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Heritage Village, Vineland, Ontario

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Mennonite Roots

 

Vineland is Mennonite country - the first Canadian settlement for Anabaptist-Mennonites, and the roots of German-Canadian culture.  There were some 60 settlers in Vineland, seven years before the founding of  Kitchener (originally "Ebytown") in 1807. 

Mennonites are followers of Menno Simons (1492-1559) the Catholic priest who dared to preach separation of church and state, and challenged the validity of child baptism. Persecution in Europe started their world-wide migrations.  The American Revolution drove them to the western wilderness of Quebec, (later called Upper Canada) seeking fertile lands under the British crown of the German King George III. German was their language of worship until the 1890’s.

The first Canadian Mennonites came from Bucks County, Pennsylvania and settled in Lincoln County, Ontario.  These were descendants of  generations of Plattdeutsch colonists from Holland and the Palatinate, who had established Germantown, Pennsylvania back in 1683.  That the 1691 seal of Germantown and the subsequent seal of Bucks County contained grapes and vines, is not just coincidental to our town name.

 The first Mennonites  from Pennsylvania to reach Twenty Mile Creek in 1786 included family names Culp (Kulp), Albrecht (Albright) and Hahn (Haines).  They were followed in 1799 by Moyer (Meyer), Kratz, Hunsberger, Althouse and Fretz.  In 1800 came the families Hipple, Grubb, Rittenhouse (Ruddinghuysen), Fretz, High (Hoch), Fausser, Wismer, Frey.

Farming was their way of life, but the Canadian pioneer conditions were especially harsh.  They came by Conestoga covered wagons travelling some 20 miles per day, for over 500 miles of bush and mountainous terrrain. After clearing land, seeding crop and building cabins, they still had to fight the elements. 1816 was a summer of near continuous frost, which destroyed crops and almost starved out the colony.

Heritage Village was built on farm land once owned by Samuel T. Moyer, son of Jacob Meyer (anglicized as Moyer) the first Mennonite Bishop in Canada.  The first Moyer family had to travel  inland via the Iroquois Trail to find the land they had purchased from John Butler’s Rangers.  The First Mennonite Church in Vineland, still stands on the original site where the congregation used a log cabin school as the original “Meyer meeting house” in 1801.wagon  

Since no ordained Minister from the Pennsylvania congregation was willing to make the harsh journey, the pioneers established Valentine Kratz as their first Pastoral Leader by election – the first of its kind in such wilderness. A year later, not satisfied with Kratz's sermons, the congregation elected Jacob Moyer as second minister, with John Fritz as Decon.  Jacob Moyer became a Bishop five years later.  His white house still stands on King Street today. 

All these pioneer names can be seen on the gravestones of Vineland's old stonewall cemetery and as nameplates on local farms and road signs.  A second Mennonite cemetery can be found in Camden where once the Mountain church stood.  The Jordan Museum grounds protect the third pioneer resting place. Bishop Moyer, however, is buried back in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, having died on a return trip.

As well as the technology of Conestoga wagons, mills, fruit presses and farm implements, the Mennonite pioneers brought with them the folk art of Fraktur. This medieval artform of caligraphy and religious art, was taught at the Clinton School, Vineland.  Fine examples now archived at the Jordan Historical Museum of the Twenty.  .

             

19th Century disagreements on the methods of worship caused the Mennonite communities to split into many divisions, with diverse concepts of piety and orthodoxy such as New Mennonites and Old Order Mennonites, each with their own churches.  One such disagreement is immortalized in the name of a local winery: Organized Crime, alluding to the theft of a church organ. 

Pacifism, their Germanic heritage and rural isolation, set them apart from their neighbours. While the Militia Act of 1793 exempted the Mennonites from military duties they were subjected to a military tax and during the war of 1812,  British troops confiscated their horses and supplies.

During the First  World War they were suspected of being German sympathisers or socialists. A new influx of Mennonites to Vineland came in 1924 with arrival of Russian Mennonites,  so during the Second World War and after, they were accused of being communists. By World War II, the Canadian government introduced the “conscientious Objector” (CO) classification that allowed for alternative service assignments. 

Many young Mennonites went into nursing homes and mental health hospitals – raising significantly the standards of care and compassion. By 1953, the first  "United Mennonite Home for the Aged" under the Charitable Homes Act was established in Preston, Ontario, followed by the Vineland facility in 1955. The "United Mennonite Home" in Vineland (on 4024 23rd St)  has cared for over 800 seniors with the current buildings dating from 2004.

Today, the Mennonites are recognized as Canada's pioneers of economic and social justice. Their rural communities have retained their culture of piety,  high work ethics and family values.  With shortage of land, Increased urbanization has brought their influence throughout Canadian society, but at the cost of secularization.  This led to an identity crisis by the 1970's among the approximately 120,000 Mennonites in Canada.

In 1986 Mennonites in Canada celebrated the Bicentennial of their arrival, and erected a monument beside the historical stonewall cemetery on King Street, beside The First Mennonite Church.  This gave a local  developer, Frederick Short , the inspiration for building Heritage Village, to honour his ancestors.  

In 1996, Moses F. Rittenhouse Library was established adjacent to our Village, named after a local  benefactor and descendant of the first Mennonite Bishop in America: Willem Ruddinghuysen.  Willem was a Dutchman credited with establishing America's first paper mill in Germantown. 

Today, Mennonites are found in some 61 countries with a total census of about 1 million.  The largest urban concentration is in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which since 1998 supports the degree granting Canadian Mennonite University. 

 Vineland's Mennonite roots run deep, in the land and in print.

Further Readings

 

 Visit Jordan Historical Museum on the Twenty. 3800 Main Street, Jordan, Ontario

Visit Mennonite Heritage Village, Steinbach, Manitoba

Cronelius J. Dyck (1993) An Introduction to Mennonite History, Herald Press, Waterloo, Ontario

Daniel K. Cassel (1888)  History of the Mennonites. Globe Printing, Philadelphia.

Michael S. Bird (1977)  Ontario Fraktur, A Pennsylvania-German Folk Tradition in Early Canada. M.F.Feheley Publishers, Toronto. 

 

© 2010

 

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