A Look by in History: Old Order Mennonite speaks of Dutch farming folkways

Photographs by Richard Reinhold An Amishman drives a tobacco planter with a pair of mules, while two daughters near his feet, insert young tobacco plants in Lancaster County.

Last month, the Kutztown Area Historical Society was grateful for an in depth discussion of PA Dutch farming folkways by James B. Weaver, an Old Order Mennonite from the Bowers area of Berks County, who has long been associated with the Bowers Chili Pepper Folk Festival that almost adjoins his farm. Wearing typical Mennonite suspenders, James respectfully requested that we would not take photographs of his demonstrated talk, which area Deitschers found very true to life.

Speaking mostly in English, congenial James Weaver could not contain his enthusiasm without slipping into his German dialect language to illustrate his long lifetime of being a PA Dutch farmer, one of several Horse and Buggy Dutch people who comprise the Old Order Kutztown Mennonite community that migrated here from Lancaster County in the 1950s period pioneered by Ezra Burkholder, Sr. They have become the backbone of our agrarian community establishing the Kutztown Produce Auction in 1990. Their roadside farm stands and craftsmanship skills have been a major economic boost to our rural culture for over six decades.

A well read PA Dutchman, I knew that my wife and I would enjoy his talk, since I knew him to be an outstanding farmer and leader of his religious sect. We sat with Lester Miller and his brother, Richard, who appreciated Mr. Weavers digression into PA Dutch sayings that were traditional phrases that best described his talk with older area farmers who knew the feeling that he was sharing with them. One woman, wrapped up in his true grit talk, brought up the term Hawwerleis (oats lice) that occurred at harvest time.

A well organized speaker, James took us through the emotions and actions as though he was at his farm going through the various old time techniques many of which are now replaced by modern automation. Several urban citizens did not fully understand the mere type of physical endurance which was entailed by farming with draft horses, especially plowing fields that had large stones. This was not only a punishment for the horse pulling the plow, but the diligent farmer who had the reins of the horse around his back or under his shoulders to keep the furrows in lined up.

Speaking to a packed audience, Mr. Weaver was candid about answering questions and did enthuse everyone to realize the hard work of farming, and the realization of the fruits of their labor and eating good food for themselves and their family. But, most of all, he saluted his father and other ancestors whose farming practices made him a better farmer. Although farming tobacco was a cash crop utilized in Lancaster and to pay off early Mennonite farms in Berks County, Mr. Weaver admitted he and other sect members do not grow tobacco anymore, because of it being injurious to ones health.

Mr. Weaver was part of a very large family when in those days farming among sect members was a family affair, but in todays modern culture, alternate occupations have to be considered if our Plain sects in Lancaster and Berks are to survive.

But most everyone at the Kutztown Area Historical Society enjoyed James Weavers insight to the American farm family, as it was in the nostalgic years before ultra modern technology.

Depending on the difficulty of plowing and spike harrowing a farm field with rocks, man and beast needed to take a rest between passes while completing the farm field. The farmer had to recuperate from the plow handles hitting the side of his body and the horses deserved a rest realizing that they were going to continue to till the field until it was done. Like young Abraham Lincolns idea of reading a book between passes over the newly plowed land, wise farmers had to pace themselves and their loyal animals. To that end, prudent human beings engaged in farm games during the off seasons, like Corner Bola and Bluma Sock, a favorite among farmers in the Kempton area when I was a young kid.

But no one can predict the unstable weather, not even the best Almanacs which are occasionally consulted during the year, leading up to harvest time. But mans use of chewing tobacco may relieve some of the problems storing hay and straw in our large Swiss bank barns.

Holly Hildebrand gave Mr. Weaver a humble introduction for his Old Time Farming Talk, but very quickly our agrarian citizens realized that he was one of them occasionally making everyone feel at home, speaking PA Dutch dialect proverbs, and relating to our Americana folkways of life; one of the historical societys finest true grit presentations!

Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.