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A WORLD APART -ST JACOBS FARMERS' MARKET
RURAL SOUTHERN ONTARIO:
By Margaret Deefholts
For Travel Writers' Tales

From a distance, and in the heat shimmer of a July day, the family alighting from a horse-drawn black buggy look like apparitions from Little House on the Prairie. As I draw closer the figures take on substance: a woman wearing a small bonnet smoothes her apron over a full-skirted calf-length dress, while her husband, a burly man in black pants, white shirt-sleeves and suspenders, tilts his wide-brimmed hat back as he tethers the horse and carriage to a post. The children, three little girls in braids, all wearing identical cotton pinafores, make up the group.

I'm not in a time-warp - although that's what fleetingly crosses my mind. This is the St. Jacobs Farmers' Market in rural southern Ontario and the family, like about 4,000 others throughout the area, are members of the Old Order of Mennonites whose ancestors settled here to farm in the early 1800s. Their presence lends the Market an old-world charm and I linger to watch several Old Order families behind counters as they sell their freshly baked bread, cookies, summer sausage, home-made apple butter, crisp-crusted pies and amber maple-syrup. New arrivals unload their buggies and stack their farm produce - fresh strawberries, corn-on-the-cob, watermelons, russet apples and blueberries - on awning-covered outdoor stalls.

With over six hundred vendors (most of them non-Mennonites) sprawling across the grounds of the St. Jacobs Farmers' Market (and the adjoining Flea Market), I am dazzled by the diversity of merchandise on display: jazzy cotton skirts, funky toys, kitchen gadgets, china and bamboo knick-knacks, clay pottery, garden tools and a blinding array of cut flowers and potted plants.

In addition to its cornucopia of wares the Market also has the folksy ambience of a country fair. In the sun-drenched eating area picnic tables are filled with groups happily devouring hot dogs, pizza slices, kebabs and ice-cream cones. Just outside the Flea Market building a woman shares a joke with her audience as she demonstrates how to play the spoons, and under an awning an old timer with merry eyes swings a squeeze-box and sings a medley of music-hall songs in a whiskey-dipped voice. Around the corner, a gun-metal "statue" of one of the Fathers of Confederation winks roguishly at my video camera. Freckle-faced kids holding balloons aloft skip alongside their parents and snippets of conversation float past me in accents from Nova Scotia, Louisiana, Scotland, Jamaica and Australia.

My attention is caught by two sturdy chestnut horses hitched to a trolley and I sign up for a group tour through a nearby Mennonite farm. A great idea, as it turns out. We clop our way through an Andrew Wyeth landscape - rolling meadows dotted with birch, aspen and maple trees.

The farm we are visiting houses a four-generation Old Order family living in a cluster of rambling farm buildings flanked by a grain silo, a buggy shed and a maple-sugar processing shack. The property is a large one: 150 acres which support corn feed, sweet corn, alfalfa hay, apple orchards, a dairy herd, and a maple tree plantation boasting over 1,400 trees. As the horses make their way through the tranquil dappled glade of the sugar bush, we hear about tapping and vacuum line collection techniques, and dismount to go into the processing room where the sap is "cooked" in an evaporator to extract the syrup.

Back again at the Farmers' Market I have one more item on my curiosity itch list: the auction room in the Ontario Livestock Exchange building. The room is filled with Mennonite farmers intent on the proceedings. On an elevated platform two men in wide-brimmed hats face the crowd, while another leads a heifer around a stockade. The cow has an enormous udder and as it waddles around the enclosure, the guy seated on the dais gives voice in a 200-decibel jack-hammer drone: "Rrrbddaabrdaabrda …bdrdraaafivundred ... dddreevrrrasevundrd

After a minute or so of this babble-speak, he pauses and the other bloke on the dais whacks down his hammer. The heifer is led off stage, and another mammary-swollen animal is brought on. I watch the proceedings for another round, but for the life of me, I can't detect any reaction from the audience. Everyone seems Sphinx-like. Is there a secret code…scratching one's ear or pulling at a hat brim to indicate a bid?

As I drive out of the Market parking lot, two horses pulling a large buggy draws alongside me. The driver's hat is set at a jaunty angle. Perhaps he's the one who won the bid for the Dolly Parton proportioned cow.

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IF YOU GO:

The St. Jacobs Farmers Market is about 12 km north of Waterloo in Southern Ontario. They are open Thursdays & Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. year round and Tuesdays 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. from June to Labour Day. For more information go to www.stjacobs.com/farmers-market

For Mennonite farms and other horse-drawn buggy tours see www.stjacobshorsedrawntours.com/mennonite-farm-tours.shtml

Visit the Village of St. Jacobs www.stjacobs.com/

PHOTOS - Margaret and Susan Deefholts

 


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