By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item
HARTLETON — Sundays near noon in Union County, there is a mini-highway of sorts on the berms of Route 45 in both directions. Horses clop along and pull buggies of riders.
Some young people in their summer Sunday best — long, pastel-colored dresses and bonnets, or pants and long-sleeved shirts for boys — ride bikes instead.
Don’t mistake them for Amish.
The “English” may not understand that, especially in Union County, these are Old Order Mennonites, and there are differences in how they live their lives compared with the Amish.
In this bicentennial year for Union County, it may surprise most people to know the Old Order Mennonite community is fairly young in the Valley, having established itself here within just the past 50 years, according to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia.
The Amish had a settlement in Union County from 1836 to 1894, but that’s not where the Old Order Mennonites started.
Take the Buffalo Valley settlement of the Groffdale Old Order Mennonite Conference, for instance, a “daughter settlement” that took shape in 1960 when seven Groffdale Conference families moved here from Lancaster County, said Don Carpenter, formerly of Vicksburg and now of Lancaster.
Carpenter led a tour, sponsored by the Union County Bicentennial Committee, on Saturday that showed and explained the origins of Amish and Mennonite here.
Today, there are about 320 Mennonite households of the conference in Union County.
The Groffdale Conference is less conservative; however, leader Jacob Oberholtzer wanted a settlement that adhered to stricter standards yet still affiliated with Groffdale. In 1968, not long after Oberholtzer left the Valley, the community moved back to the less-conservative ways of Groffdale.
Farming is the main and preferred occupation within the conference, and if the way of life is old-fashioned, the reason for coming to the Valley is quite modern: Real estate prices in Lancaster County have risen exponentially, Carpenter said.
“Farm land here is very, very good,” he said, “and in Lancaster County, it costs about 10 times as much” given development in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Also, large families — five or more children per household are not unusual in the community – mean all those hands need something to do, Carpenter said.
If the livelihood in farming is to continue, that makes all the more reason to be in the Central Susquehanna Valley.
The Amish, however, also are strong in the Valley, and their community is growing in Northumberland County, where, Carpenter said, they too are drawn from Lancaster because of the cheaper farm real estate.
Horse-drawn carriages are the main mode of travel for Old Order Mennonites and Amish, and farm tractors are used but each must be equipped with four steel wheels.
Meeting houses also are fairly young. The Mountain Valley meetinghouse on Kaiser Road was built in 1968 but remodeled in 1988. The Vicksburg meeting house, built in 1971, eventually was dismantled and a new, larger house took its place. That structure was enlarged in 2000.
While the Union County tour was tied to the bicentennial celebration, Carpenter said the current fascination with the Amish feeds into it as well.
“People are very interested in communities,” he said.