“You HAVE to do a story about the Mennonites!” This refrain was uttered again and again by locals during a NYSOM exploratory trip to the Finger Lakes. The demographic of Old Order Mennonites in this corner of New York State was a surprising discovery. It was also a humbling opportunity to expose (and correct for) my ignorance: How are the Mennonities different from the Amish? Don’t they primarily live in Pennsylvania? How did they contentedly live in a land of wineries, so close to the urbanity of Rochester? As with most stereotypes, I was embarrassed to realize that our similarities are, of course, much stronger than our differences.
This isn’t to say that a reductive view is the right one, either; a number of characteristics unequivocally define the Mennonite lifestyle. One conspicuous distinction is the prohibition on rubber tire ownership. As a result, the community relies upon one-to-two-person horse-drawn carriages for transportation. Since families are large, the carriages’ seating limitations leave at least a few family members at any given time (typically the children) to rely on bicycles. In order to contend with the Finger Lakes’ rolling terrain in all weather conditions, hard rubber bicycle tires are permitted.
Children leave school at age 15, and typically support the family business, which in the majority of instances is a dairy farm. (In case you were wondering, most farms boast John Deere equipment, the rubber tires of which are all overhauled with steel wheels.) In the communities surrounding the town of Penn Yan, where I was hosted by a generous friend, a few families run general stores, a community store (retailing products geared toward Mennonite-lifestyle needs, such as hats for men and headcoverings for women, suspenders and fabric by the yard from which to make clothing) and even a lumber mill. And yet, unlike the Amish, these Wenger Mennonites use electricity in their homes. Men can shave their beards. I even observed a cell phone or two, as well as a home computer, though in each instance the option of tapping into an internet connection was dismissed.
My experience with the Wenger Mennonites was rich, and this introduction only scratches the surface. Check back in after the launch of the NYSOM Magazine for the full story.
Editor's Note: In keeping with the Mennonite custom of not taking photographs, we respectfully complied with that tradition and only took photos of Finger Lakes landscapes.