A Look Back in History: The Old Order Mennonite Sect at Kutztown also preserving the Historic Oley Valley

Submitted photo
This Old Order Mennonite Meeting House at Kutztown, southeast of Renningerís Farmers Market, has mature shade trees to protect worshippers and their horses from the hot summer sun. Unlike the Amish who worship every fortnight in the farmhouse of a member, the Wenger Mennonite sect built large, impressive Meetinghouses to worship in with sufficient horse and buggy sheds cloistered around them.
Submitted photo This Old Order Mennonite Meeting House at Kutztown, southeast of Renningerís Farmers Market, has mature shade trees to protect worshippers and their horses from the hot summer sun. Unlike the Amish who worship every fortnight in the farmhouse of a member, the Wenger Mennonite sect built large, impressive Meetinghouses to worship in with sufficient horse and buggy sheds cloistered around them.
Submitted photo
Pictured is the Ezra Burkholder, Sr. farmstead who was the patriarch leader of the East Penn Mennonites, upon whose farm their sectís central meeting house was built in 1952.
Submitted photo Pictured is the Ezra Burkholder, Sr. farmstead who was the patriarch leader of the East Penn Mennonites, upon whose farm their sectís central meeting house was built in 1952.

Living on the Lancaster Plain for many generations, the Plain People have bought as much tillable land as their economy will afford. However, since their families are quite large, there is just not enough land available to accommodate all their offspring in farming. Consequently, the large farms of the Plain People have been subdivided among the children, and today an average-size farm in Lancaster County consists less than 50 acres. With land continuing to bring outrageous sums of money in Lancaster County ever increasing over the past few decades, the Plain Dutch have been forced to seek farming land elsewhere or get out of farming completely. The Amish have migrated westward and into Canada in search of cheaper land.

Today, about 136 Mennonite Plain Dutch families call the Kutztown area home, an increase of almost 40% in the last 15 years with meetinghouses being filled in Kutztown and Fleetwood (west of Kutztown) simultaneously on Sundays, instead of alternating weeks at the two locations as in years past. All of the East Penn Valley Mennonites are Wenger Mennonites from the Groffdale Conference, a title that can be traced to the first leader of the Old Order Mennonites, Joseph Wenger. They have even expanded into the Oley Valley since 2012 buying two large farms. In Lancaster County, there were eight Wenger meetinghouses, each called by their location: Groffdale, Martindale, Churchtown, Weaverland, Bowsmanville, Conestoga, Muddy Creek, and New Holland. Only Ontario, Canada has as many meetinghouse groups as Lancaster County, and Mennonite Church meetings are held every Sunday.

Both tourists and area Pennsylvania Dutchmen coming to Kutztown are surprised to see the many “Horse and buggy Dutch” living here; the tourists are astonished because they can hardly believe these Dutchmen have kept their 19th Century ways. The local Dutch are surprised because this was the first time since the founding of Penn’s colony that the Plain People have moved into the Worldly Dutch capital. Whether either call them the misnomer, “Kutztown Amish,” or more accurately, the East Penn Valley Mennonites, the tourist that travels to Kutztown should be in for a surprise. As of this writing, no Amish family lives in Berks County, only Plain Dutch Swiss Mennonites and German Brethren.

Previous to this Mennonite colony, the greatest disappointment experienced by a tourist was the fact that when they came to see Pennsylvania’s Plain Dutch, they could not find Pennsylvania’s world-famous hex-sign barns. Thousands of tourists that travel to the Plain Dutch capital of Lancaster are astonished to find that there are no hex-sign painted barns in all of Lancaster County, except perhaps a random one repainted by an historic-minded farmer. But, of course, there should not be any, for these people are the “Plain” people, and the beautiful hex signs are traditionally painted on the barns of the Worldly Dutch people in Berks and Lehigh County, among most of the other seven PA Dutch Counties, minus Lancaster.

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However, standing on the slopes of the East Penn Valley are many large bank (Schweitzer) barns still with smartly balanced painted hex signs. Gone may be some of the whitewashed board fences and narrow dirt roads, but sharp black buggies and carriages pulled by prancing horses fill our modernized roadways. Some of the Plain Dutch at Kutztown have accepted these worldly colored barn decorations and a historically-minded Mennonite or two has even repainted them. There is indeed a new horizon in folk-culture here the last 65+ years since their arrival in Kutztown in 1949, and a magnificent acculturation between the two worlds of the Pennsylvania Dutch!