My week in Amish and Mennonite country in Southern Ontario has opened my eyes to another world within our nation’s borders and took me briefly to a gentler time.
My experience began as I loaded the car recently for my drive to the Waterloo/Kitchener area of Ontario, where horse and buggies, driven by Mennonites, travel the local roads between towns like Elmira, St. Jacob’s, and Drayton. I was invited by a family in this region who had contacted me to learn more about farmland in PEI, as well as other information about living on our Island paradise. After many discussions over the phone, and yes, they have a phone, as well as some electricity; I eventually found my destination down an endless stretch of country road dotted with farms.
I was greeted by a young man of 13 who introduced himself, shook my hand, and offered to take me to see his father, who was a 10 minute tractor ride across a ploughed pasture of dark manure rich soil. The young lad hopped on the John Deere and pulled me across the field, as I sat on a bale of straw perched atop a small wagon. The sugar shack soon appeared in the distance, visible through the well-tended stand of mature sugar maples, smoke pouring from the chimney, and steam through a vented roof. Five hundred buckets capturing sap keep the brothers and father busy during a four to six week period at this time of year. A horse hitched to a wagon weaves through the tapped trees to collect all sap for boiling.
The lesson began in syrup production, Mennonite style, as the roaring fire was continually stoked with slabs of ash hardwood stacked high in the barn. The steam was intense as it filled the sugar shack from the rapid boil of sap as it makes its way through a series of chambers in the stainless steel trough system, ending its journey as prime 100 per cent pure maple syrup- one of nature’s great gifts.
The sugar shack is worthy of a painting; ideally tucked into a lovingly managed stand of mature and younger sugar maples, that plans for future growth, while optimizing the current production from older trees.
The family shares a love of laughter and ease of story-telling, which was apparent when I was invited to the house for the mid-day meal, after chatting away at the sugar shack about maple syrup, farming in southern Ontario, and all the great things about Prince Edward Island. I entered the kitchen to see food on the table and we took our seats. Dishes of beef, boiled potatoes, and coleslaw were passed from person to person after a short period of silent prayer. It was both simple and delicious. Our comfort level continued to grow as we discovered many shared interests. It was a great day spent with like-minds. The young son and I had wonderful talks about syrup production, animals, farming, school, and life in general. His school has three classes of roughly 15 students each and mixed grade levels share a classroom, similar to PEI’s small school houses of another era.
Mennonites come in varying degrees in regards to what rules apply to their daily lives. Some drive cars and others still use horse and buggy for transportation, whether you’re visiting friends and neighbours, going into town to shop, or taking a break at the local Tim’s. My new friends are ‘Old Order’ Mennonites and simply use horse and buggy for their mode of transport. In fact, I was given a tour of the ‘garage,’ which houses about six different buggies or carts for all occasions. The largest and most formal is a covered wagon for church on Sundays. My highlight was a cart and pony ride offered by my new young friend.
The Amish further south were also part of my experience and I met up with a non-Amish gentleman just outside Woodstock, who has been working with a group exploring opportunities in PEI. I drove to Woodstock for my meeting and then met up with an Amish Elder, who I had previously come to know through phone conversations and a meeting in PEI the week before. Again, we had an in-depth conversation about soil types, opportunities for sale, regions of interest, and how Islanders would react to new Mennonite and Amish settlers in areas of PEI. Eastern PEI seems to be of interest to their community and I encouraged that sense with my usual stories of great soil, warm swimming waters, affordable homesteads, kind and respectful people, and an assurance a warm welcome would greet them.
The settlers of eastern PEI in 1803, as they arrived on Lord Selkirk’s ships from the Western Isles of Scotland, had much in common with today’s Mennonites and Amish, and I shared these similarities and that history with my new friends in Southern Ontario. Today’s descendants in eastern PEI also share many of these same values, whether it be temperance, simple living, committed faith, home raised produce, and a strong work ethic.
Islanders will benefit greatly from Mennonite and Amish families coming to PEI and setting down roots, as will the newcomers. It will mean some adjustment on both sides and a shared willingness to learn from each other, but, as one Mennonite gentleman recently shared with me, “If you get to know me, you’ll just learn that I’m human.” How true that is. I was at a Tim Horton’s in Amish country and some Amish gentlemen went to the counter and ordered a double-double. Their horse and buggy was tied to a hitching post outside the store, provided by the franchise. These will be necessary steps and hopefully Danny Murphy and Cooper’s store in Eldon, and others, will be willing to provide hitching posts for their new found customers. Caution signs on the road will also need to be erected to warn locals and tourists of horse and buggies around the bend. The communities have far more in common than their differences and our Island will be enriched for generations to come.