Morrisons Cove Herald - Putting cows on the front page since 1885.

The Community of Plain People Experiences Change, Too


Editor's Note: This is the latest story in an occasional series looking at how the Cove is changing. Reporter George Berkheimer won a 2019 Professional Keystone Press Award for this series.

In all the ways Morrisons Cove has changed since the 1970s, one of the most obvious has been the integration of Old Order Mennonites within the fabric of the community.

Once a curiosity, horses pulling black buggies along roadways or parked at local businesses are now part of the Cove's natural background.

The Wenger Mennonites – members of the Groffdale Conference Mennonite Church – adhere to customs seemingly unaffected by the so-called progress of modern day America, but are no less prone to change than any other part of American society.

Steven Nolt, senior scholar and professor of History and Anabaptist Studies at Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, said the first Wenger Mennonites moved to Morrisons Cove from Lancaster County in 1970.

"Today, there are just under 200 Old Order Mennonite households in the settlement, representing about 1,000 people total," Nolt said, commonly residing in and around Martinsburg, Roaring Spring and New Enterprise.

Although no hard data exists, he speculates their population growth parallels the nationwide trend among Amish and other Old Order communities, which double in size about every 19 years.

"The average family nationally has between 6 and 7 children, [and] the retention rate of children who later join the church is about 85 percent," Nolt said.

New Directions

Harold Zimmerman, who founded Zimmerman's Bulk Groceries in Woodbury in 1980, arrived five years after the first wave of Wenger Mennonite settlers came in search of land to farm and create a new community.

"There were 30 families here when we moved from the New Holland area," he recalled.

Using a tractor-trailer for storage and an outdoor walk-in cooler for cheese and meats, Zimmerman's store began in his basement and later moved into an addition on his house before he built the modern store customers know today.

"It took a while for other small businesses to get established," Zimmerman said, but those that did are thriving today, including popular retail destinations like Brubaker's Greenhouse of Fredericksburg and Peach Hill Orchard.

Lorraine Martin, co-owner of Spring Farm Greenhouse in Martinsburg, was three when her family moved to Morrisons Cove in 1970. She and her husband now own and operate the business her mother nurtured from inauspicious beginnings as a roadside vegetable and plant stand.

"It turned into a business when she realized how much demand there was and bought her first greenhouse," Martin said.

These and other businesses offer an alternative to full-scale farming, which has its limits.

"Dairying isn't what it used to be," acknowledged Jerry Zimmerman, Harold Zimmerman's son, who now owns and operates the grocery store. "About 20 years ago we started seeing more young people getting married and starting their own businesses because there aren't enough farms to reach around. That's not to say that farming's going to disappear, but it's not always a choice."

Misconceptions Remain

Even after 39 years of coexistence, the general public still harbors a lot of misconceptions about the Wenger Mennonite way of life. One popular – and incorrect – belief is that they don't pay taxes.

"My guess is that's related to the Social Security exemption and some high profile news stories that resulted in 1965," said Nolt. "More news coverage led up to the extension of the exemption in 1988 and again when it was incorporated into the Affordable Care Act."

Because Old Order religious groups have their own community systems for funding health care needs or taking care of elderly and incapacitated members and do not claim government benefits, the United States Congress granted their exemption from paying the Social Security tax in 1965. They are still subject to property, income, sales, and all other forms of taxation, and yes, actually pay taxes into the Highway Trust Fund when they buy gasoline for their steel-wheeled tractors, generators and other farm equipment.

Similar to other Old Order religious groups, Wenger Mennonites are conscientiously opposed to military service and serving on juries, particularly those for capital offenses. Their children are exempt from high school attendance laws, stopping schooling at eighth grade, which continues to serve their way of life well.

And although they attend private one-room schools – there are nine in Morrisons Cove – the first Wenger Mennonites didn't have that option when they first arrived here.

"For the first couple of years the children had to attend public schools because our schools hadn't been built yet," Harold Zimmerman said.

Getting Along

Looking back to those early years, "Life is actually a lot more complex for us today," Martin said. "Changes in modern society do result in changes for our church, which continues to add rules and regulations that we follow in adapting to new technology as new things are introduced."

Many Old Order Mennonite businesses now use computers or word processors for bookkeeping purposes as well as mobile phones, said Jerry Zimmerman, "but they can't have Internet connectivity."

And while it took a liberation movement to secure more workplace opportunities for women throughout the United States, "It's never been that unusual for Old Order Mennonite women to own or manage businesses," Martin said. "We've always worked hard on farms or in family businesses, doing whatever we can to help support our families."

There are added concerns for everyday life, as well.

"There is more traffic these days, which makes it more dangerous to be on the road with a carriage," Jerry Zimmerman said. "One thing the state has done for us, though, is provide wide, paved shoulders on the roads they upgrade so it's safer to pull off when cars want to pass."

And sometimes, new traffic technology intended to aid traffic flow simply isn't compatible with all of the vehicles using the road.

"Magnetic sensors for the Martinsburg Square traffic light have been an issue in the past," Jerry Zimmerman said, because buggies do not have enough metal components to trip the signals. "Somebody talked to the Martinsburg police, who advised us to treat the light as a stop sign rather than wait for another vehicle to come along."

Shared Journey

On a positive note, there are now more employment options in the Cove for Old Order Mennonite boys old enough to start working away from the family farm, Harold Zimmerman said.

"For years, the answer at the feed mills or Agway was, 'No license, no work,' but now there are other jobs they can do without having to be out on the road," he explained

The construction trades are also in need of workers due to high customer demand.

George Berkheimer

In the book "Horse-and-Buggy Mennonites," authors Donald Kraybill and James Hurd note a 3.7 percent annual population growth rate for Wenger Mennonites. By comparison, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show a 3.6 percent decrease in Blair County's overall population between 2010 and 2018. The chart reflects size differences between assumed average Wenger Mennonite households and households in average comparison populations. Source data: + 2017 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau;* Amish Population Profile, 2018, Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College (extrapolated).

"Local companies that build pole barns have had steady demand for 20 years or more, going as far as Pittsburgh for projects," Harold Zimmerman said.

Low interest and mortgage rates are sustaining that market, he said, and also providing favorable conditions for more Old Order Mennonite families to start new businesses.

"There is always opportunity to start manufacturing something that's in demand but not actually produced in this area yet, like wooden sheds or lawn furniture," said Jerry Zimmerman.

"We're happy to live in Morrisons Cove," Harold Zimmerman said, adding that acceptance has never been problematic. "The only friction I ever noticed was maybe some local people weren't too happy with extra competition for available farms, but they got over that."

Overall, he said, the local people he met after moving here were glad to see more families moving into the Cove. "Over the years we've helped each other, and we all continue to learn how to help each other."

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Editor's Note: As with all Herald journalism, we welcome your comments on this article. We also welcome story ideas of how the Cove is changing.

Please send comments and ideas to [email protected] or 113 N. Market St., Martinsburg 16662. Please include your name, address and a daytime telephone number.


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