The lifestyle of Old Order Mennonites in Kitchener-Waterloo inspired some contemplation.

Adventures: Quilts, carriages… and time

Contemplating the lifestyle of Old Order Mennonites during a meander through Ontario's Kitchener-Waterloo region

Frank White’s title: That Went By Fast: My First Hundred Years, caught my attention in the Harbour Publishing book list. How true, I chuckled, and went in search of Frank White.

Turns out, I was 101 years too late. Frank died last October, but his words live on.

“When I was fifty and still had most of my marbles,” he wrote, “all people wanted me to tell them was why their car stalled at the intersection. Now that everything is starting to get hazy, they’re not satisfied unless I can tell them the meaning of life.”

A B.C. pioneer, ex-logger, and former gas-station owner, Frank published his second book at the age of 100. “Life is life,” he’s quoted as saying. “It’s not under our control and it doesn’t follow any script. It just is.” Frank, whom I never met and whose book I have yet to read, seemed like the perfect inspiration for a 2016 column. Carpe diem, tempus fugit, don’t put off until tomorrow, and all that jazz.

While travelling in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, the lifestyle of Old Order Mennonites inspired some contemplation. My 21st century gas guzzler zipped by their dignified black buggies and handsome horses. Their mission (in many cases) was tending the farm, running the family business, cherishing the showery autumn landscape. Community is valued, ostentation is frowned upon, and I’d have trouble adhering to the rigid rules of the faith. But, I envied their determination to resist the rat race.

Viola, a quilter and crafter, invited me to her traditional Wallenstein farm home in Posey Lane. She values her community and faith, but is an entrepreneur at heart. Beyond her spotless kitchen, a bedroom overflows with stunning handmade quilts, and assorted handmade toys and children’s clothes.

Stitches, tiny and even, are the hallmark of both traditional and new designs. Seamstresses hoping to work for Viola must stitch a sampler to demonstrate their skill. Others bind these masterpieces. Each woman is skilled in her own field. The business operates by cash, cheque – no credit cards. She should have a website, but that contravenes her strict community rules. She also enjoys catering, but encouraging commercial catering in her home is frowned upon. Homemade picnics help her remain observant while still indulging her business interests. It’s a fine line. Shyly her little granddaughter keeps a close eye on me, and follows us out to see the fluffiest, fattest turkeys I’ve ever seen.

Driving is unacceptable, so Viola is delighted when transportation arrives to take her to the market.

Across the road, surrounded by lush fields and brilliant autumn colours, is Aaron Martin Harness Ltd. Also, clearly traditional (but with a website), this is a man’s world. Pulling and show harnesses, brass bells, the distinctive orange signs for the back of Old Order buggies, collars for draft horses, and the reassuring scent of good leather…and silence, dominates. It’s another world.

Walking the fine line between conforming, and non-conforming, seems possible, but carefully managed and monitored. Mennonite women and men run businesses in not-be-missed St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market in Cambridge. An elderly Mennonite farmer with brilliant blue eyes and an irresistible grin encourages me to sample local maple syrup from his trees. I prefer honey to maple syrup, I tell him. Sampling three different weights, I begin to understand how these local syrups differ. I’m converted – and better educated on the subject.

Photographing Old Order Mennonites in public is unacceptable, so visiting The Mennonite Story, a museum tucked in among gift shops and restaurants in St. Jacobs village, was a helpful alternative. This self guided tour and multi-media presentation gave me an insight into Mennonite European roots, customs and faith.

Canada was their haven from persecution. St. Jacobs County, Ontario, is among the areas respecting their old traditions. Like Frank White, they’ve come a long way in 100 years. Even at their horse and buggy pace though, time flies. Perhaps the message on my journey was – hurry up…but, go slower.

– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a British Columbia writer and photographer ensuring her first 100 years count


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