Monday, 14 June 2021

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A Stitch in Time: The Story behind The Bargain

My favorite novels are those based on true stories. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House novels come to mind. How exciting to relive moments of Laura’s life! It’s like looking over her shoulder as those long-ago stories unfold.

Much of what happens to main character Betsie Troyer in the 70s setting is based on what I and/or my childhood friends experienced during that era. Readers will be happy to know that the jumping-off point of The Bargain, an Amish woman takes over a harness shop when her cousin is drafted during the Vietnam War, is drawn from real life, too. In fact, I was researching material for my second book, The Light Across the River, when I spotted a hand-lettered sign that read “Harness Shop, Closed Sunday.” What follows is the article I wrote, which tells the part of the story behind The Bargain. There are other details, such as I didn’t know Rachel was Amish until I photographed the rolls of leather and the flash startled her nearly out of her wits. Sadly, as noted in The Bargain, Rachel suffered from Alzheimer’s and the same nephew cares for her in Missouri. I hope you enjoy meeting the inspiration for Betsie Troyer in a happier time.


A Stitch in Time

Plain City harness-maker continues hand-crafted tradition

by Stephanie Reed

Press Contributor


With word-of-mouth and a hand-lettered sign that reads “Harness Shop, Closed Sunday”, Rachel Miller tries to rekindle business, but the once-steady stream of customers has slowed to a trickle this winter.

Snow whirls to blanket U.S. Route 42 outside her dimly-lit shop just south of Plain City, Ohio as Miller reminisces about bygone years.

“No, people don’t expect a lady harness-maker,” she agreed. Her eyes sparkle as she tells how she got her start in a trade dominated by men.

Her nephew bought the business from an Amish man 30 years ago. When he was called into the service, he urged his aunts to keep the business afloat. Miller and her three sisters agreed, but it was Rachel who “learned by doing it.”

“Oh, what have I gotten myself into?” she wondered, but there was no cause for worry.

She grew so skilled that the Hilliard man who bought the business from her nephew urged Miller to come and work for him. 

“I said, ‘Well, I would have no way to get there,’” she recalled. “He said, ‘I’ll come get you and take you home.’ And he did, every day for about three years. Then he couldn’t keep up with taxes, so he sold everything to me about 25 years ago.” 

Miller’s eyes cloud – the details of the story tax her memory. She had a stroke last March, and sometimes it is hard to remember what happened only yesterday, let alone years ago, she said.

She does not take kindly to her memory’s fickle betrayal. Nevertheless, she recalls the satisfying work of long ago, like milking cows at 4 a.m., or making hay.   

The stroke left almost no physical impairment.  Miller’s strength belies the heft of a weight that holds down a curled edge of leather; she lifts it casually aside. To reach items above her head, she uses a long stick that her late father fashioned.  A sawed-off nail protrudes from one end, so it’s the perfect tool to coax a bridle off a high peg. Her drawknife snicks through leather to shear off what will be a lead strap, five-eighths of an inch wide and four feet long. She threads the strap through a hand-cranked roller, which indents the surface as a guide for stitching. 

“Now you do this piece,” she said to her student.  Miller is a patient teacher.

She selects what she calls an “edger,” which looks like a garden weeder with a deeper, sharper slit.  Holding the tool at an angle, she applies it to the edge, which rolls away like apple peel, all in one piece. Now the strap won’t chafe a horse. As her student shaves fragments of hair-thin leather, she watches calmly. Miller tidies up, but reassures, “I’m not worried.”

Indeed, few things trouble Miller.  She accepts the presence of a housing subdivision where her father’s farm fields once were, though she mourns the loss of good farmland. No horses remain on the old home place – the sisters share rides when they visit a doctor. Prepared meals are brought in, and somebody cleans the house. 

Lisa Frazier, of Jerome, Ohio, helps in the harness shop every Thursday. She is Miller’s staunch supporter.

“Rachel is Plain City’s hidden treasure,” Frazier said.

The two women make a good team.  When asked about a beautiful black driving harness displayed with all the fittings, Miller said, “Well, I made it for a man over a year ago, but he never came back.  Oh, yes, I called him!” 

Frazier added, “This man asked for three sets of harnesses, but Rachel said, ‘Well, I think I’ll make only one in case he doesn’t come back.’  That happens a lot.”

Asked about the price, Miller’s eyes flash. 

“Four hundred dollars!” is her quick reply.

“In a catalog, an Amish-made harness goes for $500,” Frazier explained. “This is a good price, and I hope someone buys it.”

  A chance comment reveals what most troubles Miller. A local leather supplier came yesterday, she said, “but hospital bills took all my money.  I just don’t have much business now, so I couldn’t pay him.” 

She stares at the bleak day, then briskly rouses the calico cat that lounges by the stove. 

“You’re lazy today, aren’t you, Jessica?”  Miller scolded the cat fondly.

Laziness isn’t a trait that Rachel Miller shares.  She can’t abide the thought of no work to do. 


Reprint; appeared as follows:

Reed, Stephanie.  “A Stitch in Time: Plain City Harness-Maker Continues Hand-Crafted

          Tradition.”  Madison Press [Ohio] 30 Jan. 2006, sec. 1:14

Reed, Stephanie.  “Stitch in Time: Amish Harness-Maker Continues Tradition.”

           Plain City Advocate 31 Jan. 2006, 1

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