1. Archive

Canada's Mennonites have their own pace

The horse's hooves rhythmically tap the unpaved dirt road, harness jingling harmony to the bees busily looting alfalfa blossoms. A loose board rattles on the conveyance that resembles a spring wagon in a Western movie. The small girl, face hidden by the brim of her sunbonnet, wriggles impatiently. The woman behind her speaks softly, and the child turns her face straight ahead and sits motionless as a porcelain doll. The driver speaks to the woman in uniquely accented German and she replies. He wears a dark suit jacket, and his collarless shirt is buttoned to his chin. Two other children sit quietly, although their bright eyes flick here and there, missing nothing.

Occupants of a passing automobile stare curiously at the family in the horse-drawn buggy, who in turn studiously ignore them.

These Mennonites cling to their centuries old traditions and are one surprise tourists will find in southern Ontario's rolling hills west of Niagara and east of Detroit. Living much as their ancestors did in Germany's Palatine, theirs is the simple agricultural life. They have their own schools, guarding their children from modern temptations.

In the white sunshine, the horse trots briskly, ignoring automobiles speeding toward him. Are these two worlds on a collision course? No. Rather, these two cultures are pulling in tandem. Who is to say which one is out of context, the Mennonites or the "English"? "English" means anything not "Dutch" or "German." Both terms are prime examples of how misnomers survive and flourish.

Sunday afternoons you're sure to see buggies moving smartly along the back roads looking like living Edwardian illustrations, yet it is only an hour to Toronto's modern airport.

Were you to sit in on a session in a one-room Mennonite school, you would see how your own grandparents were educated in reading, writing and arithmetic. Likely you won't be granted that privilege, however, for you are the outsider here, glimpsing now and then the public face of a very private way of life. One admires these plain honest people who have staunchly stood by their convictions and against "proud" ways for so many years. They possess a fresh quiet dignity that elicits respect.

The Canadian "Pennsylvania Dutch" country centers around Kitchener and Waterloo in Ontario, two neat, bustling Midwestern seeming cities that have become one, nestling against each other with no natural barriers to tell which is which.

The Ontario Peninsula is exceptionally fine for a family vacation. Here are several extraordinarily fine museums portraying Mennonite life today and yesterday. The graceful stone Brubacher House on Waterloo University's spacious campus is an antique buff's delight. The Joseph Schneider Haus near the heart of the metro area has changing periodic exhibits that highlight last century's health care, food preparation, crafts and other points of pioneer life.

The wooden covered bridge a few miles northeast of Waterloo in West Montrose is the last of its kind in the province and spans the Grand River, which you cross many times as it winds placidly through the region. The bridge almost speaks to you from a different time, and your imagination spins its own tales here.

Visit Doon Heritage Crossroads just outside Kitchener and drive up the hill to Pioneer Tower, a quaint fieldstone turret that looks as if Rapunzel surely dwelt there. Situated on a bluff above the Grand River, it marks the place where Pennsylvania immigrants Joseph Schoerg and Samuel Betzner settled in 1802. In 1926 their numerous descendants erected the tower in remembrance of the hardships the pioneers endured in coming to the wilderness of Upper Ontario. So well did the immigrants tame the new land that today one can scarcely picture this peaceful, productive place as a dangerous adventure.

You can catch snatches of Mennonite life at Elmira, Elora and St. Jacobs, tiny villages north of Waterloo.

In Elmira, Brox's Olde Town Village proclaims that it emphasizes the best of yesterday and meets the shopping needs of tomorrow. In other words, a tourist trap, but a delightful experience nonetheless, with a solid historic base.

Busy St. Jacob's is an example to dead and dying rural towns everywhere, a fine lesson in tourist attraction. Vintage retail buildings have become charming craft shops, boutiques and restaurants. Bed and breakfasts are available, as well as an inn and recreational vehicle hook-ups. Waterloo is only a few miles down the road with a wide range of accommodations.

Particularly eye-catching, inside and out, is St. Jacob's converted concrete grain silo housing shops that offer everything from folk art to maple sugar to calico quilts and cats.

The Stone Crock Inn on the main street is a popular eating place that has successfully translated Mennonite home cooking to the restaurant trade. Furnished with antiques, it has a homey, comfortable ambiance. Prices are moderate to moderately high.

On weekdays many horses and buggies are tied outside the several farmers markets, as Mennonites and others tend to their weekly marketing and shopping.

On Sundays the horses will be tethered to one of a row of hitching posts near the classically simple wooden Old Order churches.

The tourist in Kitchener's downtown market will find a fair selection of Pennsylvania Dutch items _ quilts, pillows, aprons. Complicated scherenschnitte, scissors snipped art, make good carry home gifts. Here handicrafts are part of life and busy hands constantly create beauty.

English china and woolens are available in several Kitchener-Waterloo shops. Brochures in most hotels, motels and tourist information booths specify how and where to locate the many factory outlets in the area.

For the most part, dining in Ontario is not particularly memorable. There are Pizza Huts, MacDonald's and the like, as well as good Chinese and Italian restaurants. And some of the best fish and chips anywhere. It's a bit of a shock to be asked if you want gravy on your french fries. As for most of the Pennsylvania Dutch food, the search for the perfect shoo-fly pie goes on; it was not discovered in Ontario. Maybe someday in Pennsylvania .




There is a great deal more to the Peninsula than the Pennsylvania Dutch. It's a half-hour drive to Stratford and Shakespeare; the Seagram Museum in Waterloo (closed Mondays); two hours to Niagara Falls, and more, much more. Contact the Kitchener Chamber of Commerce Visitors and Convention Bureau, P.O. Box 2367, Station B, Kitchener, Ontario, N2H 6M2. (519) 576-5000.

Mennonites adhere to the old ways in the name of serving God.

Ontario Mennonites are followers of Menno Simon, who contemporaneously with Martin Luther in 16th-century Germany was a strong voice in the Protestant Reformation. Today, several hundred thousand Canadian Mennonites live in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia.

Their ancestors came to Ontario Peninsula from Pennsylvania shortly after the American Revolution. They carried bits of Pennsylvania with them, as their own grandfathers had brought traditions and practices from Germany and Switzerland. Some examples of these Canadians' American heritage are printed on signboards and shop windows. For instance, the name Conestoga honors the efficient Conestoga wagon in which they migrated as well as Conestoga Creek near where they had lived in Pennsylvania. Many family names are the same _ Brubacher, Erb, Meyer.

Comparisons between Canadian and Pennsylvania Mennonites show a distinctly British flavor to the northerners. Hat brims are narrower, jackets better tailored, clothing more muted.

For several hundred years Mennonites have deliberately kept themselves separate from life's mainstream. Their moral values, religiously assessed and reassessed through the years, are simple and uncomplicated.

In avoiding things "proud" or "fancy" they seek humility. They consider themselves a separate and peculiar people and they work to keep it that way.