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Fred's Views

The Retirement Files - Part 2

I may have stumbled across the best thing my former employer created for its employees: a club for its retirees. I get the first year's membership free and it includes up to 16 days' worth of free parking on college grounds. Paying for parking at my place of employment has always been a bone of contention (whatever that means) with me. Now, after years of paying dearly for the privilege of getting to work (as if there was any other way to get there!), I get to park for free! Only problem is, why would I want to go there in the first place? Turns out there is at least one reason.

Entrance to Wings of ParadiseThe retirees club plans regular outings - bus tours. We signed up for one interesting tour only to discover my wife couldn't get that day off. Fortunately, we found another interesting tour: a visit to Mennonite country. First, however, we stopped at a new attraction north of Cambridge, Ontario: Wings of Paradise. This is a butterfly conservatory similar to one operated by the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture near Niagara Falls, Ontario. However, while the building is not quite as impressive as the one in Niagara, this one also features a static display of hundreds of different butterfly species as well as hundreds of different insect species. (Did you know that we have catalogued approximately 1 million different species of insects? Sounds impressive until you discover that there is probably another two million still unstudied.)One of the many butterfly species at Wings of Paradise Naturally there is also a gift shop and cafeteria. It was a delightful start to our day's outing.

At Wings of Paradise we also picked up our tour guide, Warren Stauch who runs Shunpiking Tours. "Shunpiking" means "to shun the turnpikes". In other words, touring the back roads of the countryside. For the most part, that's exactly what we did. What follows is largely based on what Warren told us (as best as I can remember - any errors are mine). The first stop on our tour was the "Pioneer Tower".

The Pioneer TowerThe road to the Pioneer Tower goes right through a new subdivision. Riding in the bus, I'm not sure how well the way was marked, but I got a map that Warren gave us (and kept telling us to refer to all through the day). The Pioneer Tower was build in 1925 to commemorate 125 years of settlement in the area. Last year, or so, it got a new copper roof. The tower looks much like a silo, but built of ancient rocks from the Canadian Shield, with a nice small entrance and a delightful copper roof topped by a weather vane in the form of an oxen-driven Conestoga wagon.

Gravesite of original settlersFollowing the Revolutionary war, the Mohawk Indian tribes which supported the British were forced to leave their lands in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. The British crown deeded a swath of land, six miles on either side of the Grand River from its mouth on Lake Erie up as far as its course was known to about (I think) Elora, Ontario. That was quite a bit of land and the Mohawk weren't quite sure what to do with all of it, so they sold some. An English entrepreneur named Beasley bought the land and then resold it to Mennonite immigrants. This land became known as the German Land Tract and some property deeds still refer to this name. Meanwhile, the Mennonites who had been invited to Pennsylvania shortly before the Revolutionary War were becoming disenchanted with their new land. The Mennonites were pacifists, and resented the new country's call for young men to serve in the armed forces. Thus, in 1800, some of them packed up and started out on a two-month (almost) trek from Pennsylvania to present-day Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. They brought all their possessions in Conestoga wagons. The first settlers to arrive in the area were the Sherks and the Betzners. Today, grave stones (one, at least, relatively new) mark the graves of these pioneers at the Pioneer Tower.

James Schneider homestead (now a museum)Many of the streets of Kitchener-Waterloo are named after early Mennonite settlers. Within a short walking distance of each other in downtown Kitchener are the homes of two Schneiders, apparently unrelated. One, J. M. Schneider, came from Germany and worked for the local button company until he was injured. While recuperating, he and his wife started making summer sausage and sold it to the neighbors. He never went back to the button company. Instead, he started up his own meat business which is today one of the best known meat brands in Canada (or at least in Ontario). The other Schneider, James, built his typical Mennonite home next to a creek. By damming the creek, he was able to control the water and power a saw mill. Today his home is a museum.

Over the years, outsiders moved in, a town and then a city grew up and the Mennonites decided to move on. They moved into Wellesley and Woolwich counties to the north.

There are many fine eating establishments in the area. Our guide took us to the Crossroads Restaurant between Elmira and St. Jacobs. Here modern Mennonite young women served the beverages and cleared the dishes as we enjoyed a hot buffet with an immense choice of salads and desserts. The Crossroads is one of only two buffets in the area.

Covered buggyThere are three or possibly four different groupings of Mennonite. First, there are the traditional Mennonites that shun much of the modern world, although they have recently been allowed to have electricity for essentials such as refrigeration, lights, cooking and washing. Electric dryers and any type of electrical entertainment device are still shunned. Traditional Mennonites travel by horse and buggy (many of these horses are retired trotters or pacers), dress, well covered, in dark clothing and strictly adhere to traditional Christian values, including resting on Sunday. Some still work the land with horses while others use tractors. Many also operate "cottage industry" factories producing wood products from pallets to fine furniture, welding, leather saddles, reins, etc. and more. Many farms that still did not have electricity had a generator to power tools used in their businesses. Many farms have signs at the gate announcing their wares. A sure sign of a traditional Mennonite is a notice of "No Sunday Sales".

There are at least two types of buggies in use: an open buggy which is used by most, and a closed-in buggy which is used by older Mennonites.

Typical Mennonite farmModern Mennonites make use of at least some modern conveniences including cars, trucks and tractors. Most still wear conservative clothes and have their heads covered at all times.

Another modern-leaning group is known as "Dave Martin" Mennonites, after the man that started the splinter-group.

Finally, some Mennonites have become very entrepreneurial. In this group is the man responsible for reviving St. Jacobs, including its shops and the nearby farmers' markets. Today, St. Jacobs is second behind Niagara Falls in attracting the most tourists in Ontario.

Mennonite children traditionally attend school until they are fourteen. They then either work the farm or are hired out to other Mennonite farmers. More modern Mennonites may complete grade 12 before going to work. The few Mennonites who may pursue even higher education risk being shunned.

Mennonite Meeting houseSpotted throughout the country-side are "Meeting houses" which serve as a place of worship. Meeting houses traditionally have five doors. The "congregation" is divided based on age and gender. The oldest sit near the front where they can hear better and the youngest sit near the back. There is also a special section for mothers with young children. No musical instruments are used. The minister can speak for as long as he likes, often for well over an hour. Most meeting houses have a grave yard next to them and all of them have rows of posts strung with a chain for tying up the horses. (Interestingly, the posts are metal capped to prevent the horses from chewing the wood and possibly freeing the chain.) In at least one instance, a modern Mennonite church was situated next to the traditional meeting house.

Almost all Mennonite buildings are roofed in green. In many cases, several generations live together. Sometimes, the grandparents are provided with their own section added on to the house, although in a few cases, they have park trailers. Some Mennonites who forsake buying electricity have installed state of the art wind-mill generators, a trend that is likely to continue throughout Ontario thanks to our government's destruction of Ontario Hydro.

The Mennonites originated from Germany and Holland. They were "ana-baptists", that is, they believed in adult baptism, and they split off from the Catholic church at around the same time as Martin Luther. Their decision to shun much of today's modern "conveniences" is largely based on their desire to have control of their own lives: if you use electricity, you become dependent upon it and unable to function properly in its absence. Although Mennonites may distance themselves from the mainstream, they are always willing to give a helping hand, and not only to a fellow Mennonite. When one Mennonite barn burned down recently, killing many head of cattle, a barn-raising with well over 100 men, quickly rebuilt the barn and the stock was replaced by other farmers donating a cow or bull.

St. Boniface Church, Maryhill, OntarioIn nearby Maryhill (formerly New Berlin), a group of Catholic immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine settled. The local Mennonites, despite the religious differences, eagerly helped them establish themselves. St. Boniface Church and cemetery dominant the local skyline. (There are two theories for placing the church on the highest land: One is that the Catholics needed a head start to get into heaven [just joking]. The other, serious reason, is that the workers in the fields could look up and receive inspiration from the site of their church. The St. Boniface cemetery has some of the oldest tombstones in the area. Many are not stones, but ornate wrought iron crosses, not uncommon in Europe but quite unique in my experience. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to iron or stone. Many are in need of repair and several stones have become essentially unreadable.

Last covered bridge in Ontario, West MontroseJust before Maryhill, we stopped at West Montrose and visited the last standing covered bridge in Ontario. Known as the "Kissing Bridge", its nearly 200 foot length straddles the Grand River.

I have mixed emotions about some of the stops on our tour. For example, it seems like the Pioneer Tower is being hidden behind a new subdivision, although it is kept in good repair. The Kissing Bridge, on the other hand, (despite receiving new foundations) shows signs of neglect. It is also very difficult to get a good shot of the bridge. The best view is marred by a utility pole. It would, I think, be a good idea to replace the pole to the other side of the road, or, better yet, put the lines underground. Some stops, such as the museum at James Schneider's home show signs of receiving adequate care while, just up the street, it appeared that J.M. Schneider's birthplace was neglected.

A word of warning: when you visit Mennonite country, please show your fellow neighbors due respect. Don't treat them as "part of the show". This is not Disney World, you didn't pay a fee, and these people are not members of the "cast" serving at your pleasure. These are real people living their real lives. When you see a horse and buggy, slow down and pass with care. If you wave, they will probably wave back. Don't take their pictures.

We ended our tour where it began at Wings of Paradise, bade farewell to our guide and began our fairly short hop back to Hamilton. All in all, it was a great day. Having a guide certainly makes the tour more interesting. For example, I believe it was in Maryhill where there were once two hotels. They existed because it was a stop off for the local stage. One is now a "board and breakfast" although it is still called a hotel while the other is now a private residence. Where would you ever dig up this information without a guide? (And I bet you thought stages were only used in the wild west!)

I hope I'll be able to take part in more of these outings. I do know that I want to go back to Mennonite country and explore some of the new sites I've discovered in more detail.

Note: As mentioned, this is based on my recall of Warren's tour. I hope to do some research on my own to back up and "flesh out" some of the details for a later version. You can find more pictures of Wings of Paradise and Mennonite country in the October and November 2002 "Pictures of the Day" at

Copyright © 2002 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.

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