each forced to grapple with their religious faith in the midst of the Indian’s religion and their new homes among their captors.

Nicely paced and engaging, this book draws together historical elements, cultural differences, and internal human struggles. The Return puts the reader into the shoes of the characters, showcasing how difficult the decisions are that the Hochstetlers have to make. It guides the readers through their own beliefs by exploring the minds and emotions of each of these fictional characters. This book continues to deliver well written descriptions and dialogue that make the setting and times come alive in the mind of the reader.

The Return masterfully paints a picture of the life of Jakob Hochstetler and his family, with the bulk of the book spanning nine years. It forces readers to examine feelings related to racism and cultural differences, as well as human love, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. Competently bringing together the genres of historical, Christian, and Amish fiction, The Return is a sequel worth reading.

Christian Impact

This book forces readers to grapple with the morality of hard decisions that do not have simple yes or no answers. It looks at issues from varied perspectives, showing the reader multiple interpretations of individual dilemmas. This book also highlights the idea that God has a plan in the end; no matter what happens, He can be trusted.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Return Release!

It’s been a very busy few weeks! The Return is receiving an incredible reception. The books have been shipping out since the middle of April. We’re steadily acquiring new bookstores, and individual orders from readers have also been flooding in. I’m excited!

Bob Hostetler, J. M. Hochstetler

Eli and Vesta Hochstetler hosted Bob and me for the nationwide release at their Gospel Book Store in Berlin, Ohio, on Saturday, April 1. We had a terrific time, signed copies of both Northkill and The Return, and had a chance to visit with a lot of new acquaintances as well as folks we knew. The greatest blessing for me is to see how God is glorifying Himself through this story of our ancestors’ faith and His faithfulness to them in their time of greatest trial.

The Return is available online in both print and ebook formats at the following retailers, as well as at a number of local bookstores.



Barnes & Noble

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Colonial American Kitchens

Curfew, Fire Fork, Blowing Tube
Today we’re getting back to the series on early American homes I started last month. Naturally housewives in the 18th century needed an array of equipment for their work just as we do, and today we’re going to take a look at the tools the colonial cook had at her disposal to make her work easier.

Back then all cooking was done over the fire, and because it was inconvenient and time consuming to kindle a fire from scratch, a good cook never let hers go out. At the end of the day she would rake the hot coals into a pile and either bank them beneath a covering of ashes or cover them with a brass or copper device called a curfew, which would be pushed to the hearth’s back wall for the night. In the morning the embers were raked out and the fire built up. The illustration shows 2 English curfews, a fire fork, and a blowing tube—a long iron pipe that’s used as a bellows. Other indispensable fireplace tools included shovels and tongs.

Colonial Hearth
It was more common in colonial times to build several small fires in the fireplace for cooking rather than a single large fire, much in the same way we use adjustable settings on our ranges for boiling or simmering foods today. For cooking at lower temperatures small piles of live embers were raked onto the hearth at the front of the fireplace. These were used for broiling on a gridiron, frying in a pan, and baking in a kettle. For cooking at higher temperatures, the cook hung larger pots on a crane mounted inside the chimney. These might be simple iron bars running the length of the fireplace. More desirable, if you could afford it, was a crane that could be swung out from the fire so the cook could check on the contents of the pots without getting scalded by the heat. She could suspend several pots at different points with pot hooks, trammels, or chains and control cooking temperatures by raising or lowering the pots or moving the crane outward.

Art of Cookery Made Plain
and Easy
The basic equipment all kitchens had to have included one or more cast iron pots, a baking kettle, and a simple spit for roasting meat. More prosperous households had a wider variety of items for creating more elaborate dishes. Iron pots of different sizes, a long iron fork to remove items from boiling water, an iron hook with a handle to lift pots from the crane, a large and small gridiron with grooved bars and a trench to catch the grease, a bake kettle, two skillets of different sizes, a skimmer, skewers, a toasting iron, large and small tea kettles, a spider (flat skillet) for frying, a griddle, a waffle iron, tin and iron bake and bread pans, two ladles of different sizes, and two brass kettles of different sizes for soap boiling were among items recommended in A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School by Miss Catharine Beecher, published in 1842, a list that would certainly have applied to the 1700s as well. Cookbooks like the one shown at left were also helpful.

Around 1725 pots, pans, and skillets began to be manufactured in the colonies. A pot is a vessel that has rounded sides and a cover, while a kettle has sloping sides and no cover of its own. Very large kettles, called cauldrons, were made of copper, brass, or iron and were so valuable that they were passed down in wills. Another form of skillet called a spider has a flat bottom and straight shallow sides, a short handle, and 3 short legs. Short-handled frying pans didn’t come into use until stoves were invented. Eighteenth-century iron “fry pans” had a 3 foot long handle with hole at the tip for hanging when not in use. Trivets of assorted sizes were another necessity to hold kettles and footless pots and also serve as plate warmers.

Mount Vernon Hearth
Gridirons were used for grilling fish or meat. They looked like3-legged iron grills with a handle. A drip pan was placed beneath to catch the drippings. Griddles were made of iron and used to bake oat and buckwheat cakes. They were also used as toasters and were often made in delicate patterns. Wafer and waffle irons date from the 14th century and were used for church services long before they began to be used in the home. Then of course there were also many kinds of skimmers, spatulas, meat forks, and other tools made of wood, tin, or iron.

This sketch of the kitchen hearth at Mt. Vernon shows spit dogs, with a wooden spit rack on the wall above. Fowl and large pieces of meat were skewered on the spit, then placed on a pair of hooks turned by hand cranks while they roasted close to the fire. A more ingenious design connected the spit by a chain to an iron fan set in the flue. The draft passing up the chimney turned the fan, which pulled the chain and turned the spit.

Bake Kettle
Many of us are familiar with the iron baking kettle commonly called a dutch oven. The kettle is set into hot coals and ashes, and more coals are piled on its flat lid to bake the contents evenly. However, check out this post on the Historic Cookery blog by Carolina Capehart, a culinary historian, hearth cook, and former Conner Prairie interpreter. She offers definitive evidence that a true dutch oven is, in fact, a tin reflector oven, also called a roasting kitchen or hastener, while the cast iron pot described above is correctly called a bake kettle.

Dutch Oven
Reflector ovens could be from 1 foot to 4 feet long and were made of tinplate, which reflected the fire’s heat, reducing cooking time and saving fuel. This photo shows a front and rear view. The meat was impaled on a spit that ran through the oven and was turned with a hand crank at one end. There was a door in the back so the cook could check the meat and baste it while it roasted. Meat juices were collected in the curved bottom, and there was a spout at one end to pour them off when the meat was done. Reflector ovens were used for baking biscuits as well, and there were even specialized roasters for birds and apples.

Fenno House at Sturbridge Village
Fireplaces also often had ovens built into the back wall or on one side of the fireplace opening. Constructed in a beehive shape with a domed roof and a separate flue, these sometimes had a small opening underneath that served as a warming oven. When the bricks were hot enough for baking, the ashes were raked out, oak or cabbage leaves might be laid on the oven’s floor in absence of the baking pans we use today, and the loaves were slid inside using a peel. Some designs featured an ash oven where the fire was built, with the heat rising through a vent into the bake oven above. This type cooled off more rapidly since the bricks didn’t get as hot. At first ovens had wooden doors, which, as you can imagine, tended to get seriously charred even if they were lined with tin as some were. By the 1800s hinged cast iron doors were becoming commonplace—understandably so!

Spice Cabinet (1720-1740)
Pewter and other metals, like silver, were too expensive for most colonists to afford, so variety of carved wooden ware, including knife boxes and spoon racks, helped the cook keep her kitchen organized. Almost all colonial kitchens had a salt box, generally kept near the fireplace, where the cooking was done and where the salt would be kept dry. The earliest knife boxes look like salt boxes, only deeper. Spice boxes usually had several drawers. Candles boxes had sliding wooden lids and either sat on a table or hung on the wall to keep the tallow candles from being eaten by vermin. According to Kitchen Antiques by Mary Norwalk, “Pieces of cutlery were precious possessions and in order to keep them clean and dry they were stored near the fire. Spoons, knives, and carving forks were placed in racks attached to the wall with a small drawer underneath the rack, and this was used for spices and seasoning, or precious pieces of small equipment.” Most wooden items were made by the homeowner, and beautifully constructed wall boxes were proudly displayed as decorative items.

It’s amazing to consider all the gadgets that existed back in the 1700s to make the housewife’s life easier. Even so, they definitely had a lot of back-breaking work to fill each day. Which aspects of the colonial housewife’s life do you think you’d find the most enjoyable, and which the most unpleasant?