Mennonite Mechanic: Car-free in the country
Story by Evan Morrison, photos by Jose Sierra. ~This story originally appeared in issue 12. ~
A horse may be faster (and can carry more than what fits in your pannier), but for many Mennonites deciding how to get into town, a bicycle is a reliable form of transport. After all, bikes don’t get sick, and don’t require stables or hay or fences. If you drive about one hour west of Toronto, just twenty minutes from Guelph and Kitchener, nestled away on a dirt road off of Highway 86, you’ll find yourself in the township of Woolwich, Ontario, population 23,410. Down one of these rural roads, you’ll find a small shop with plain beige siding, and a few bikes out front. You’ll also see a few horse-and- buggies as you go – as the region is home to many of Canada’s Mennonite communities.
The neatly organized shop is filled with tools and bikes and sits right beside the barn. This is where local bike mechanic, Paul Martin, can be found getting his hands dirty doing what he loves most — repairing bikes. Martin opened his small shop, Brookside Cycles, five years ago “as a small hobby” says the unimposing, clean-shaven farmer.
Woolwich community is a cyclist hotspot not only for biking enthusiasts taking advantage of the bounty of trails and bike routes in the region, but for the people of the Mennonite community who use bikes to get to where they need to go when the horse and buggy isn’t available. Most Mennonite groups don’t allow the use of motorized vehicles such as cars, so for folks like Martin, cycling isn’t just a fun activity, it’s a utilitarian mode of transport.
Martin is an avid cyclist who’s been on two wheels since he was a kid, and uses his bike to get to and from the nearby town of Elmira, which, depending on the person and the bike, is about a half-hour ride away. “I still cycle around the area and into town when I need to, mostly on the road like a lot of others,” Martin says.
Martin says most people he sees cycling in his region are doing it for exercise. “For myself and for my people we use it for transportation.” Besides the horse and buggy, biking is a primary mode of transportation for the Mennonite community. But, as Martin explains, a bike is a much more efficient method.
“If you’re not carrying much and you can manage your load on the bike, it’s way swifter on a bike than on the buggy,” says Martin. “Plus, you don’t need to feed a bike.”
Woolwich region has been the home to many Mennonites (a religious cultural group that was established in the 16th century) since the 18th century, when many Mennonites left Pennsylvania and settled in Waterloo county. Many different Mennonite factions exist and maintain their own separate beliefs and practices, such as the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites. These factions have rejected the use of modern technology in favour of a traditional farming lifestyle, and are recognizable because of their simple clothing and transportation.
Some Mennonites in the region do indulge in the use of certain modern conveniences, such as phones and mechanized farm equipment. Martin has a phone in his shop.
It’s obvious cycling is important to the community. It’s common to see hardcore, spandex-wearing “roadies” pedalling side-by-side with locals, all heading into town for the day. At Brookside Cycles, Martin’s services are essential to the many cyclists in the area, both Mennonites and non-Mennonites.
Recreational trails like the Kissing Bridge Trail which features the last covered bridge in Ontario and stretches 45 km from Guelph to Millbank though southern Ontario farmland and Mennonite country, are popular routes for cyclists looking for a beautiful, scenic ride. They also make the region a destination for bike tourism, much like the Greenbelt Route in southern Ontario will.
Still, Martin says most of his clientele are local bikers. “I get a lot of customers from the area; mostly from Elmira and Elora but sometimes Guelph. They are just casual cyclists trying to get from point A to point B.” Martin adds that cyclists of his ilk aren’t fairweather either: “Biking is not just seasonal for us, we also bike in the winter.”
Though farming is Martin’s first job, he always leaves room in his schedule to tend to the shop. “It varies,” he says. “At times it’s few days a week, and other times it could only be one day a week depending on how much there is to do on the farm,” says Martin, who also spends time as a dedicated father of three boys. His whole family bikes too.
As part of a society that depends on bikes to get around, Martin maintains that there can never be too many cyclists. Bikes are an age-old device that remain relevant amongst modern technologies. And for a community settled in traditional ways, bikes are a perfect constant in an ever-changing world.
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