Ontario is not the Promised Land

Last week this blog discussed some Ontario Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites that have moved to Prince Edward Island. This pursuit of cheaper land and better economic opportunity continues a long-standing pattern that began already in the 19th century.

Southern Ontario held less promise for many Mennonites by the 1870s after several generations of Mennonite settlement. The price of good agricultural land was becoming prohibitive for families needing to provide farms for many sons. The worldwide Long Depression that began in 1873 drove down agricultural prices, and many countries adopted protectionist import policies that limited trade. The agricultural economic malaise continued into the 1890s and encouraged struggling Ontario farmers to explore new opportunities. Many Canadians, not just Mennonites, sought new opportunities in the larger United States market because of low agricultural prices and the trade protectionism practiced by North American and European countries. Canadian historian Donald Creighton says the out-migration to the United States “began to reach the most alarming proportions.” In 1887 the Toronto Mail wrote that there was scarcely a farmhouse in the older Canadian provinces “where there is not an empty chair for the boy in the States.”

Mennonite agriculturalists began to move to Michigan and elsewhere in search of cheaper land. Mennonites from Waterloo County had already settled near Brutus in the 1870s, at the northern end of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. As the newcomers came, this group subsequently divided in 1886 into an Old Order group and a group affiliated with John Funk of Elkhart, Indiana; Old Order bishop Abraham Martin traveled there in the 1890s to perform baptisms. Peter Ropp, originally from the Ontario Amish community, joined a Mennonite congregation in Pigeon and became a leading Mennonite minister there. This settlement, located near Saginaw Bay, began about 1890, and included persons from both the Amish Mennonite and Mennonite Church of Canada communities.

The Pigeon church was first organized in 1894 under Daniel Wismer of Berlin, Ontario. The congregation remained part of the Mennonite Church of Canada for about 22 years before transferring to the Indiana-Michigan Conference.


Amos Bauman. GAMEO photo

Other Ontario Amish and Mennonites seeking better economic alternatives moved to Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Colorado, Virginia, Oregon, and New York, though many of these eventually returned to Ontario or moved on yet again to other locations. One example was Amos Bauman, an Ontario Mennonite, who was ordained as a minister in the Stauffer Mennonite Church in Iowa. In 1903 Bauman moved to what is now Alberta, where he became the first bishop in the new Alberta Mennonite Conference there. After the Mennonite Church of Canada silenced him for his controversial views on sanctification, he affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. Thus this leader from Waterloo County, Ontario, traveled theologically from the Mennonite Church of Canada to the conservative Stauffer Mennonite Church, back to the Alberta Mennonite Conference, and finally to the Mennonite Brethren in Christ.


For the Ontario Amish, beginning in the late 1870s there were small emigrations to Nebraska, Minnesota, Colorado, Virginia, and Michigan. Other than Michigan, most of these communities failed over time, with settlers returning to Ontario or continuing on to other locations in the United States.

In about 1874, Erb, Jantzi, Ulrich and other Amish families from Waterloo County moved near Milford, Seward County, Nebraska. They joined other Amish from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois at a time when governments both in Canada and the United States were offering land in Manitoba, Kansas and Nebraska to settlers at low prices. This was at the same time such offers were being made to Mennonites from Russia.

In 1883/84 Gerber, Boshart, Schweitzer, and Kennel families moved to O’Neill, Holt County, Nebraska where a small Amish Mennonite community existed until the 1940s.


Magdalena Brenneman Gerber. Photo from Minnesota Meanderings

Another such settlement was in Nobles County, Minnesota. Bishop Joseph Gerber and his wife, Magdalena, went there from Ontario in March 1893 and ordained another minister and deacon before the end of the year. By 1894 the settlement included 12 families. Interestingly, even though Bishop Gerber had favored building a meetinghouse for Amish worship in Ontario, none was ever built in the Nobles County community. Consequently they were able to remain in fellowship with both house Amish and church Amish.

At least 35 Amish families lived in Nobles County by the time the settlement came to an end in 1910, due not to the failure of crops, which were generally good, but because of internal dissension. Already by 1903 some families (and ministers) began to leave. Bishop Gerber and half the community left for Oscoda County, Michigan, in 1908, where they founded an Old Order Amish settlement. Minister Valentine Gerber and deacon Joseph Gerber, the two remaining ordained men, returned to Ontario in 1910. Joseph Gerber joined the East Zorra congregation, and Valentine Gerber affiliated with the Blake (Huron County) congregation, but was a member of the Nafziger (Beachy Amish) congregation when he died.

What will happen to the Amish and Mennonite migrations to Prince Edward Island, remains to be seen. But their venture in search of cheaper land has antecedents going back more than 140 years.

I’m indebted to Bruce Jantzi, ed. Minnesota Meanderings: the Amish Mennonite Settlement in Nobles County, Minnesota 1891-1910 for some of this information.

To read more Ontario Mennonite history, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

3 thoughts on “Ontario is not the Promised Land

  1. Good to see you and Sue last night, Sam.

    We became aware of the Old Orders moving to PEI this spring. The greenhouse we buy our veggies and flowers from, west of Wallenstein is closing. This is one of 5 families that is moving (probably moved by now) to PEI this summer. Bowman was the family name. As we chatted with the matriarch, she was aware of 4 other families that were going. “didn’t really know the 5th family”. I got the sense they wanted to sell and start new. This family is fairly entrepreneurial with a big greenhouse with lots of sales in Guelph. They are selling the farm to their nephew and excited about the move.



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