May 28, 2022


pbstjacobs“Be ye not conformed to the world.”

A family dressed in plain, dark clothing roll along contentedly in a black, horse-drawn buggy – it is a common scene on the roads north of Waterloo. Passing cars slow and try to avoid them. Heads turn as the picture of a family so different from their own appears by the roadside, in a separate world, as if from another time. Who are these people?

The Mennonite Story, a small shop next to the post office in downtown St. Jacobs, answers that question. A sidewalk table for two, inlaid with a checkerboard, sits outside French-style windows. Inside, manager Del Gingrich, a Mennonite himself, greets the visitor.

“It’s an educational type of museum/interpretive centre,” Gingrich says.

The upper floor is filled with pamphlets and booklets. A few books are for sale, as well as prints and knick-knacks. It also acts as a tourist information centre for the whole area; but the focus is on Mennonite culture and history. Steps lead down to a cave-like room filled with a labyrinth of displays and exhibits.

Known as Anabaptists in the beginning, the group was persecuted in Europe simply for letting individuals decide whether they wanted to join the church and get baptized. They are a peace-loving Christian people, committed to their community and have a deep love of the land. They fled to America in the late 1600s and arrived in Ontario by Conestoga wagons in the early 1800s from Pennsylvania. In 1889 the Old Order Mennonite movement was born when some wanted to conform with society. Locally, the David Martin Mennonites split from the Old Orders over a disagreement in 1917. These two are the groups seen on the roads in horse and buggies.

There are about 20 different Mennonite groups in the Region of Waterloo, Gingrich says, adding to the confusion.

“It all depends on how much they’ve accepted change. There’s a group that has accepted cars – but they have to be black cars. Somebody else might allow a computer for business – not pleasure – then somebody else might allow the radio, and so it goes and goes until the modern Mennonites. You can’t distinguish them from anyone else in modern life. So it’s all about this idea of change.”

There are about 20,000 Mennonites in the area, including 7,000 Old Orders and 1,500 of the David Martin clan. “In Woolwich and Wellesley townships (north of Waterloo), the farms are pretty well all Old Order Mennonite,” Gingrich says.

Most Old Orders have electricity now, and a telephone (the phones must be black); but there is no technology of any kind in the homes. No fancy pictures hang on walls. The Martins are an exception regarding electricity, but they have gotten around it by using generators for their businesses and sometimes for their homes, Gingrich says. None of them go to movies, concerts or attend sporting events. None of the Martins are allowed to ride a bicycle. Makeup and jewelry are not allowed, either.

“They’re not acquainted with pop culture, but they do get the newspaper and they know what’s going on in the world,” he says. They are more concerned with “meeting the needs of their community.”

Old Orders have their own schools, up to Grade 8. There are no physical education classes or sports. Children walk to school and get plenty of exercise on the farm. They find their own entertainment in the outdoors (eg. baseball) or in the barn. The language spoken at home is Pennsylvania German, but at school they are taught English knowing it is essential in dealing with the community and in business matters.

They do go on trips, and will travel in cars, buses and trains … but air travel is forbidden. Neighbours and friends drive them to medical appointments in the city or in the case of emergencies.

Meeting houses, where they worship, are plain and simple: a rectangular white building, and contain nary an organ, piano or stained glass windows such is found in most Christian churches. (Not even a stitch of fabric.) The sermon is given without notes and the singing is more akin to chanting. Around the building, horses are hitched to posts as the service goes on.

“It’s a wonderful sight to see Sunday morning all the horse and buggies going to church,” Gingrich says.

“The buggies are made by men in the community ($3,500), and the horses are retired racehorses.”

Even the wheels have to be just so. The Martins insist on steel wheels, while Old Orders have a rubber strip around them.

Buggies are open or the closed-in type. “I tell my tourists they don’t trust the young people in those closed-in buggies,” Gingrich says, laughing.

After the service, the rest of the day is spent visiting. Most Mennonite families sell their farm products by way of a sign at the end of the laneway, and every one of them will say “No Sunday Sales.” They probably won’t be home, anyway.

Their Christian religion is an integral part of their life, and it is the teachings of Jesus, in the Bible, that has formed the decision to live this way. Why rush by in a car and miss the journey that can be had by horse and buggy? they will say. The sight creates a contrast on the roads, of a people bucking society’s trends and going their own simple way.

The Old Order Mennonites have long been a fascination for people in the area as a result. In fact, people were becoming too fascinated in the 1970s.

“On Sunday mornings in front of the Old Order meeting houses, you’d get whole lineups of cars of people with their cameras and some would even climb onto buggies,” Gingrich says.

A few doors down from The Mennonite Story, the Stone Crock restaurant opened in 1975 by the Shantz family, who are modern Mennonites. It was their intention to open an information centre as well, but the food industry got too busy, Gingrich says.

“Really, the Old Order Mennonite people encouraged them to open up. ‘Maybe people could come somewhere and learn about Mennonites rather than being intrusive,’” they said. So the interpretive centre was initiated by the Old Orders themselves. It was opened in 1979.

Gingrich is in his 18th year serving as manager – a volunteer position. It gets busy in the summer. Fifteen volunteers help out with the thousands of visitors each year. Various groups arrive and he takes people out and about on tours, sometimes into the kitchens of Old Orders for conversation.

“What’s neat about our visitors is that we have an international crowd. Last year we had close to 70 countries represented (according to their guest book.) So that’s really a neat part of being here and meeting these people.”


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