Everybody in This Picture Is Named Miller or Yoder Except for One Poor Guy

updated 03/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Back in his days of youth and innocence, Terry Hagedorn, an adviser on postal routing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, dreamed of becoming a postmaster. Not necessarily of a big town, but a place where he could exercise some judgment, prove his mettle.

He was granted his wish.

But it was the kind of rigged, mischievous wish-granting that is traditionally practiced by crooked genies in fairy tales about being happy with what you've got.

Last November he took an assignment in Kalona, Iowa.

Kalona is a lovely place, a farm town on swelling, verdant land. It is small. The whole Kalona postal delivery area comprises only 5,000.

The only problem is, 319 of those 5,000 people are named Yoder.

And 584 of them are named Miller.

"This isn't like a regular office you go into and memorize names," says Terry Hagedorn, with some understatement. "It's trickier."

There are 17 Mary Millers in the Kalona area. Five Marlin Millers. Seven Barbara Millers. Twelve Mary Yoders. Five John Yoders. There is an L. David Yoder and a David L. Yoder. There are Alta and Alva Yoders and Vera, Verba and Verda Millers. There was a Miller Yoder, but he moved away.

There is a reason for all this duplicate nomenclature. Miller and Yoder are common Amish and Mennonite names, and Kalona, where you are still likely to see horse-and-buggies tooling down the street, is the largest settlement of those religious groups west of the Mississippi. L. Glen Guengerich, who has written on local genealogy, estimates that 75 percent of the Millers and Yoders are Mennonite or Amish. He further estimates that 75 percent of the Millers are related to one another, as are 75 percent of the Yoders; the others presumably just clustered in for warmth. The Amish and Mennonites, he says, often married within their families. Occasionally second cousins would wed, more often third cousins and, most frequently, people who were distant relatives. Guengerich, one of 119 members of the Gingerich family in Kalona, says there have been no ill effects from the practice, as far as he knows.

Nor is the situation that confusing, townsfolk say. True, a few years ago the Kalona News ran this social item: "Last Sunday evening, Mr. and Mrs. Don Yoder entertained Mr. and Mrs. Don Yoder, Mr. and Mrs. Don Yoder, Mr. and Mrs. Don Yoder and Mr. and Mrs. Don Yoder." Normally, the News uses middle initials to keep people straight, says Managing Editor Mary Zielinski, but it didn't cause any problems since "everybody knows who you mean." A little worse was the time Elmer C. Miller, who's 76, got a love letter meant for another, younger Elmer Miller. Elmer C.'s wife opened it by mistake and read it. Elmer C. was amused. His wife wasn't. The right Elmer, says the wrong Elmer, found it "a little embarrassing."

Hagedorn, now 37, is learning the name game. Certain Millers and Yoders get certain kinds of professional publications, and one develops a knowledge of extended families—which Miller might get a letter from a daughter in California. He also learns a lot from his clerks and carriers, for instance Jonas Swantz (314 Millers on his route, 114 Yoders, 20 years experience) and Marvin Kolosiek (160 Millers, 150 Yoders, 16 years). Hagedorn estimates that only three or four of the 10,000 or so pieces of mail arriving every day get mis-delivered, but he's not overconfident. "Usually," he says, "after a month on the job, you're throwing the mail like you've been there for 20 years. Here, people who've been doing it 20 years are still asking questions."

Such as which way to a nice, relaxing posting like New York.

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