The Plain People

Guy Schum shows us the world of the Mennonites of the Shenandoah Valley.

Say Amish or Mennonite and most people think immediately of quaint, hard-working, old-fashioned, farm people who live in Pennsylvania, wear stark clothing, shun cars for horses and buggies, have no phones or electricity and don’t like to be bothered by the outside world.

Few know much more than that, and even fewer understand the differences between the two groups that—it must be acknowledged—appear similar to most “outsiders.” But the Mennonite church, which was founded by a former Catholic priest named Menno Simon in Friesen, Germany, in the 1530s, predates the Amish faith by more than 100 years. The Amish faith took shape in 1693 when a group, led by Mennonite Elder Jakob Ammann of Switzerland, split from the Mennonite church due to what they believed was an increasing liberalization in church discipline and a gradual slackening of strict separation from the world. Where the Mennonites value education, employ technology, and all but a few, like the Old Order Mennonites, drive cars, the Amish shun all technology, and do not educate their children beyond the eighth grade, preferring to remain separated from the larger world. The Amish have remained surprisingly much the same in lifestyle and practice since their arrival in America. However, most Mennonites have seen that it is possible to interact with the world without becoming worldly: They are then, in the modern world, but not of it.

The Mennonites were some of the first European settlers in the New World, arriving in Pennsylvania in the 1680s from Germany where they suffered persecution for their Anabaptist beliefs. Today, though, there are other parts of the country, including Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kansas where Mennonite churches can be found in great numbers. There is one place in particular (apart from the earliest settlements in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania) where they have lived the longest in thriving numbers: That place is Virginia. The diaspora and migration of these groups began when they filtered down through Pennsylvania and into the Shenandoah Valley in search of expansive and rich farmland, beginning in the middle of the 18th century. But even then they were not in lockstep, nor all of the same ilk. There are a great many stripes of Mennonites in the Valley, from the most austere to the more progressive like those at Eastern Mennonite University, in Harrisonburg. But they share religious devotion and remain the same family-oriented and industrious people they were when they first settled in Virginia 250 years ago; inventive and astute in agrarian and food-related business, the building trades, folk-crafts, raising livestock and, above all, farming.

But they are also full of surprises. Mennonites today are involved in business ventures—some modern, some passed down through generations—and community and relief efforts, which not only cause them to brush up against the world and modern technology, but to find ways to employ it. This has made them remarkably open to outsiders, and brought the world to their doors in growing numbers. In Virginia, from the length of the Valley, east to Fauquier County, the area around Charlottesville and other parts of the Commonwealth you will find them—some of the most ingenious, practical, lively and downright funny people you will meet anywhere, though you may not always recognize them. While many can still be found wearing distinctively Mennonite garb, especially to church, many do not. Men’s plain frock coats and hats have given way to store-bought shirts, jackets and slacks, still sans the fashion of the necktie. Mennonite women are more recognizable, largely because they continue the practice of wearing their heads covered, with either a white, bonnet-like buckram cap, a scarf known as a “hanging veil,” or in some churches, a small lace doily. In a wider culture of jeans and short skirts, Mennonite women wear modest dresses.

Glenn and Fern Heatwole of McDowell, Lewis Martin of Dayton, Everette and Eva Burkholder also of Dayton and Duane and Ruth Weaver of Stuarts Draft—all Mennonites of differing sects—opened their homes and their businesses to me recently, where I, as a fellow believer among the Beachy Amish Mennonites, experienced the coexistence of faith, tradition and modernity that is contemporary Mennonite life. These are their stories.

Glenn and Fern Heatwole, Maple Syrup Makers

Among some of the first German Mennonites to arrive in the Valley from Pennsylvania in 1796 were David Heatwole and his family. Today, his descendant, Glenn Heatwole, and his wife Fern, both 53, who live in McDowell, are the proprietors of the Sugar Tree Country Store and maple sugar manufactory. They produce some of the very best maple syrup and maple sugar products to be found anywhere in America. Says Glenn, “God blessed this part of Virginia with a rare combination of the right species of maple trees, the right geography and right elevation above sea level. The climate and temperature, freezing and thawing, and everything else it takes to make the best maple sugar is all right here. We work hard to share these blessings and bounty with our customers.”

The Heatwoles and their five adult children are all members of the Southeastern Conference of Mennonites, a conservative, Bible-based conference that was established in 1972. The terms “conference” and “district” are both used to designate a group of Mennonite churches or congregations. Mennonite churches have autonomy in decision-making relative to local church matters, but they still participate in, and are subject to, decisions made when a group of churches in a district or conference come together, often yearly.

When the Southeastern Conference planted a new Mennonite church in McDowell in 2006, the Heatwoles sold their family dairy farm east of Harrisonburg and moved there. “We had been seeking God’s guidance in making a shift to another occupation, and knew this could be more easily accomplished while we were both still relatively young,” explains Glenn. “Growing another Southeastern Conference church seemed to be an open door from God.” Additionally, it had become clear that as the Heatwole children grew into their teens they did not relish the prospect of taking over the farm from their parents someday. “You have to have a passion for milking cows twice a day for the rest of your life,” Fern says with a chuckle.

The family bought the Sugar Tree Country Store five years ago. Though he is part scientist, arborist, naturalist, chemist, machinist and confectioner, perhaps Heatwole’s most important hat is a warm one. Winter is a crucial season for the Sugar Tree. The entire family can be found, bundled up for the hard, cold, labor-intensive and often very dangerous task of trudging up and down wooded slopes, frequently in knee-deep snow, checking, repairing and installing 40-50 miles of plastic tubing through which the raw maple sugar will eventually flow. “We’re out there with our power drills in hand, boring holes into each tree in exactly the right places around the circumference, securing the taps in place, attaching the tubing and repeating the process until every tree is done, for as many hours and days as it may take,” says Glenn. “It’s very labor-intensive. It takes stamina, teamwork, patience and, most of all, a lot of prayer and God’s grace to get us through it.” Glenn explains that unlike dairy farming, where 40 gallons of milk makes 40 gallons of milk, in maple syrup farming, 40 gallons of maple sugar makes just one gallon of maple syrup.

Once harvested, the maple sugar is brought to the Sugar Tree’s plant at the rear of the store. The plant looks more like a laboratory than a factory with its array of sparkling, stainless steel vats, troughs, pipes, tubing and humming motors sending raw maple sugar through the filtration process. Changing raw, tasteless, clear-as-water drippings from a sugar maple tree into one of several different grades of pure maple syrup is like alchemy, a formula only Glenn seems to know. With the skill and sensitivity of a gourmet chef or fine vintner, he employs his senses to determine when each batch is just right, then he grades and labels them. Glenn says the result is Virginia-made maple syrup that is “as good or better than any in New England.”

Many people agree. Each year during two weekends in March, the sugar and syrup is flowing at the popular Highland County Maple Sugar Festival. Last year, more than 40,000 people attended the festival.

Today, the Heatwole’s son, Tim, is the only one of their children still working full time in the business. “Most Mennonites don’t retire. We just sort of slow down,” says Glenn. Tim Heatwole will most likely take over the operation when that happens. They’ve made the Sugar Tree a destination for a lot of people who visit the area. Fern says, “We’re Mennonites, but we’re just regular folks. Our faith may be different, but we enjoy meeting and chatting with everyone who comes through our door. We always learn something new, and whenever people want to know about our faith in Christ we can share that too.”

Lewis Martin, Harness Maker

The overpowering smell of leather—a lot of leather—is the first thing I experience when I enter Lewis Martin’s harness shop in Dayton. Hundreds of linear feet of long belting for harnesses and tack hang like stalactites from the rafters and beams. Around the walls, suspended from hooks and pegs, are various grades, widths, colors and thicknesses of leather used to make tack for everything from one-horse buggies to teams of draft horses.

The 79-year-old Martin, a native of Dayton, is as spry and energetic as a man in his twenties. As he shows me a very rare and beautiful elk hide the color of deep, rich russet chocolate, Lewis impresses me as an expert salesman who knows his merchandise well. Draped over workbenches, stacked on shelves, and stretched over his cutting table are larger pieces. These hides, many blanket-sized, range from elegant, soft, two-sided kid, which falls across the hand like silk damask, to tough, black, half-inch thick hides for heavy utilitarian projects. The shop is cluttered with layers and accretions of leather clippings on the floor. “God gave me an ability to do leather work, which I came to see as a gift and a calling from Him,” says Martin, who opened his shop in this single-story, clapboard building in 1967.

Martin, a modest man, is an Old Order Mennonite. The Old Order Mennonites are some of the few Mennonites who still travel with horse and buggy, and have a large presence in the Valley around Dayton. “I’ve shared my gift with more people than I could count and gotten the chance to share the Gospel with them, too,” he says. He is a friendly, soft-spoken man, who, like most Mennonites, does not proselytize. However, just like the Heatwoles, if someone asks about his beliefs, he obliges.

Like many Old Order Mennonites, Martin does not want his photograph taken, though he did agree that his hands might be used to show his craft in context. In looking at them, they appear almost like leather themselves, with furrows and wrinkles from years of work. He shows me an artfully tooled vintage saddle he is refurbishing that is at least 100 years old. The saddle had belonged to the customer’s grandmother. Martin knew just what to do—and perhaps as importantly, just what not to do—to preserve the saddle and bring it back to life. “This saddle is really an old and fine quality example. It’s got character. Only years can give a saddle and leather this kind of character.” I can’t help but think that he is alluding as much to people as to saddles.

Martin plies his trade to fellow Mennonites who travel with horse and buggy up and down the Valley as well as to non-Mennonite customers who come to his shop. As we talk, a man enters the shop looking for a new belt and buckle. Taking the man’s old belt with him for reference, Martin fashions a new belt and buckle while the customer waits. It is obvious that he takes pleasure in chatting with customers, Mennonite or not. And though he is a man of few words, when I ask what gives his life and work meaning, he answers, “It’s having a personal relationship with God and knowing His Son, Jesus Christ.”

Everette Burkholder, Buggy Maker

Two buggies—the first, an enclosed buggy with windows, and the second, an open spring wagon, the horse-drawn equivalent of a pickup truck—are waiting in Everette Burkholder’s shop in Dayton the day I visit. Burkholder, a bear-like, big-boned man of 64, opened his buggy shop in 1967, and since then says he has built hundreds of buggies, nearly all of them painted a glossy black. They are the traditional conveyance of the Old Order Mennonites.

Burkholder and his wife, Eva, 66, who is slight and sparrow-like, are Old Order Mennonites. They live in a neat country house; the shop is located just behind it. Their son, Daniel, 35—one of four adult children—helps carry on the business in this two story, cinderblock garage-like structure. On the second floor of the expansive building is a veritable library of lumber with shelves full of various varieties of hardwoods organized neatly by type. Dozens of new buggy wheels are parked in rows along the walls and a great mechanical hoist hangs from the ceiling. The latter is for lowering each body through a hole in the floor, down to the room below for painting. A lot of hand finishing goes into making buggies, but on the second floor there are modern industrial saws and other equipment used for every stage of construction.

Burkholder explains that the basic buggy takes about 175 hours to build, from stem to stern, and starts at about $8,000 (without custom add-ons). He builds on average between six and eight a year. “There aren’t many people, except ‘plain people,’ who use horse and buggy to get around every day,” says Burkholder. “It’s our faith that is most important to us. Loving and following Christ gives us life. Building buggies gives us a living.”

On a Sunday morning in November, in the hilly farmland west of Dayton, I find myself sitting on the side of a country road as scores of Old Order Mennonite families, in well-washed black buggies that were most likely made by Burkholder, make their way to church. Old Order Mennonites do not drive cars, but both boys and girls learn to hitch up horses and drive buggies as soon as they are able, and take to the road when they are of legal age to do so. As the parade reaches the top of a rise, they signal with their flashing red, battery-operated turn signals and turn left into the church house road to park their vehicles in a narrow field. The autumn leaves are nearly gone, but those that remain are still a pleasing contrast against the plain, white, clapboard building with its large sash windows and green shutters. The horses stand almost motionless, secured in their harnesses to their buggies, with reins wrapped around long communal hitching posts. On Sunday, work stops and worship begins.

Duane and Ruth Weaver, Plantsmen

When I join the Weaver family at Pilgrim Christian Fellowship Church in Stuarts Draft, I am greeted with voices singing hymns without instrumentation and by an unadorned, but pleasant, interior—typical of most Mennonite church buildings. The service usually begins with a few hymns, a devotional message, lessons for the children and perhaps some prayer requests followed by a message preached by one of the ministers. The Weavers are Beachy Amish Mennonites, an offshoot of the Old Order Amish, which was founded in 1927. There are well over 100 members present at Pilgrim Christian Fellowship today, a number of whom are going after the service to visit with inmates at a nearby prison. The Beachys believe that Christian outreach to those in jail, and to the sick and the poor, is the mark of being a disciple and follower of Christ. This applies also to their extensive work in the field of foreign missions and relief work.

The Weavers, Duane, 35, and Ruth, 36, are natives to the area, and run Milmont Garden Center & Greenhouses in Waynesboro, along with members of Ruth’s family; her parents opened the business in 1972. Duane and Ruth see their work as a sort of mission: “I can’t number how many times I am impressed with and instructed by God through working with plants,” explains Duane. “Certain scriptures come to mind, and the similarity and analogy to the spiritual life is ever present. I really believe that God shows himself to us through the beauty of his creation.”

The Weavers embrace modern technology: Each of over two dozen greenhouses is filled with scores of species of plants both outdoor and indoor, and perennial and annual flowers. Each is temperature and climate controlled and irrigated by aid of a state-of-the-art computerized system. The business also has a first-rate website that contains a page dedicated to the history of the Mennonite faith.

I ride back with the Weavers to their home after church. They and their six children—Heather, Anne, Anthony, David, Timothy and Stephen, ages 6 months to 12 years—live in a neat brick rambler next to the nursery in an idyllic setting looking eastward to the mountains in the distance.

The children attend the Pilgrim Christian Fellowship Church school, which spans kindergarten through high school. You will not find many Beachy Amish attending college or university. Many young men and women attend Beachy and Mennonite Bible schools after high school, and often follow that with overseas mission work. Young people from the majority of the other Mennonite groups do this as well, but those from the Old Order churches tend to prefer staying closer to family and farmwork.  

Before we share a meal, Anne, the youngest daughter, introduces me to Lady, the family dog—one of many animals on the place, including an enormous white rabbit. When Anne and the other children retrieve the old cottontail for me, a hurly burly chase ensues as the rabbit gets loose and darts in all directions over the lawn, through bushes and into the woods, finally retreating to a safe location. A more compliant laying hen is brought out for me to meet instead. Chuckling about the rabbit chase, and still out of breath, Duane says, “I’m not sure our family has ever laughed so hard!” Soon thereafter, the rabbit comes out of hiding and sits down a few feet away from us in the fading November light. “Looks like the rabbit has forgiven us,” says Ruth.

Though their business has broadened over the years into a full-fledged garden facility, Duane says, “One thing that hasn’t changed is our desire to maintain a core principle. We believe this business is as much about people as it is about plants, and we don’t want to lose sight of that. We just enjoy people of all kinds, especially people who appreciate the beauty and challenge of growing plants of all sorts.” •

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum