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Grand River - Old Order

Mennonites set their own pace of change

More on the Grand River:
Grand River:
Ontario’s historic heartland

Bloom Town:
The flowering of an old-style Ontario town

The Grand’s Canyon:
Tourism powers an old mill town

Grinding Along the Grand:
Stone mills lined the riverbanks

High-Rise Herons:
Big swamp birds thrive in a wetland haven

Home and Native Land:
Homestead of the Six Nations

Old Order:
Mennonites set their own pace of change

Plaster of Paris:
A town arises from gypsum and cobblestones

Raising Rainbows:
Rehabilitating a tired industrial river

Sausages to Software:
The Industrial Evolution

Grand Stand:
Survival of a river valley forest

Drive along a country road on a summer Sunday near St. Jacob's and you will surely be surprised by scenes that seem to jump out straight from the past.

Young men dressed in identical white shirts, fedoras, trousers, and suspenders spend the afternoon playing baseball outside their Mennonite meeting house. Then, at the approach of milking time, they quit the game and climb into their black, horse-drawn buggies for the ride home.

Surrounded by the rush and urban sprawl of southern Ontario, the Mennonite communities of the Grand River valley have determined their own pace of change. Mennonite commitment to a simple, self-sufficient life dates back to the German Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. They were radicals, then, in their demands that the church give up its worldly wealth and political powers. Today they seem to be extreme conservatives in their attachment to older ways of life.

The first Mennonite settlers in Ontario travelled from Pennsylvania in Conestoga wagons in the 18th century in search of religious liberty and inexpensive land. They were not pioneer settlers in the truest sense because they purchased their land from a speculator who had acquired it from the Six Nations Reserve.

The Mennonite newcomers created autonomous agricultural communities in which they could practise their religion freely. New Mennonite groups joined them from Europe. These were Amish Mennonites who followed a stricter code of behaviour.

There was not a strong emphasis on higher education for young people. Hard work, without the benefit of electricity or modern technology, was the rule. The rules of the community were respected as much as the laws of the country.

The Mennonite community in the late 1800s divided into one group ready to accept a faster pace of change and another conservative collection of “Old Order Mennonites.” Horses still cultivate fields of Old Order farms that prosper without electricity or motors. Women still dress in bonnets and long dresses that were in fashion a century ago. But the Old Order represents only about five percent of the total Mennonite population.

The Old Order desire to live apart includes their refusal of government programs such as old age pensions, family allowances, and medical insurance. The rules of their church and Order dictate that the community provide the social services and security for its members - things most Canadians expect of their government.

St. Jacobs is the commercial centre of Mennonite life in the Grand River valley. Located just upstream from the Grand on its tributary, the Conestogo River, St. Jacobs is where Mennonite farmers and businesses trade with each other and with the tourists who crowd its streets on summer days.

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