I grew up near Toronto, Canada. Every weekend when I was younger, no matter the season, my parents would drive us to “see the country.” An hour from home, we’d start to see black horse-drawn carriages trundling along at the side of the road.
For my father, it was an irritating reason to sigh, slow down, and wheel wide to the left. If he was lucky, he’d be able to pass the old-fashioned carriage, but more often than not, we’d end up stuck behind them.
But for me, whizzing past a Mennonite family in their carriage was a thing of wonder. I grew up on Little House on the Prairie and spaghetti westerns. I enjoyed seeing these traditional modes of transport in real life, on the road, alongside modern-day cars, right outside my window.
And yet, for the cities and towns home to the over 2 million Mennonites worldwide, there’s an inherent challenge: creating infrastructure that supports communities who don’t use many modern technologies. It's hard to do, especially in the age of smartphone-summoning Ubers and self-driving cars.
Oscar, who preferred that his last name be withheld, is an Old Order Mennonite who has lived in the Township of Woolwich his whole life. It’s a rural area in Ontario, home to 22,000 people, including 720 Mennonite families. At 28 years old, he’s been driving horse-drawn buggies and carriages for half of his life. From the seat of his carriage, Oscar explained to me that the general feeling within his community is that the police and local government do all they can to ensure their safety on the roads.
“A counsel gets together to speak with the police from time to time,” says Oscar. “They talk about the roads and staying safe. They listen to us, and we listen to them.”
Old Order Mennonites belong to a pacifist-Anabaptist Christian group that shuns many modern technologies as part of its system of belief. They originally settled in the township of Woolwich around 1820. According to the Mennonite World Conference, there are some 2.1 million individuals worldwide who identify themselves as Mennonites. Nearly a third of them live in North America.
Modern devices disallowed by a Mennonite can vary from congregation to congregation. It depends on their church association and whether or not church leaders feel that a technology distracts its constituents from their traditions, or has the potential to introduce values that could undermine the Mennonite way of life. In some Mennonite communities, you might find folks who drive cars and wear the fashion of the day, and in others, folks wear modest 19th-century clothing and seek a simpler life.
In Woolwich, the majority of Old Order Mennonites recognise the value of some technologies; landline telephones, electricity and bicycles are used. Cars, however, are not.
As a result, roads can be narrow and crowded when they’re being split between cars and full horse and buggies. The crowds and commotion can easily scare the horses, or worse.
Dan Kennaley has been the Director of Engineering and Planning Services in the Canadian township of Woolwich for more than a decade. It was only a month into his job in Woolwich that Kennaley witnessed a horrifying wreck — a graphic education on the challenges of merging old with new.
“There was this horse, with its buggy, tethered at a Mennonite school, but it somehow got loose”, says Kennaley. “It blew through the intersection, and this car hit the horse, and cut the legs out from under it. The horse crashed into the windshield, glass everywhere.”
Kennaley stopped to comfort the car’s occupants until emergency personnel arrived. The horse, its legs broken, was put down by a police officer at the request of its owners. It was an act of mercy, though a loss of life.
Fortunately, such events are now rare in Woolwich, where horse-drawn carriages and buggies are common sights on the township’s roads. Even irritating bottlenecks caused by this plodding 18th-century mode of transport are uncommon.
Preventing scenes like the one Kennaley witnessed a decade ago requires the concerted effort of everyone in the community, says Jim Strand with the traffic division of the Waterloo Regional Police, whose officers are responsible for policing a large chunk of the Township of Woolwich’s roads.
Although horses can be spooked by fast-moving cars or passing snow ploughs, Strand notes that his officers encounter surprisingly few car-versus-buggy collisions. It’s his opinion that much of this can be attributed to the largely lawful nature and approachability of the township’s Mennonite community. At least once a year, elders of the Mennonite community and a police liaison officer meet to discuss road safety.
Even massive national chains such as Home Depot and Walmart set aside parking spaces with hitching posts specifically for horse and buggy use.
“They’re required to either have a slow moving vehicle sign on the back of their buggy or, if their particular sect of the religion doesn’t permit it, they need to use reflective tape instead”, says Strand. “In our area, most of the Mennonites have voluntarily installed battery powered lighting systems in their buggies. If we make a safety suggestion to them, literally, they’ll have their church members change to it within a couple of days.”
Those battery-powered lighting systems installed in the buggies are unobtrusive and utilitarian. There's a small row of unmarked toggle switches that operate running lights, brake lights, and turn signals. The system makes buggies more visible to motorists, but they’re still simple enough that the traditional spirit of the Mennonite horse and buggy — designed to move its passengers from point to point with no flash or fanfare — isn’t lost in a wash of modern bells and whistles.
The roads themselves are chock full of ways to get horse-drawn carriages safely and easily from A to B: Extra-wide lanes for horses, cyclists, and pedestrians alike, plus gravel shoulders on backroads and along highways, and yellow road signs sporting carriage silhouettes to alert motorists.
Even massive national chains such as Home Depot and Walmart set aside parking spaces with hitching posts specifically for horse and buggy use. Some go so far as to build structures designed to shelter horses from the elements while their owners are shopping.
There’s even a little-known network of carriage trails that criss-cross the township’s Mennonite farms. These trails make it possible for the Mennonites to travel a considerable distance without their having wheels, hooves or feet touch township asphalt or gravel — a sort of exclusive crossroads to get to neighbouring farms.
Having Kennaley drive me around the township pointing out the signage and infrastructure improvements that have been made since the decades since I had last spent any significant time in the area, left me feeling like a stranger to an area I once knew well. Intolerance and impatience for the horse-drawn buggies on the township’s roads had given way to not only acceptance, but inclusion: a welcome change.
It boils down to is this: Humans are always on the move. Some people pick different ways of getting around than others. And whether it’s bikes in crowded urban streets, lorries on tiny lanes, or even city pedestrians glued to the Facebook feed in their hands, an evergreen challenge is accommodating everyone, in their many methods of transport, at all times.
The township of Woolwich is a great example of people working together. It doesn’t matter that we’re talking about something from centuries ago that still thrives in modern times. At the end of the day, it’s about getting people to and fro as smoothly as possible, no matter what your religion is or what you drive... or how old it is.
All images courtesy Seamus Bellamy.
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