Far, far away, in a world from a bygone era

To Market, To Market: Canadian style  

It’s a sunny Saturday morning. We drive from Milton to the Waterloo Region in Ontario province, to visit one of Canada’s largest year-round farmers’ markets located in the quaint town of St. Jacobs. This charming town is nestled alongside the Conestoga River and the surrounding countryside is home to around 4,000 Old Order Mennonite Amish community members that shun technology. Travelling to St. Jacobs and its environs is like a journey back in time.

As we drive around the town, we are surprised to see horse-drawn buggies on the road, driven by farmers in wide-brimmed black hats. A little later, we come across another horse carriage, but this time, a young woman in a long-sleeved print dress is at the reins. Next to her is her little boy in white shirt-sleeves and suspenders. The clip-clop of horses’ hooves and clatter of carriage wheels, the scent of fresh baked bread wafting out from the village bakery, and the heritage buildings flanking the street, are reminiscent of a long-gone era of unhurried simplicity. At first glance, it seems as though nothing has changed since the town’s Old Order Mennonite settlers first arrived here in the early 1800s. Many of the old buildings still exist, but in a new guise — that of upscale boutiques, craft shops and art galleries.

The Amish people are an old religious sect, direct descendants of the Anabaptists (those practising adult baptism) of sixteenth-century Europe. These Anabaptist Christians challenged the reforms of Martin Luther and others during the Protestant Reformation. Later known as the Mennonites, after the Dutch Anabaptist leader Menno Simons (1496-1561), a large group of Anabaptists fled to Switzerland and other remote areas of Europe to escape religious persecution.

During the late 1600s, a group of devout individuals led by Jakob Ammann broke away from the Swiss Mennonites and the Amish community takes its name from him. The Old Order Mennonite Amish are an ultra-conservative group. The Ontario region of Waterloo hosts the largest population of them in Canada, with St Jacobs, Elmira and Breslau home to a majority. Most of them can trace their origins back to the Markham Conference of 1939, which established a Canadian Mennonite Church in Markham, Ontario.

St. Jacobs was settled in 1819 and officially named in 1852. It was first known as ‘Jakobstettel’ meaning ‘Jacob’s Village’. The St. was added to the name simply to make it sound more pleasing and the pluralisation was in honour of the combined efforts of Jacob C. Snider (1791–1865) and his son, Jacob C. Snider, Jr. (1822–1857), founders of the village. St. Jacobs developed as a thriving business community throughout the 1800s with a felt factory, tannery, glue factory, flour mill, saw mill, and furniture factory. The village served the needs of surrounding pioneer farm settlements.

The famous St. Jacobs Farmer’s Market is open all year round on Thursdays and Saturdays and on Tuesdays during summer. Around 600 vendors, including the local Mennonite Amish farmers, sell their farm-fresh vegetables, fruits, maple syrup, baked goods, meat and meat products, cheese and milk products, fresh fruit juices, toys, potted plants, handicraft and furniture at the standard flea market price. The food items sold here are so fresh, and delicious that they are hard to resist. From perogies andpastries, to fudge, BBQ, jams, pies, apple fritters, smoked turkey pepperoni sticks and maple syrup…they are all delicious. The site also has a livestock barn and petting barn.

The market was established in April 1975. It consists of Peddler’s Village building, selling house wares, furniture, footwear, crafts etc., some food vendor buildings and outdoor shops. A two-storey 24,000 square-foot timber building was the central building, which housed the food vendors on the lower level and home decorations and crafts on the upper level. When we entered this majestic space, around lunch time, the aroma of the assortment of multi-cuisine delicacies served here doubled our appetite. Little did we know then, that this was our last visit to this beautiful two-floor post-and-beam structure, as the building was completely destroyed by a fire just two weeks after our visit.

Luckily, the fire did not harm any people or livestock. At present, a spanking brand new ‘Harvest barn’ structure (a large tent) has been erected on the same 20-by-80 metre foundation as the original two-storey wood frame building. This new 15,600 square-foot sq. ft. dome-shaped ‘Harvest barn’ structure, equipped with both heating and cooling systems, was a welcoming sight for both vendors and customers. The adjoining Peddler’s Village building will soon be accommodating many of the food court vendors that customers have missed.

Apart from the market experience, St. Jacobs also offers horse-drawn tours, where people of all ages can enjoy a wide variety of country adventures. The popular Mennonite Farm Tours and The Maple Sugar Bush Tours are great ways to learn about the lifestyle of the Mennonite community and their heritage.

Symbolic of their faith, Mennonite Amish clothing styles encourage humility and separation from the world. The concept of plainness dictates the distinctive dress of the Mennonites.  It is based on the belief that a person's true worth does not lie in their clothes or appearance. The Mennonite Amish men wear straight-cut suits and coats without collars, lapels or pockets. Trousers never have creases or cuffs and are worn with suspenders. Belts are forbidden, as are sweaters, neckties and gloves. Young men are clean shaven prior to marriage, while married men are required to let their beards grow. Moustaches are forbidden.

The women typically wear solid-colour dresses with long sleeves and a full skirt, covered with a cape and an apron. They never cut their hair, and wear it in a braid or bun on the back of the head concealed with a small white cap or black bonnet. Stockings are black cotton and shoes are also black. The women are not permitted to wear patterned clothing or jewelry. The Ordnung of the specific Mennonite Amish order may dictate matters of dress as explicit as the length of a skirt or the width of a seam.

Community is important to a Mennonite, and a technology or practice is rejected if it would adversely affect it. Conveniences such as electricity, television, computers, automobiles, telephones and tractors are considered to be a temptation that could cause vanity or create inequality. It is common for Mennonite Amish communities to allow the use of telephones, but not in the home. Instead, several Mennonite Amish families will share a telephone in a wooden shanty between farms. Electricity is sometimes used in certain situations, such as electric fences for cattle, flashing electric lights on buggies, and heating homes. They selectively use technology — choosing the types that serve their community rather than debilitate it.

The Amish think that ownership of cars would encourage people to drive away from home more often and give youth easier access to cities. The horse and buggy is also a symbol of their separation from the larger world.

As we were driving back to Milton that evening, we were impressed by the simple, honest, humble and God-fearing lifestyle of the Old Mennonite Amish community. The village of St. Jacobs lies approximately 15 km north of Waterloo in the Kitchener-Waterloo area of Southern Ontario. Waterloo is located west of Toronto and within an hour and a half of Niagara Falls. It is a place out of the ordinary.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 9:34:15 AM |

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