St. Jacobs Furnishings: Woodcraft in Mennonite Country
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
As we meander past an amazing number of stalls featuring fresh produce, grass fed meat and handmade crafts on a busy Thursday afternoon at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market, I cannot help but feel a bit like royalty. Mennonite royalty. (A contradiction in terms, to be sure, since historically Mennonites rejected any formal connections to their magisterial rulers. But I digress.) Everywhere we go, folks either wave, call out hello, or emerge from behind their stalls to strike up a conversation.
‘You’re a bit of a celebrity in these parts,’ I remark to my companion, Byron Shantz, who seems unfazed by all the attention he’s getting. Ever the model of modesty, Byron shrugs off my comment. ‘I’ve been working here as part of the family business since I was a teenager,’ he replies, ‘so it’s only fair that folks have gotten to know me.’
Indeed, the Shantz name certainly does carry a lot of weight in these parts. Byron’s father Ross and late uncle, Milo, were prominent visionaries in the development of what is now known as St. Jacobs Country, shaping it into what it is today: a global tourism juggernaut. His sister, Sheila, manages the huge Famers’ Market. And Byron, along with Sheila, owns and operates St. Jacobs Furnishings Co – an impressive furniture store attached to the market that specializes in solid wood furniture handcrafted by area Old Order and Conservative Mennonites. Mennonites whom Byron and I – also Mennonites, albeit of a much more progressive sort – visited a couple weeks earlier so that I could observe how the furniture Byron sells through his store is actually made. By hand. Right here in our own backyard.
‘That was a real eye opener,’ I remark to Byron about the trip we took into the Waterloo Region countryside north of St. Jacobs. ‘Whenever I used to see road signs for authentic Mennonite furniture in this part of the world, I’d have my doubts. But those workshops we visited certainly were authentic.’ Indeed, authentic enough that our first stop – at Oscar Martin’s farm on Jigs Hollow Road (what a fitting name) in the Township of Woolwich – included the strict directive that I wasn’t to photograph anyone’s likeness. It was well worth the trip to see the whole of Oscar Martin’s enterprise with my own eyes, though. And to shoot the workshop, even without any of the people, who were surely part of the scene that day.
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Traveling up the long winding drive toward Oscar’s shop, we slowed down as we passed an Old Order Mennonite school house whose fenced yard was filled with children enjoying recess on what turned out to be their last day of school. Boys in suspenders and black hats and girls dressed in colourful long dresses and white head coverings chased each other around the schoolyard. Parents in similar garb sat together in the shade, next to their dark horses and black painted buggies. An archetypal Waterloo County landscape, I thought to myself.
Oscar’s shop was dimly lit and seemed to be filled with just the bare minimum amount of equipment required to complete the jobs at hand. There were workstations where Oscar and his father, Daniel, would construct solid wood tables and chairs for Byron’s shop. And stacks of wood. And even a basic finishing booth – given to Oscar, it turns out, by Byron years back. ‘So Oscar can do everything in-house – right through to the finished product,’ Byron had noted.
Another station, nearby, caught my eye: it appeared to be covered in doll furniture. ‘That’s where the children learn how to work with wood,’ Daniel had told Byron and me. Here was evidence of the long tradition of woodworking and carpentry in the Old Order community – of a certain sense of craft that Byron would later tell me differentiates Mennonite furniture from everything else. ‘There’s a very strong demand for the furniture that comes out of here,’ Byron told me as we exited the workshop into the bright sunlight. ‘People who purchase the Mennonite furniture made in these workshops appreciate the fact that each piece is meant to last generations.’
From Oscar’s Old Order workshop we drove east across Woolwich to the rural property of Luke Martin and his father – Conservative Mennonites. (That is, not as conservative as Old Order Mennonites but much more conservative than Byron and myself. But again I digress.) The shop, Cardinal Woodcraft, was substantially different from Oscar’s smaller operation. Luke, who employs over twenty people in a massive well-lit shop, allowed me to take photos of his staff. Which I did greedily, capturing woodworkers cutting and planing and finishing gorgeous oak, maple and pine pieces. Before long, I’d filled the card in my camera, marveling at having discovered this thriving mini-universe not many miles away from where we spend our everyday lives. A universe that has spilled over into the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market for over three decades now.
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Back at the market on this busy Thursday afternoon, Byron and I find a table – incidentally built by Luke’s craftsmen – in the main market building and he tells me about how, over these past two decades at St. Jacobs Furnishings, he’s managed to create a coherent eco-system whereby local builders have a place to sell their quality furniture. ‘We now work with about a dozen Mennonite shops that help keep our enterprise running,’ he tells me. ‘And, in turn, we help them keep their operations running. And there’s something beautiful about that.’
I can’t help but think that Byron might be selling himself short, or at least that he might not be conveying the whole story. While he’s helping to support local Old Order and Conservative Mennonite makers, he’s also keeping a treasured practice of Mennonite woodworking alive. Woodworking that values quality, craftsmanship and tradition. Who wouldn’t value all of these things in a fine piece of solid wood furniture?