DENVER, Pa. – Even a casual talk with Amos Hoover can seem noteworthy.
Tucked in his plain gray coat is a palm-sized notebook in which Hoover scribbles whatever information his companion might share. It might be some obscure point of Anabaptist history, or directions to a remote Hutterite colony.
Hoover, an Old Order historian and archivist, has accumulated a treasure house of Anabaptist lore, sought out by fellow believers and researchers from around the world. Hoover’s Muddy Creek Farm Library, founded in 1956, has one of the finest collections of Anabaptist books and artifacts this side of the Atlantic.
Not bad for a “black-bumper” Mennonite hog farmer.
Though Hoover housed the library on his rural Denver farm for many years, it is now in a new, specially-built facility 12 miles away. The two-story repository is on the grounds of Fairmount Homes, an Ephrata retirement community with ties to the Weaverland Conference of Old Order Mennonites, in which Hoover is a deacon.
About 150 people attended the dedication of the new library Nov. 9.
Though Hoover’s collection spans much of the Anabaptist spectrum, the groups who still pursue a simple, rural life appeal to him the most – in part because they don’t always maintain archives of their own.
“We feel especially a responsibility to the Old Order groups, the horse-and-buggy groups,” Hoover said. “We’re best remembered for the Old Order material.”
This includes a wealth of books and periodicals – as many as 25,000 volumes by one count – as well as other artifacts, such as an 1832 quilt from Lancaster County. Just recently, Hoover said, a 1557 German Bible was donated to the library, so the collection continues to grow.
“There’s always things out there,” Hoover said of the Bible. “A neighboring man just wanted to donate it.”
One of the library’s crowning achievements, however, is Hoover’s collection devoted to the Anabaptist classic Martyrs Mirror, the 17th-century Dutch compendium of Christian martyr stories written by Thieleman J. van Braght. The collection includes a copy of every edition of the 1,200-page book, from its earliest Dutch versions, circa 1660, to the English editions produced by Mennonite Publishing House.
Hoover also found one pre-Van Braght version of the martyr book, dated 1631.
Hoover also has devoted much time and effort to finding copies of the 16th-century Ausbund, a collection of Anabaptist hymns still used by the Old Order Amish.
“We think we have all the American editions, but that gets a little foggy,” Hoover said.
Over the years, the Amish have printed 45 American editions of the Ausbund, the latest in August. Hoover said about 10,000 new copies are printed each year, so just keeping up can be a challenge.
But his efforts to secure the original copper plates of Jan Luyken’s 1685 illustrations for Martyrs Mirror spanned 20 years and required a rare finesse.
Though the fate of all 104 plates is not known, at least 90 were discovered in Europe in the 1920s.
In 1930, Harold S. Bender and Christian Neff saw the 90 plates in south Germany, but could not afford the $2,000 price tag because of the Depression.
During World War II, the owner of the plates hid them in his firm’s quarters in GrÃ¼nstadt, Germany, later occupied by American soldiers. After the war, only 30 plates were uncovered.
After searching for the plates since 1969, Hoover bought seven of the 30 engravings in 1977. The other 23 went to a collector in Cologne.
After the collector’s death, and with the help of Mennonite historians Robert S. Kreider, John S. Oyer and others, Hoover in 1989 was able to secure the rest of the surviving plates, with the help of various Mennonite collectors and patrons.
Securing the plates took years of searching, waiting and careful negotiation, a feat Kreider and Oyer wrote about in their 1990 book Mirror of the Martyrs, which details a traveling exhibit featuring the plates.
Kreider said the exhibit has been seen by nearly 70,000 people in 65 venues. It will be at the new library through March, along with a display featuring vintage copies of Martyrs Mirror from the Muddy Creek collection.
Kreider, of North Newton, Kan., spoke at the dedication. By establishing this new library, he said, Hoover is entrusting the collection to Anabaptists everywhere.
“Through the generosity of Amos and his wife, Nora, this library is no longer ‘his’ library, but has become the library of the Old Order Mennonites, and beyond to all of us,” Kreider said. ” ‘His’ has become ‘ours.’ ”
Hoover admits the collection has been quite an undertaking, but modesty prevents him from saying much more, other than to credit the many people who have donated to the library over the years.
“I attribute everything to the one above,” Hoover said. “I really think the finger of God was in it.”
This article first appeared in the Mennonite Weekly Review.