It was 61 years ago that our family made the big move from the Netherlands to Renfrew County in beautiful Ottawa Valley. The locals had never seen wooden shoes before and couldn’t believe that we could walk and run in them. For many years we were referred to as “the Hollanders.” I’m sure my parents felt like pilgrims in a new land.
Over the years, livestock slowly disappeared from the landscape and cash-crop farming took its place. Huge high-tech tractors and folding cultivators are now a common sight on the rural roads.
And just as I thought there couldn’t be much more of a change (nobody wants to go back to fencing and raising cattle) another landscape transformation is happening today. It’s one I never thought I’d see on our roads: horse-drawn buggies, carriages and wagons. Three Orthodox Mennonite families – men with beards and straw hats, women and girls in long dresses and bonnets – have purchased farms in the area. Each farm had about seven work horses trucked in from their previous location in the Wingham and Lindwood area of Ontario. We’ve heard that up to 70 families are interested in moving to this area if small, suitable farms can be found.
Orthodox Mennonites live very simply, with no electricity or telephones in their homes. They do not own automobiles or computerized technologies, and farmers use work horses instead of tractors. The new families had the hydro disconnected at the road and the hydro poles to their property pulled out of the ground.
These folks buy smaller, loamy soil farms that are not on heavily travelled roads so they can go to the small local towns in their horse-drawn buggies. I’ve been buying eggs at one of the farms and watched in amazement one morning how hard these folks worked to pour footings for a huge work shop they’re building. Two young fellows shoveled gravel into a motor-run cement mixer, one shoveled bagged cement into the mixer and one ran the wheelbarrow of cement. A bearded man, probably the father, stayed by the forms and leveled the cement. All wore straw hats. The father told me they will be making truss rafters in the shop. They also have a few acres of garden produce under plastic.
New hitching posts
The newcomers are well respected by the locals and the township councils and have been warmly welcomed. They are known as excellent, hard-working farmers with a love of the soil. Life on a farm coincides with the Mennonite religious beliefs that farming is not merely a job but a sacred lifestyle. Horse-drawn vehicles have become familiar sights in the area towns where the new arrivals do their shopping. They shop locally, which is something (ironically) the locals don’t always do. Bonnechere Valley Township council has reached out a neighbourly hand by providing a central hitching post in the town of Eganville where they often go to shop. Some businesses are also installing hitching posts for the horses.
The Orthodox Mennonites consist of two separate but related groups of Mennonites located in Southwestern Ontario. In 1954, 25 people from the extended Hoover and Sherk families (previously of the Rainham Old Order Mennonites), left the David Martin Mennonite Church in Waterloo County, Ontario. With others that joined them over the following decade they became the Orthodox Mennonite Church.
In 1956 Minister Elam S. Martin was excommunicated from the David Martin Mennonites and joined with the “Hoovers.” When Elam S. Martin became their bishop they then became known as “Elam Martins.” They officially became the Orthodox Mennonite Church in 1962 with the building of their first meetinghouse, but divided in 1974, primarily over the enforced wearing of beards. The beard-wearing group, which included Bishop Elam S. Martin, moved to Howick, Ontario en masse beginning in 1979. They are today nicknamed “Gorries,” but are more correctly referred to as Orthodox Mennonite Church, Huron County, Ontario. The other group remained in the Waterloo Region and is referred to as Orthodox Mennonite Church, Wellesley Township, Ontario.
It will be interesting to see how the landscape changes further with the arrival of these new neighbours.