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(2016 - Winter/Spring Issue)


Fresh rural air always afforded us an ample appetite. Partaking in  second helpings, it also elicited a demure smile from our bonneted hostess.

Not far from the southern Ontario village of St. Jacobs, a Mennonite meal materialized as a mouth-watering order of the day. Old Order Mennonites to be precise. Murray and Esther Metzger provided a substantial lunch for our group. Actually, they consider lunchtime “dinner” since, in our case, it constituted hefty homemade helpings of meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, peas, coleslaw, stuffing and devilled eggs. A standard offering of three delectable desserts consisting of fruit, trifle and cake followed our hearty meal.

This amiable encounter was reminiscent of a large family gathering that appeased both my appetite and interest in the Mennonite lifestyle. Of the 1.5 million Mennonites worldwide, 200,000 reside in Canada and nearly 4,000 Old Order Mennonites live in the surrounding countryside of the Village of St. Jacobs. Mennonite roots can be traced back to the 16th century Reformation in Europe. Pennsylvania German Mennonites migrated to Canada from the U.S. after the American War of Independence. One has to admire their healthy, benevolent Christian beliefs.

Following our feast, Esther Metzger proudly displayed her hand-sewn quilts, methodically unfolding the large blanket-sized quilts one by one to exhibit their attractive patterns and colourful designs. “Mennonite women are expected to make at least seven quilts starting from the time they turn 14 until their marriage,” she told us. This is evidently enough to last a lifetime. A retail store in the nearby village of St. Jacobs sells Mennonite quilts.

Village Explorations

Along both sides of King Street, several intriguing antique, craft, fashion and food shops beckon visitors. Century-old structures such as the adjoining Village Silos and The Mill house feature works of artisans and local history exhibits. A Quilt Gallery, pottery, candy makers, original artwork and native gifts as well as a Maple Syrup Museum and Home Hardware exhibition are all worthwhile browsing.

Located 120 kilometres west of Toronto, the settlement of St. Jacobs was established in 1852 where a sawmill and gristmill were erected on the Conestoga River. By 1894 electricity became a practical reality with the village becoming the first community its size to provide surplus electrical power to illuminate streetlights. In 1904, it also became the first in Canada to use water-generated electricity, replacing oil street lamps.

Across the street from The Mill, the Farmers’ Inn, constructed in 1852 by local Mennonite settlers, was a stop on a stagecoach route and offered food, shelter and watering troughs for horses. Today, Mennonite horse and buggies and horse-drawn trolley tours have replaced the stagecoaches of the mid-1800s.

The original village Home Hardware store on King Street has spawned more than one thousand retail outlets across Canada. To commemorate its 40th anniversary in 2004, Canada Post issued a 49-cent stamp to the prominent independent hardware retailer. Various exhibits at The Mill trace the evolution of both the company and merchandise distributed over the years. Everything from bolts to bedpans and tools to typewriters were sold. Viewing the assorted artifacts, many of which are obsolete and collectibles, brought back youthful memories of these household products. “Does the local Home Hardware store have a surplus of green paint since it is a tradition for Old Order Mennonites to paint their roofs green?” we inquired. “Yes,” said Rob Wallace, Home Hardware Promotional Events Manager, “we generally identify ‘green’ with an eco-friendly environment. However, green is actually more symbolic of fertility and growth.”

For palatably pleasing pastry preparations, we decided to seek out the Stone Crock Bakery down the street. Established in 1975, 50 employees, 80 per cent of whom are Mennonites, operate the bakery. They create 35 different specialty cakes and produce an estimated 67,000 pies and 100,000 tarts annually. The owner mentioned the most popular pastries are Dutch apple pie and apple fritters. The latter are renowned in the village and we proceeded to devour a few of the warm sugar-coated apple delights to confirm this. Stone Crock Bakery also has a booth at the nearby St. Jacobs Farmers’ and Flea Market where 600 vendors sell their produce and crafts.

Further exploration of King Street brought us to the Hamel Brooms facility. Opened in Waterloo in 1908, it relocated to St. Jacobs in the early 1990s. The sturdy wooden door opened into a former blacksmith shop. Built in 1864, it is now a successful corn broom-making operation. Entering the premises felt like stepping back in time. Their oldest piece of equipment still in use is a hand sewing vice, which dates from 1898. The most modern unit is a half-century-old sewing machine. Since Canada does not have a long enough growing season for the particular type of grass (Sorghum vulgare) used in broom-making, supplies are imported from Mexico. Producing more than 15,000 brooms annually, Hamel Brooms is among the last Canadian manufacturers to create this style of household broom. We were literally swept away by the old-fashioned, yet effective, means by which such an item we often take for granted is made.

The “Kissing Bridge”

We ventured out to see the only remaining wooden covered bridge in the province just 12 kilometres north of St. Jacobs. The West Montrose covered bridge near the town of Elmira is 62 metres long. Also known as the “Kissing Bridge,” legend has it that this Waterloo Region landmark required the traditional smooch in order to cross. Constructed in the same year as the shoot-out at the OK Corral (1881), the covered bridge spans the Grand River and can only accommodate a three-ton capacity. One can only imagine how the bridge would have been enhanced by an even more bucolic background years ago.

Elmira received recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records for hosting the world’s largest single-day maple syrup festival in 2000. An estimated 66,500 people attended the festival, which included craft sales, sugar bush tours and a pancake-flipping contest. Mmmm, flapjacks sound good. Wonder what’s on the Metzgers’ menu today. 

Travel Planner

For more information on St. Jacobs, visit stjacobs.com.

THE MENNONITE STORY Interpretive Centre offers accurate information presented through various media.

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