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Have you ever visited an Old Order Mennonite community? One of our readers recently did, and shares a look at an off-the-beaten-path Ontario settlement in today’s post.

desbarats-ontario-mapOld Order Mennonites are spiritual kin of the Amish. Similarities include language, plain dress, cultural values, and of course an Anabaptist religious heritage.

Amish and Old Order Mennonites live side-by-side in some places (like Lancaster County and the Nappanee, Indiana area), and sometimes cooperate in areas such as schooling.

There are also differences–including physical appearance, church discipline, and worship location (meetinghouses rather than home worship like the Amish), to name just a few.

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Ontario is pretty well-known for its horse-and-buggy Mennonite population, perhaps even more so than for its Amish communities.

The Old Order Mennonite settlement near Desbarats (Township of Johnson) is located about a 45-minute drive from the US border, in an area adjacent to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The community has been covered elsewhere in the media on at least one occasion. A site dedicated to the Sault Ste. Marie has an article on Mennonite participation in a local Farmer’s Market, which states that “start up would not have been possible without the support of the Mennonites.”

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Unfortunately the article is undated and may be several years old, but we learn that the community was led by one Deacon and two Ministers at the time of writing. And there’s a somewhat confusing bit which may or may not suggest a total of 16 families. Here’s the origin story:

This area was chosen by the Mennonites because of skyrocketing land prices in Southern Ontario where urban sprawl presses in on prime farmland. In 2002, a land search committee recommended the area because of affordable agricultural land and room for growth. Although a location within a day’s buggy ride of a large centre would have been ideal, Johnson Township was acceptable because Bruce Mines and Desbarats could supply some of the necessities that cannot be produced on the farms, such as sugar, some feed supplies and baby chicks. The close access to Northern Quality Meats, the local abattoir, was also important.

Like the Amish, there is diversity among Old Order Mennonites. For example, most Old Order Mennonite men do not wear beards, but this community appears to be one of the exceptions.

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The community at Desbarats appears to be one of the plainer ones. Says our contributor: “Very conservative community. They use snow and ice collected during the winter to “power” their coolers. They put up loose hay.”

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If you’re in the area, the market as well as area businesses sound like they’d be well worth a visit. There are quite a few of the latter, as you’ll see in today’s photos, and in this description from the above-mentioned article:

Today, income from farm produce can seldom supply all the needs of a family; and like almost all local farmers, the Mennonites do additional work, providing the following services: blacksmithing, harness making, saw milling, machining, woodworking, contracting in concrete, roofing and general maintenance, and operating agencies for wood cook stoves, steel siding and roofing.

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More Info on Old Order Mennonites

My contact with Old Order Mennonites has been limited, and has usually happened when I’m in areas where both Amish and Mennonites live. On occasion we do write about Mennonite topics here (for example, see posts on Lancaster Mennonites moving to a new church house, a Mennonite-run Haiti auction, and an unusual mule-powered washing machine).

For more info on Old Order Mennonites, you can tap a variety of sources. There are good books of course. The one I’ve referenced in the past is called On The Backroad To Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish and Brethren, by Donald Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman.

Though I’m sure other resources go more deeply into the Old Order Mennonite topic, that one is nice due to the side-by-side comparison of these related groups.

Also, here on the site, one of our readers, Osiah Horst, discussed Old Order Mennonite life in detail in a Q-and-A on one of his father Isaac Horst’s books.

Now, on to the Desbarats community. I’ve put our contributor’s comments below in italics, and the rest are mine.


The Desbarats, Ontario Old Order Mennonite Community

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Both open and closed carriages are seen here.

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A wood shed attached to the house seemed to be a very common architectural feature. An English person told us they have multiple consecutive days of 30 below. No wonder they keep the wood close!

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There are a variety of businesses in the area. Summer sausage sounds good. And, of course, maple syrup.

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A very active community. People seem to do many things to make ends meet including produce, alpacas, sheep, cattle, bee keeping, maple syrup production, picking wild blue berries, wood working, baked goods…

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Directions to storage barn builder.

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A couple things picked up from area businesses. The pie is apple, and the other food item is granola.

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One of two portable sawmills we saw while driving through the community.  

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A maple syrup evaporator.

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Agriculture is important here as well.

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They grow kohl and cold crops throughout the growing season. They can plant, harvest and replant produce such as broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, kale, etc. Crops are shipped out by trucks to distant locations such as Manitoba.

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Looks like the container was too heavy and broke the wagon.  Note the jack on the wagon bed.

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What are these boxes built on top of the roof? They have it on barns and homes. I have no idea what it is.

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A special thanks to our contributor for this glimpse of a Canadian Mennonite community.

Have you visited an Old Order Mennonite area? What was your experience like?