Old Order Cultures in the Finger Lakes

It’s something to hear dozens of hammers pounding nails at once. The Amish do not use modern construction equipment like nail guns.

A first-time visitor to the village of Penn Yan might find it unusual to see a horse and buggy wending its way through vehicular traffic and left-turn-only lanes, but to locals the clip-clop of hooves on pavement is a familiar sound. Since the 1970s, the rural areas that surround this bustling Yates County community have attracted scores of Mennonite and Amish families. Most have migrated from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to establish farms in the heart of the Finger Lakes Region.

Sometimes known as Old Order Cultures, Mennonite and Amish societies are similar in many ways and both are founded on Anabaptist religious principles that originated in Europe centuries ago. “Anabaptism” means to be baptized by choice as an adult rather than by a predetermined parental decision as an infant. Both sects are devout believers in the teachings of Jesus Christ and are easily recognized by their simple but hardworking way of life and plain dress. And both denominations are firm in their belief that they have an obligation to practice Christian doctrine in everyday life.

In the early 1500s, not long after Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other reformists broke away from the Catholic Church to form Protestant congregations of their own, Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest, left his order to lead an Anabaptist church that would one day bear his name. In the 1690s, Jacob Ammann, a Swiss church leader who disagreed with the interpretation of how some Christian doctrine should be practiced, separated from the Mennonites to form yet another Anabaptist church. His followers became known as Amish.

The earliest Europeans came to the New World to escape the state-mandated religions and government-sanctioned churches of their homelands, which often persecuted and sometimes executed those who wouldn’t conform to authoritarian edicts. Puritans arrived first and were followed later by Baptists, Quakers and Mennonites. Anabaptist principles became the foundation for religious tolerance in early America and directly contributed to the way freedom of religion is accepted here today.

When pacifist-Quaker William Penn founded the Province of Pennsylvania in 1681, he invited settlement by offering religious freedom to any peace-loving congregation that would come. Mennonites and Amish were among the first to accept, and the rural areas surrounding Lancaster, which is one of the oldest cities in America, eventually became the Mennonite and Amish cultural center of the United States.

According to Judson Reid, senior associate at Yates County Cornell Cooperative Extension, New York is experiencing a dramatic growth in horse-and-buggy driving populations, with the largest gain of households of any state between 2006 and 2010. Farming is an essential component in the maintenance of these cultures and with nearly 600 households established in the region today, one central New York Mennonite settlement has grown by over 3,000 percent in the last three decades.

A majority of the Mennonite population is engaged in agriculture and operates 99 percent of the area’s dairy farms. Success is based on running small farms with large families whose many children help to grow and harvest crops and produce, thereby eliminating hired labor costs. It’s important to note that Mennonite farms thrive while the industry as a whole struggles. Mennonites who do not farm operate agricultural-support businesses instead, mostly in the form of farm supply stores, feed mills, welding, electric and plumbing services, and farm equipment and bicycle sales and service.

Ivan Martin manufactures hardwood flooring and architectural millwork, and is somewhat of an ambassador between the Mennonite community and the rest of Yates County. He and his wife Anna were among the first Mennonites to come to the Finger Lakes Region, arriving in 1977. They helped to establish and expand the local Mennonite community, which began with just two dozen families. The Martins, who have raised 13 children, are well-respected among their peers and by local residents as well. Ivan is an articulate intellectual who is an astute historian, philosopher and teacher. I was honored to be invited to their home in Potter to interview him for this article.

He began with an in-depth discussion of the history of Anabaptism and Mennonite doctrine, which is Biblically-based and non-negotiable. Peace is the central definitive principle of that doctrine, requiring the pacifist practice of nonviolence, nonresistance, and non-military involvement. Mennonites believe in the sanctity of life and they reject abortion, execution and euthanasia. They strive for eternal life in the Spiritual Kingdom, which is why they live a simple lifestyle and limit worldly involvement and possessions. They readily interact with other cultures and are willing to share but not force the Mennonite message. They are nonpolitical and tolerate other cultures and religions without prejudice.

As Ivan and I talked at their dining room table, Anna was busy baking in the open kitchen. She listened to our conversations and joined in the discussions from time to time. An electric coffeemaker and microwave oven on the kitchen counter prompted me to ask about Mennonites today. Ivan explained that there are about a dozen different Mennonite conferences in the United States and two are prominent in the Finger Lakes Region. But even though they are culturally the same, some lifestyle practices differ among them. Those two groups are the Groffdale Conference and the more-progressive Weaverland Mennonites, or Wengers.

The Martins belong to the Groffdales, which are horse-and-buggy Mennonites. They are considered Old Order and reject certain forms of modernism. Groffdale Mennonites often ride bicycles when it might not make sense to hitch up a horse and buggy, and their children ride bikes to school. Those engaged in agriculture utilize steel-wheeled tractors to eliminate the temptation of using agricultural equipment as a convenient mode of transportation. Groffdales do not drive cars but they do accept rides in motor vehicles.

The Weaverland Conference, which has mostly settled in Seneca County, adopted the use of the automobile in 1927 when it was still considered a horseless-carriage – as long as it was black. The practice of painting chrome bumpers black back then coined the nickname “black-bumper Mennonites.” Today’s Weaverland farmers use conventional pneumatic rubber tires on their tractors. Some buggy drivers consider the car drivers to be non-Old Order but respect them as peers nonetheless.

While most Mennonites claim German ancestry, the Amish are of Swiss descent. Their societies have more similarities than differences in both religious beliefs and cultural traditions. The bearded custom among Mennonite men is no longer compulsory but Amish men are still required wear them. Women in both denominations wear long dresses and bonnets indoors and out, and the men wear brimmed hats outdoors. For men, wearing suspenders in place of a belt is another shared tradition. The manner of dress is simple and plain. Many garments are homemade, especially among the Amish, who do not use fasteners like snaps or zippers.

At home, both cultures speak Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a German dialect, but they are also fluent in English. They do not have radio, television, or stereo entertainment but Groffdale Mennonites use computers that have been, in Ivan’s words, “neutered for accounting or business purposes only.” He calls them “data processors” since they’re not capable of connecting to the Internet. But Wengers do use full-function computers, mostly for business. Mennonites utilize electricity and telephones while the Amish do not, because Amish beliefs forbid electric or telephone lines from entering the living quarters. However, some Amish households may have a telephone located in a small shack at the bottom of a utility pole near the house.

In Yates County alone, there are seven Mennonite churches, known as church houses, and 34 one-room schoolhouses. Mennonite children attend school until the eighth grade. In comparison, the Amish do not build church buildings but hold services at the farms of their members instead, rotating locations from week to week. Saturday night youth group activities are well attended and Sunday services are often followed by a social gathering of families. Contrary to popular belief, marriages are not prearranged. Betrothed couples date for two years in the parlors of their parents before marrying.

Within Old Order Cultures, mutual-support activities are common. Most noticeable are barn raisings or the restructuring of a building after a fire. Barns are often raised in a day by dozens of men, while the women prepare a feast. Judson Reid noted that a dairy barn in Milo that was completely destroyed by fire on Christmas Day in 2008 was rebuilt and shipping milk eight days later. On a humanitarian note, the Mennonite Central Committee operates a meat canning operation in Penn Yan, which provides annual shipments to the global poor, and the New York Wenger Mennonites assist in rebuilding after natural disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

So, what is in store for Old Order Cultures in the Finger Lakes Region? The picture-postcard farms that are already established are likely to remain and prosper, but the rising price of farmland may very well slow future community expansion.


story and photos by John Adamski

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