The 1965 Iowa Amish School Incident

The photo you see below, of Iowa Amish schoolchildren fleeing into a cornfield, was taken in 1965 by Des Moines Register photographer Thomas DeFeo and republished nationwide.

It’s credited with spurring national support for the Amish, leading to the landmark Wisconsin v. Yoder 1972 Supreme Court decision (effectively allowing Amish to limit schooling to eight grades).

Amish children flee school authorities into nearby cornfields. Hazleton, Iowa. Photo: Thomas DeFeo/Des Moines Register

The accompanying video features a number of other fascinating images taken at the time of the incident in Buchanan County, Iowa (described in greater detail here).

One of the school boys, Andy Raber, now in his late fifties, tells the story in the video of what happened at his parochial school. When officials appeared to bus him and his classmates to the public institution, “one father…just yelled ‘run’, which we did.”

Children begin to flee. Photo: Thomas DeFeo

There’s also commentary from Arthur Sensor, former superintendent at Oelwein school district. The now 94-year-old says he regrets trying to force the Amish children to attend the public school, and did so because he didn’t understand Amish beliefs on the matter.

One schoolboy was caught. Photo: Thomas DeFeo

Previous to this event, Amish parents were fined and a number of men jailed for their resistance.

To his credit, Sensor now understands the deep conviction these parents held: “I now believe that if I had said to the parents: ‘You are either going to send your kids to the public schools or you will be shot,’ they would have sat there and let themselves be killed.”

An Amish father speaks with Oelwein school superintendent Arthur Sensor. Photo: Thomas DeFeo

Hat-tip to Linda. I originally embedded the video here, but it’s set up to autoplay (annoying), and I can’t figure out how to switch that off. But you can view it here at the Des Moines Register site, just be aware it will start to play automatically once you click the link.

At the link, there’s also a written account of the conflict, its aftermath, a look inside a Buchanan County Amish school today, and numerous additional photos.

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    1. Forest Hazel

      Heh! And that was back when the public schools were way less progressive than today. There is no way I’d send my daughter to public school now…

    2. Al in Ky

      I enjoyed watching the video and looking at the additional pictures. As I’ve mentioned before on Amish America, one of my uncles (non-Amish) farmed for many years in the same community, next to an Amish farm, so this community holds special interest for me. I drove through the community about five years ago and was surprised to see American flags flying outside the schools, but I see in one of the pictures from the 60’s there was a flag flying
      then too. I don’t see that at Amish schools in other communities
      I visit.

      1. That would be an unusual sight, one I’ve never seen in person myself. I do wonder if this is due to the special arrangement in the area regarding schooling. Suzanne Fisher mentioned this in her post on the community and described it like this:

        Most intriguing are the public one-room schoolhouses that sit on the main road. They’re a compromise from the state of Iowa for the Amish, as long as each town permits it (Oelwein refuses). The state runs and funds the private schoolhouses for the Amish, on the condition that a certified teacher is employed.

        It was interesting to me looking back at that post, following this one today, to see that Oelwein refuses this arrangement.

        It seems that the Buchanan County Amish schooling experience has been remarkable in more ways than one.

    3. Inspiration

      That photo was actually the inspiration for one of my upcoming books, “The Rescued.” The image is just so evocative of the spirit of those years. I ended up basing my story on an earlier incident in 1953 in which a number of Pennsylvania Amish parents were jailed for refusing to send their children to a consolidated high school. Of course the account is fictionalized, but I tried to convey the deep motivations involved on all sides of the dispute. It seems difficult to believe now, but that theme of progress at all costs pervaded American life in the 1950s, and the consolidated schools were a prime example.


      1. Kathy Beamer

        1965 Iowa School Video

        Very well said Marta.It’s sad to see things like this happen to anyone. But the Amish has their beliefs. And I stand beside them. It’s called respect. God Bless Them.

    4. Slightly-handled-Order-man

      I have a quick question, would the Amish have objection to enrolling their children in Catholic schools from grade 1-8 because of their Christian orientation?
      My second cousin attends the United Church of Canada services (a group I was christened in) regularly on Sundays with his parents, but attends Catholic school Monday to Friday, probably owing to the fact that his parents feel he can get a better education than the Public School education system here in Canada, yet he participates in all aspects of school life, as (I guess) they’re mandatory.
      I had wondered if this could be an option for Amish kids.

    5. Elva Bontrager

      I remember well the days when Amish men went to jail rather than send their children on to further education. When the Federal government capitulated, I was no longer Amish but I can imagine the relief the Amish felt.

      However. To my mind, although the Amish church prevailed and Amish adults won, Amish youth lost. If an Amish kid wants to become a doctor or a scientist or an educator he or she has to leave the church. That is just one of the pernicious effects that the no-school-beyond-eighth grade ruling has on some potentially best minds in the country.

      And, no. In my opinion, there is virtually no chance that Amish would send their children to a Catholic-run school. Notwithstanding their historical bonds, Catholicism is the Amish church’s great enemy.

      1. Forest Hazel

        “And, no. In my opinion, there is virtually no chance that Amish would send their children to a Catholic-run school. Notwithstanding their historical bonds, Catholicism is the Amish church’s great enemy.”

        I pretty sure you are right on this point. If we as conservative Mennonites would not, I can’t imagine the Amish doing it.

      2. "the Amish church's great enemy"

        I found this wording amusing on multiple levels (at least as a present-tense statement). Last time I stayed with one Amish friend in Ohio, among the usual Amish reading material I read a Catholic periodical which the home’s owner, an Amishman in good standing with his church, had a subscription to.

      3. Leon Moyer

        not quite correct

        Elva Bontrager: There are exceptions to many things. One Amish man I know was a dentist back in the 1980’s, in a Missouri Amish community, with the silent acquiescence of the local authorities. He had a dentist type chair in his home, and other Amish went there for basic teeth work, such as I believe drilling and fillings. Not sure if he gave pain killing meds or not. But this is the way it ought to be, freedom to live as we wish without having gov’t as our nanny!

    6. randy

      Stand Up for Your Beliefs

      I personally have a lot of respect for the Amish. So many things called “progressive” today are actually steps backward, if they could only see the truth of it. One of the big things that really encourages me is that they use the Bible seriously and try to stick to behaving in a way that shows that they really do seriously accept the Bible as “the word of God.” It’s good to “know” the Bible, but “knowledge” itself isn’t enough. It does take works alongside that, and definitely prayer for God’s strength and guidance.
      From the NWT, it says at James 2:18 Nevertheless, someone will say: “You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

    7. Alice Mary

      A good reminder for all of us.

      I remember seeing this photo several times over the years, and I can recall hearing about this event back then. I was turning 13 that year and starting 8th grade myself (in Catholic school, no less). I wondered how I would fare with only an 8th grade education—which is all my mother had back during the Depression. It seemed scary. I felt sorry for the Amish kids (first, that they were so frightened of their fellow countrymen, then, that they couldn’t go to high school if they wanted to). Of course, I didn’t understand their deeply held beliefs or know that they were not “of” MY world. This was also taking place during the civil rights era, when so many African-American (Negro, then) kids were being turned away from “white” public schools. It seemed to me as though school kids (like me) were under seige. I was confused and remember being frightened by it all, myself.

      Alice Mary

    8. Linda

      Photo of Amish children running into cornfield

      What made this 1965 school incident alive for me, was talking to someone who was there. Adin Yutzy, a school parent at the time, told me how he told the photographer to point his camera toward the cornfield instead of the bus. The puzzled photographer couldn’t understand why and didn’t want to miss the picture of the children going on the bus, but he obeyed. Reluctantly, the photographer readied his camera toward the cornfield. The resulting image of the children running into the cornfield helped to sway public opinion.

      Adin was involved with the school case in Iowa. When he and his family moved to Wisconsin, he became involved again, in the 1972 Wisconsin vs. Yoder case. Adin was Amish when the case started but not by the time it ended. When that case went to court, he told the committee that he was no longer Amish. “Good,” said the lawyer. “That way, the law can be extended to the Mennonites.”

      “Adin Yutzy was from Buchanan County, Iowa, where he had experienced problems with the compulsory school attendance law before moving to New Glarus. Yutzy’s children were students at this [Iowa] school until they moved to New Glarus in hopes of avoiding further school problems with local and state authorities.”

      USA Today also has the Des Moines Register article online as “1965 Amish school photo started rural revolution.”

    9. colleen

      1. What is the average cost to send a child to an Amish school per year ?
      2. In Mississippi & West Virginia there is NO religious exemption allowed for vaccines, therefore every child in Public and Parochial schools have to have a vaccine. How do the Amish in Mississippi & West Virginia handle this if they object to vaccines ?

    10. Colleen, interesting questions.

      1. I don’t have numbers, but likely significantly cheaper than the average public school. Teacher costs are lower, and only one or two are needed per school plus a teacher’s aide or two.

      The cost will vary by community as well. In plainer (ie, more conservative) communities it is likely to be cheaper than in more progressive ones due to lower salaries (a male teacher all things being equal will also command a higher salary, but male teachers are not too common). Amish schools are low overhead and low-tech, so there are two cost factors which are greatly reduced compared to public schooling.

      In terms of the actual structure, Mark Dewalt writes in Amish Education in the United States and Canada that the schoolhouse itself can exceed $50,000 to build (though like other things will vary by community) so you’d want to factor that in (typical student enrollment is in the 20s).

      2. Not sure. First I’ve heard that those states don’t allow exemptions. There are very few Amish in those two states, however, though the Mississippi community is very plain and plainer Amish tend to vaccinate less.

    11. Don Curtis

      Amish school tuition

      I called Mark up and asked him about Amish school tuition. He was the treasurer of the Belle Center Amish, Middle District School, named Northwood Christian School. He told me that at the time he was treasurer, tuition was $120 per month per family in the District, plus, $20 per child in school. Once a family’s youngest child turned of age at 21 they no longer had to pay tuition.

    12. colleen


      Thank you for your reply.

    13. colleen


      Did your son ever teach in the Amish school?

      1. Don Curtis

        Mark's teaching experience

        My son, Mark, taught thirty years in a public school near Columbus, Ohio. He has never taught in the Amish schools although he has been asked. He just doesn’t want to teach school, anymore. He did it for a lot of years. Plus, I kind of need him around here quite a bit to help me. I’m 92 and a half and need some assistance every once in a while. Mark has substituted in the schools and sometimes does science lessons.

        1. Leon Moyer

          hangin in there, Don!

          Don Curtis: Wow, it is good to have someone like you with all those years of experience write here and share your thoughts with us! As it is written in Job 32:7 : “….Days should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom.”