As I spent time with Sandra, she kept mentioning her Mennonite neighbors who had helped her with various projects, but most notably with sawing the trees into the boards that would make up her two cabins. She said that they were unique and friendly, and that she would take me to visit them while I was there. Sure enough, one afternoon, we jumped in her car and rode through the fairly steep, though not tall, hills that made up the countryside near Franklin, KY. We were soon in what Sandra called Mennonite country, and began seeing farms dotted with white homes and buildings in the style of the Amish. Sandra began to tell me of the friends that she had, and their jobs. There was the slaughterhouse, the carpenter, the sawmill, the grocery, and many other small businesses that were run just by the Mennonite community. Our first stop was her friend who was a blacksmith. He had graduated as an engineer from Harvard, she said, before converting to a Mennonite and marrying into the community. She said he had been a valuable asset to them because 0f his specialized skills that lent themselves to construction and mechanical work. As we got out of the car, a horse drawn buggy with two bearded men pulled up alongside us, and we talked for a while before making our way into the blacksmith shop. The men were cordial, though not overly friendly. It was as if they respected us as people, but were not trying to win us as friends with their geniality. Inside the shop, another bearded man wearing stood with his nose down to his workbench, fiddling with some tool. We stood for a while before he turned around to greet us. I stood by while Sandra chatted with him and told him about how we had met. A bed of orange and red coals glowed in the open stove along the wall. He motioned to me to follow him to the back room, so I did.
We walked underneath and past an intricate belt and pulley system. Large machines the size of people were scattered throughout the shop, though I had no idea what they did. We walked through a back room, and through another doorway that led to a covered area outside. To my amazement, two large draft horses stood harnessed to what looked to me like a little horse pen that was set on an incline. The floor of the incline was not solid, but slotted, and I could see belts and wheels attached to the contraption. As soon as we walked up, the man pulled a lever and the whole thing went into motion. All of the belts starting pulling as the floor began to slide backward along the incline. The horses knew exactly what was going on, and began to walk in place…a horse treadmill! I was absolutely amazed. I had never heard of such a device.
We walked back to where we came from, passing the belts and wheels that were now spinning furiously all around us. We made it back to the fire, and he turned to us and said that we came at the perfect time for a demonstration because he was in the process of forging a hatchet. He pulled the piece of hot metal out of the fire with tongs and set it on a giant anvil. With the push of his foot on a pedal, a mechanized hammer began to quickly smash the hot metal into the anvil. Spark flew off the molten chunk of metal as the hammer struck down repeatedly.
I couldn’t believe that all of this power was coming from the two horses right around the corner! It was amazing to get a real sense of the true craft of metalworking, the life of the Amish and Mennonites, and what life was like for most people hundreds of years ago.
We left the blacksmith as another non-Mennonite citizen came in for a custom made knife that he had commissioned. Our next stop was to make a lumber order for Sandra’s cabin project.
We drove through a past numerous Mennonite farms and finally made our way into a wooded area surrounded by tall hills on all sides. The slope climbed steeply to our right, and to the left the road was flanked by a fence, beyond which was a large pond and a gentler sloping pasture that was closely mowed by the resident livestock.
We turned left down a dirt drive that split the first pond from another that sat about 4 feet higher in elevation. We came upon a large barn and Sandra turned the engine off.
“Just be aware…” She said, “The Mennonites can seem a little unfriendly sometimes. They don’t want to make small talk, or tell you details about their lives. They also don’t want their picture taken. It’s just the way they are.”
“Ok, thanks for telling me.” I replied. The scene was so new and exciting to me that I already had my camera ready to go. I put it away, making sure it was in an easily accessible spot in case I was able to take any shots. I was happy when we entered the barn and no one was immediately around. I turned on my camera to document the old-fashioned water wheel that was set up to harness the hydro-power of the water flowing from high pond to the low one. The system utilized a similar system of belts and wheels to the one we had just seen at the blacksmith’s shop.
As we moved further along, an older Mennonite man of about 75 years greeted us, and led us down some stairs to the sawmill area, where five or six more men gathered for work.
Sandra talked to the men about a lumber order while I looked on. I could not get over the thought of all of their clothes being handmade, or the fact that their whole life was led without electricity. It was truly amazing to be involved in the lives of people who were so different than myself, but at the same time, it was apparent that there wasn’t any significant difference between us. They were still just regular human beings.