Charming St. Jacobs

WHEN WE CROSSED THE CONESTOGA RIVER into St. Jacobs, Ontario, for the first time 20 years
ago, the only other traffic on the bridge was a horse and buggy. St. Jacobs is still a
place where the past and present mingle, as motorhomes and cars share the roads and large
parking lots with horse-drawn vehicles. The Canadian village has 1,400 inhabitants, but 1.5
million people visit annually, lured by glassblowers, potters, weavers, jewelers, broom
makers, blacksmiths, painters and quilters. Visitors stroll along the streets and explore
the shops for furniture, clothing, baked goods, crafts and antiques. And they come to savor
the famous Waterloo County cuisine and to embrace the rural charm of the Old Order
Mennonites. The Mennonites first settled in the St. Jacobs area in the early 1800s. They
trekked from Pennsylvania in large canvas-covered wagons. Pioneering names like Snider,
Brubacher, Martin and Eby are still prevalent on mailboxes and barns throughout the
countryside. The village was first known as Jakobstettel, or “Jacob’s Village,” in honor of
its founder, Jacob Snider. About 10 percent of the Mennonite population consists of
conservative or Old Order Mennonites. Horse-drawn buggies are their means of
transportation, and they live a simple, quiet life. For the most part, their homes are
without electricity or plumbing. The men and boys wear dark- or light-blue shirts and
broad-brimmed black or straw hats, depending on the season. The women wear long-skirted
dresses with high necklines, black boots and bonnets. Many of our ancestors lived and
dressed like the Old Order Mennonites do today. Over time, mainstream society changed while
Old Order Mennonite farmers retained the customs and styles of the 19th century. The
Moderate Mennonites, 14 percent of the area’s current Mennonite population, mix traditional
ways with modern technology and conveniences. They drive black cars, often with the chrome
painted black, and usually have electricity, plumbing and telephones in their homes. Old
Order and Moderate Mennonites attend services on Sundays at rural meetinghouses, rather
than churches, because they do not want to attach too much importance to buildings.
Meetinghouses are plain, simple and unadorned, so the structure does not distract from
religious life. The Old Order and Moderate Mennonites share the meetinghouses by attending
on alternate Sundays. The Progressive Mennonites are the largest group in the area. They
blend in with Canada’s 21st-century society. The St. Jacobs Visitor Centre, beside the post
office, exhibits the unique aspects of Mennonite history, lifestyle and beliefs. It
includes replicas of the interior of a meetinghouse and a country kitchen. Displays and
videos depict the Mennonites’ story, including their belief in voluntary church membership
by baptism and their commitment to nonviolence. We regularly return to St. Jacobs for its
unique blend of old and new, of social and spiritual contrasts. The village is a place
where modern commercialism co-exists with the simplicity of the Old Order lifestyle. The
Mennonite and German influence is evident on menus in the village and in the surrounding
communities. Farmer’s sausage, spare ribs, pig tails, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes,
schnitzel, hearty soups and fresh bakery items are always available. “What are pig tails?”
is the most frequently asked question when we introduce friends to the area. Even when we
explain that pig tails really are pigs’ tails, covered with brown sugar and slow-roasted,
they seldom believe us. We have to take our guests on a countryside pub tour to sample the
tasty morsels. A good time to get a taste of the local cuisine is during Oktober-fest in
Kitchener-Waterloo, set for October 5-13 this year. For information, call (519) 570-3072,
or visit the Web site: www.oktoberfest.ca. Whenever we visit St. Jacobs, the aromas of
fresh pie, cinnamon rolls, cookies, coffeecakes and bread lure us into the Stone Crock
Bakery. Mennonite girls in white bonnets serve customers, while others in the open bakery
mix dough, roll cookies, ice cakes and take fresh rolls and muffins out of the ovens.
Buildings nestled along the main street and tucked back on side streets reflect the
village’s history. Benjamin’s Restaurant and Inn was once a stagecoach stop. Built in 1852,
the original hand-hewn beams and substantial brick-and-mortar walls remain, with a few
modern touches. The Country Mill was operational in 1852. Its basement turbine provided the
first electric power to St. Jacobs in 1887. The St. Jacobs Antique Market occupies several
floors of a renovated factory on Spring Street. In the same building, the Maple Syrup
Museum educates the public about the development of the industry from pioneer beginnings to
the present. Large antiques of a different nature crowd Artefacts, an architectural
artifacts and ironworks shop. Hidden away like a secret garden, it offers used doors, door
jams, arches, wooden cornices, wrought-iron railings, terra-cotta soffits and garden
sculptures. The oldest home in the village now houses Ruffled Elegance, a store that
facilitates every stage of quilt making. During reconstruction of the 1857 Georgian
building, the owners discovered a child’s shoe buried in the brick wall. Placed there as a
good luck charm, it still resides between the bricks, open to public view. The Forge and
Anvil Blacksmith Shop, built in the late 1800s, today produces wrought-iron ornaments. In a
separate area, another artisan works at his bench, making corn brooms. Located mid-village,
the Home Hardware Store is a part of the modern history of St. Jacobs. The store offers
every household convenience as well as old-fashioned washboards. The warehouse that
supplies stores across the country is located a few blocks away at the edge of open
farmland. The St. Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre presents music, drama and dance in an intimate
1867 schoolhouse. The Church Theatre, a former church building, provides excellent
acoustics for musical works. Sometimes we like to slip away from shops and activities to
hike the historic millrace that starts at the old Snider Flour Mill and makes its way 1-1/2
miles to the St. Jacobs dam. Shaded by overhanging trees, the path follows the Conestoga
River past farm fields to a popular fishing hole. Both the St. Jacobs Farmers Market and
Flea Market and the Waterloo County Farmers Market are open two or three days a week and
feature a total of more than 600 vendor stalls, inside and outdoors. They offer a huge
selection of regional and international foods, including fresh and smoked meats, cheese and
homemade pies and pastries, as well as local crafts and housewares. Farmers arrive early in
the morning to sell their produce. Many offer garden vegetables and fresh fruit from the
backs of buggies while horses wait at a nearby hitching post. Fresh baked goods and flowers
fill the morning air with the aromas and colors of the season. The two markets are less
than five minutes from St. Jacobs by motorhome. Along the route, many of the fields are
still worked by horsepower. In the distance, a maple-syrup shack sits in a sugarbush.
Located within walking distance of both markets, the St. Jacobs Factory Outlet Mall is open
seven days a week. Across from the Outlet Mall, the Home Fashion Market features furniture
in 17,000 square feet of display rooms, each with a different theme. Next door, Countryside
Furniture sells locally handcrafted Mennonite pine and oak furniture. The St. Jacobs
Country Winery and Cidery produces fruit wines and cider. The surprisingly dry-tasting
fruit combinations, such as apple-raspberry and apple-black currant, are very popular. Five
acres of apple trees have been planted around the facility, which shares parking and green
space with a hotel and a Modern Mennonite church. St. Jacobs offers the ultimate temptation
to motorhomers who like to touch the past and still have every modern facility nearby. With
all its contradictions and contrasts, St. Jacobs continues to beckon us back.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here