My two dear friends and I wanted to photograph a livestock auction at the Green Dragon market, an outdoor extravaganza at which you can buy anything from cattle feed to clothing to electronic gadgetry and everything in between.
The auction turned out to be a bust. Instead of cows and steers, small animals destined to be kids' pets or 4-H projects were to go on the block. The bidding wouldn't begin until 6:30 p.m., and it was just 1:30 when we arrived at the fair. With lots of time and no plans, we strolled around and took photos of other things.
My attention was drawn to a long, low shed for Amish and Mennonite families to park their horses and buggies while shopping. Inside, there was a lone, spirited horse hitched to a black buggy.
The horse, as with nearly all buggy horses, was wearing blinders, so I approached with gentle footsteps and a soothing voice so as not to startle him. I snapped away, slowly gaining his confidence. Turning to leave, I nearly walked right into the owner. The wiry man, who was about my height, stared me right in the eye with a look of mild amusement.
I stammered out an apology, assuring the man that if I had known he was there, I would've asked his permission before photographing his rig. "Oh, don't worry," he said in a friendly voice. "The horse don't mind."
We introduced ourselves. "I'm Melvin," he said. Meanwhile, my friends had struck up a vigorous conversation with Annie, Melvin's wife.
Melvin is 69 but can easily pass for someone far younger. Years of farmwork followed by years in carpentry and construction work had shaped him into a powerful man, but with the easy, gentle, confident manner of one who knows his own strength. As with all old-order, or Wenger, Mennonites, he wore plain dress -- unadorned linen shirt, dark trousers, black suspenders, black workboots and dark straw hat. His conversation was straightforward and simple, guileless and engaging.
I wish I could share with you a photo of Melvin and Annie, but you'll have to form one in your mind's eye. Wenger Mennonites eschew such trappings of vanity as posed photos.
Clipper the horse. He has worked up a froth by chewing on his bit. Melvin said Clipper is a retired trotter from a race track in Canada, if I remember correctly. Clipper is 4 and is, in Melvin's words, just "a fair travelin' horse." Melvin is thinking of selling him for a horse that is easier to work with.
We spent about an hour talking about horses, farm life, family life. I learned that Melvin and Annie have five children. Two sons had moved to Wisconsin to farm in the Mennonite tradition because land prices in Lancaster County were just too high. A third son was farming in upstate New York. Melvin had been a farmer but now did carpentry and construction work, common trades for Mennonite men who have left farming. Bicycle repair is another frequently encountered livelihood.
As Melvin and I chatted, my friends, one of whom is a plain-dress Quaker, found common ground with Annie through hymns, which provided background music for this wonderful encounter. Annie wants to visit Manhattan someday and has great curiosity about the ways of other people. Formal education for her and her husband stopped after the eighth grade, as is the custom for Wenger Mennonites. But their learning never stopped and their accumulated knowledge transcends what can be gleaned from mere books. They are wise, and wisdom is cultivated through living with one's eyes and ears and mind open.
My Quaker friend and fellow road-tripper Lorcan. He and Melvin and Annie share the plain-dress custom.
As far as I could learn, Melvin and Annie's major concession to modern ways is a telephone, which Annie says is a necessity these days. "You can't just drop in on the doctor anymore," she said. "You have to make an appointment over the phone."
Melvin and Annie are extremely comfortable with themselves and their beliefs, and so they are comfortable with people from outside their community. Rather than being seen as threats to their customs and way of life, my friends and I were seen as fellow children of God who have chosen a different path up the same mountain.
We had such a lovely time that the couple invited us to their home the next time we're in the area. And so it is that we'll soon find ourselves on the road to Ephrata once again.