When he was 20 years old, Raymond Helmuth walked away from the only life he had ever known.
"I just kind of ran off in the middle of the night," Helmuth recalls. And since that night, he’s never looked back.
Born Amish and raised in one of the largest Amish settlements in the Midwest — Hazleton in northeast Iowa — Helmuth lived his 20s traveling from one part of the country to another, wherever work could be found. Now 29, Helmuth hangs his hat just north of Nevada, where he lives and operates his business, Helmuth Equine. He is thankful to finally have a place again where he feels he’s home.
Helmuth has been seen frequently on the streets of Nevada’s north side driving teams of horses that he trains for competitions for the owners of the animals. Training and shoeing horses are the main two components of Helmuth’s livelihood. He also boards horses in his huge barn, where he can often be found grooming one of the animals, surrounded by two or three of his five dogs and a number of farm cats.
Working with horses is something Helmuth learned as an Amish youth. His father was not only a pastor, but also the owner of a harness shop and of livestock, mainly horses and cows. "Milking cows and training horses, that’s what we did," said Helmuth, who was one of 12 children in his family.
When his father became seriously ill, "I also ran his harness shop," said Helmuth, who was a teenager at the time.
Being Amish is known as a simple way of life, where children take part in chores, receive an eighth-grade education and are then prepared to live a life of hard work and devotion to God. Helmuth said the values he was raised with were sound.
"I really believe and try to live with the (Amish) values. I’m a very devoted Christian. Amish is a wonderful way of raising children." But, said Helmuth, who is very straightforward, honest and conversational about his upbringing, it was the "rules" that made the Amish life difficult for him to accept. "Life revolved around what you’re allowed and not allowed to do," he said.
The decision to leave
A lot of what people see on television about an Amish event called "rumspringa" is, as Helmuth puts it "nothing but a hoax." While he doesn’t doubt that things are more liberal with the Amish communities in the eastern part of the country, Helmuth said for Amish youth at Hazleton, rumspringa isn’t a time to leave your Amish community and decide if you want to come back.
Instead, he said, this transition period in an Amish life starts at age 17, and marks the time you are finally allowed to start courting. It is a period that is intended to eventually lead to adulthood and marriage.
While he was going through rumspringa, at age 18, Helmuth lost his father to Pick’s Disease, a rare neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive destruction of nerve cells in the brain. Over the next couple of years, Helmuth said the youth of the community, who had reached their later teen years, were spreading their wings a bit and "getting out of hand" as the elders saw it. Local police were often called in to try to tame the youth, but Helmuth said there was nothing the police could do, because the youth were breaking no laws. They were just having fun. These disagreements started Helmuth wondering about his ability to continue living with all those rules.
One of the types of gatherings that older teens would enjoy was called a "singing" and was held at the church. The elders in the community started to show up at those singings and fights would erupt.
"I can honestly say that until I was 18, I had no intentions of leaving. I was so scared." But with all that was happening, he made a choice to leave.
He had been scheduled to take a horse to a sale the next day, so he went to that sale. There he met someone with whom he could catch a ride to Wisconsin, where he could stay with a cousin, who had also left the Amish. At this cousin’s house in Wisconsin, he said, he hung out awhile, finding jobs working with horses wherever he could. Jobs with horses took him from Wisconsin to Canada and back, and then to California.
During his initial months away from home, he said his family continued to try and make contact with him, as they were "bent out of shape" by his leaving. He was very homesick at times, he admits, especially when working at places where he had no family or acquaintances around him. Like in California.
But he held strong with his decision to leave, and shares that he had some interesting experiences during his 20s, like the first time he ever got on an airplane. It was when he was trying to leave for Canada for a job training horses. He was taken by airport personnel into a room where he was interrogated to the point it felt like "torture," he recalls. At the time, he had a driver’s license (something that took a number of tries before he received it), but he had no other forms of identification. "They thought I had to be a criminal. They asked me everything, but finally they let me go."
As he boarded the plane, he said, he had another scare. He’d never flown on an airplane. "I thought there’s no way that plane can stay up in the air."
Jobs he had in his 20s allowed him to gain experience driving hitches, something that is a routine part of the business he runs today. He also had opportunities to learn more about shoeing horses, another benefit for his present business.
Most importantly, the experiences of his nomadic 20s eventually led to him meeting people, developing new friendships and believing more strongly in the new life he had chosen.
Life is good
Helmuth has been in Nevada for a little over a year now. He came to town when he found a property for sale with a nice house and a huge horse barn at the edge of town. Since moving in, Helmuth has added a 300 by 200-foot arena on the grounds, along with some outdoor shelters and runs for the horses.
Helmuth shares his home with two roommates, and said life is good. He’s been busy with his business, so he hires help when needed. He has found it invaluable to have Iowa State animal science students nearby, as they often work for him.
The longer he’s away from the Amish community, the prouder he grows of having made it on his own. "A number of Amish leave for a short time, but once reality sets in, they turn back to their Amish roots."
Helmuth said he has one brother who also left the Amish and now drives a team of horses for Budweiser. It’s a job that allows his brother to travel the country, Helmuth said, as he noted that he was expecting his brother for a visit this month and the two were hoping to head to Hazleton to see their mother. When going to visit her, Helmuth said, the two are asked to wear traditional Amish clothing and not bring modern-day conveniences, like motor vehicles, onto the property. Even though they left, Helmuth said their mother is always happy to see them. Living with her are one of Helmuth’s brothers who’s disabled and a sister who is wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy. Helmuth also has other siblings living at Hazleton and one brother, he said, who now lives at the Bloomfield Amish settlement, where the rules are a little more relaxed. "He can have a motorized lawnmower there."
In his life today, Helmuth said there are a few things he certainly enjoys. The first thing he mentions is going to his girlfriend’s parents’ house at Ogden and having dinner. Second, he likes his cell phone. "That would be one of the biggest things that would be hard for me to give up," he said.
He’s not into television, but Helmuth is fond of the Internet. "I love Googling stuff," he said. And when it comes to vehicles, even though he had to try a number of times before he got his driver’s license, Helmuth loves modern transportation. "I like that when I need something, I can jump in the vehicle and go get it."
Perhaps the most important thing that Helmuth enjoys about his new life, is something many of us who haven’t been Amish take for granted. "I like the fact that I can make my own decisions," he said.
One of the decisions he’s made is to join Cornerstone Church by Ames, a place where he’s spent a lot of time trying to sort out the belief system he was raised with and the belief system he has now. He admits that he’s struggled with getting over the feeling that leaving his Amish community was an act of "going against the Bible" and an act that breaks the rules, meaning he could go to hell.
"I don’t want to go to hell; nobody does," Helmuth said. "But I believe I can still be a strong Christian, and it’s taken me a long time to realize (that)."
As he talks about the life he looks forward to - which is one where he’d like to further his education and maybe earn his GED; it is clear that the life Helmuth left behind will always be a part of him. The values he grew up with, he said, are the values he hopes to instill in his own children some day.
And he’ll never let go of the most important thing he said he gained from being Amish - his work ethic, which is second to none. "I’ve been very lucky to have (this work ethic). The things I have now, I have from hard work."