Overcoming obstacles, fulfilling needs

How one turn-of-the-century single mom provided for her family and her community in the midst of the Great Depression

By Dori (Steckbeck) Landis

For Virgie Felker Lehman, a young girl growing up in Lancaster County, Pa., in the early 1900s, living simply initially centered around wearing plain clothes. Although commonplace among Brethren in Christ of the day, the practice often left Virgie feeling isolated and lonely. In later years, she remembered being teased once on the school playground when she ran and her head covering fell off. And as a teenager, after her family’s move to Harrisburg, Pa., she pronounced herself to be “the only plain girl in the city.”

But later in life, when she understood the meaning behind the tradition, wearing plain clothes developed into a vital expression of Virgie’s faith. And it became just one piece in the mosaic of her expanding understanding of simplicity, a value that helped her face the economic burdens she would carry throughout much of her life.

Head of the household

In 1916, Virgie married John Garman, a man with whom she’d shared a deep friendship and love. But in 1918, just three months before the birth of their son, John succumbed to influenza. Two years later, Virgie married Martin Kraybill, a widower with five children. In the coming years, Virgie and Martin added four more of their own children to the household. Unfortunately, the marriage between the two deteriorated under relational and financial strains, and in 1928, Martin moved out permanently.

Virgie, left alone, faced a difficult situation. Although the three oldest children from Martin’s first marriage were supporting themselves, she was still responsible for the support and care of the seven remaining children. So Virgie relocated the family to Grantham, Pa., and not long after, the U.S. plummeted into the Great Depression.

From the beginning of her experience as the sole parent in the Kraybill household, Virgie’s message to her children was clear: “In order to stay together, we’ve got to work together.” And work together they did. Virgie mobilized her family to meet the demands of life without a father during the Depression. She taught the children to save every penny and to use necessities carefully.

Each child also had specific responsibilities and worked outside the home at every available opportunity. The girls prepared meals and managed kitchens in community homes. The boys walked miles to a neighboring county before dawn to be ready to pick berries at their destination before the sun came up. Their earnings were shared with the entire household. When questioned about her ability to support her family, Virgie cited earnings from the two oldest children
as a source of income.

Virgie was equally busy supporting her large family, whether by cooking, cleaning, or providing nursing care. Her efficiency and willingness to take on any task to provide income caused one family member to dub her “a lass of all trades.”

One of her sons, Homer, concludes, “Many women would not have been able to bear [. . .] the things she went through: the separation from her husband and the resulting loss of relationships, and the strain of the Depression.”

To be served . . . and to serve

No one questioned Virgie’s ability to survive the hardships of her life, but she still needed support from family and friends. Her mother frequently traveled from Harrisburg to Grantham to manage the household when Virgie was away providing care at various homes in the community. And the family always had enough food, in part because of the generosity of her church, Grantham BIC, and neighbors. Local grocer D.S. Keefer deferred payment on the family’s grocery bill. Sometimes their credit would accumulate to $100 or more—a large amount during the Depression—but Keefer never asked for interest when the Kraybills paid their bill. Two other families shared a cow and meat with the family when possible.

Virgie willingly imitated the kind deeds bestowed on her and her family. The fruits of her active mind and industrious spirit made her particularly adept at identifying and then filling areas of need that, Homer declares, “a lot of people would not have the innate ability to uncover.”

Her desire to meet the needs of others was, in fact, so strong that she boldly entered situations where others trod carefully. Families in the neighborhood received food and care from Virgie when they were in need. In one large family, both parents had steady employment, but Virgie often invited the children to her home for meals because she sensed they were hungry. Neglected women, plagued by illness or recalcitrant husbands, received household goods from Virgie’s limited resources. And many homeless men, following the railroad tracks that ran through the town, knew they would not be turned away if they asked for a meal at the Kraybill house.

Virgie also offered tireless support for her alma mater, Messiah Bible School and Missionary Training Home (now Messiah College), and BIC missionaries serving around the world.

While Virgie’s physical strength began to decline at the end of her life, her active mind continued to nurture a concern for the needs of others. As a capable seamstress, Virgie purchased material from a local dress factory to make blankets, quilts, and clothes for missionaries and local acquaintances. She often asked, towards the end of her life, “Who’s going to do this when I’m gone?”

Virgie died on June 12, 1992, but the story of her ability to find abundance in the midst of scarcity serves as a reminder of how God can move us to help fulfill the needs of our families and our world.

Adapted from “Overcoming obstacles, fulfilling needs” in Celebrating Women’s Stories, ed. Rebecca L. Ebersole, Dorcas I. Steckbeck, and E. Morris Sider.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2011 issue of In Part magazine.
Dori (Steckbeck) Landis

Dori (Steckbeck) Landis first learned about Virgie Kraybill while working in the BIC Historical Library and Archives, where she served as director from 2000–2004. She and her husband and son live in the city of Lancaster, Pa., where they are part of In the Light Ministries, an urban congregation.


Mel Brubaker Posted on November 6, 2011

I lived in her house while attending Messiah Academy my Freshman & Sophmore years with two others. A great Godly woman and I know her son Homer was and is a testimony to his mother.

Mike Holland Posted on October 12, 2011

Great story Dori! A powerful example!

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