Ontario Mennonites and the production and use of alcohol

Mennonite teaching against the use of alcoholic beverages was a relatively modern innovation, adopted from the early 19th century temperance movement advocated by religious reform movements like the Methodists and the Baptists.

If one checks the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia article on “Alcohol,” one finds no support for the notion that early Anabaptists were total abstainers, though there was frequent teaching against drunkenness or loitering in taverns.

Distilling whiskey or brandy, and brewing beer were practical solutions for grain farmers who had limited means for transporting their goods to market. The liquid product was much more compact than a wagon load of sacks of grain, and it returned a good price.

Old Overholt bottle.

Old Overholt bottle. Originated with Abraham Overholt, a Mennonite distiller from Scottdale, Pennsylvania. GAMEO photo.

In Europe, Mennonite distilleries existed by the end of the 16th century in the Danzig area (See “Alcohol among the Mennonites of Northeast Germany.”) By the 18th and early 19th centuries there were quite a number of distilleries and brewers of beer among the Mennonites of North America, some of whom became quite well known.

Andrew Groff

Andrew Groff in a drawing from the Waterloo Region Museum Hall of Fame.

In Waterloo County, Ontario there were very early Mennonite distillers. Among them were “Indian” Sam Eby in the first decade of the 1800s and Andrew Groff in the 1820s. Sam Eby’s still became notorious. He built it not long after he immigrated in 1804, and traded alcohol with nearby First Nations people. Eventually the activity of Eby and others led to a petition from local residents in 1808 to limit the trade in alcohol.  In addition to a still, Groff also had a mill, a store and a tavern.

A later distiller was prominent Mennonite entrepreneur Jacob C. Snider, the father of minister Elias Schneider, and grandfather of E.W.B. Snider, known for his role in introducing publicly-owned hydro electricity to Ontario. Snider bought the mills that were part of Abraham Erb’s estate in what became Waterloo, and added a distillery about 1835. Jacob Snider’s son, Elias, closed the distillery in Waterloo, though Jacob operated one on his farm for a time prior to his death in 1865.

Even Bishop Benjamin Eby purchased and sold alcohol until 1833, when he suddenly stopped. The temperance movement had begun to make inroads into the Mennonite community, and active distilling and brewing decreased, even if total abstinence was not the immediate result.

William Hespeler, who was prominent in assisting the Mennonite immigration to Manitoba from Russia in the 1870s, established a distillery in Waterloo in 1857 together with a partner. This distillery was later taken over by Joseph E. Seagram, whose family developed it into a worldwide enterprise.

In the second half of the 19th century, more Mennonite groups began to teach in favor of total abstinence, and some Mennonite preachers in the early 20th century encouraged Mennonites to vote for prohibition.

Mennonite usage of alcohol in the 21st century varies by group. The Old Order groups discourage drunkenness, but do not insist on abstinence. Conservative Mennonite groups tend to forbid alcohol use in any form. The most assimilated groups reject abuse of alcohol, but let usage up to the individual conscience. Some Mennonite entrepreneurs operate restaurants that serve alcohol, other “Mennonite” restaurants decline to serve alcohol.

To learn more about Ontario Mennonites and social issues, read In Search of Promised Lands.


Mennonite and First Nations Relations at the Grand River

The First Nations people Mennonites encountered in the early 19th century in the Grand River Valley were primarily the Ojibwa, for whom the area was traditional territory. The stories of positive relationships between the Ojibwa and Mennonites have traditionally been told only from the Mennonite side, with little notice taken or questions asked about why the aboriginal people disappeared from the community in the later 19th century.

Peter Jones, from his History of the Ojebway People

Peter Jones, from his History of the Ojebway Indiana

The story of Jacob Bechtel being led in 1799 to the Grand River by an Ojibwa scout is doubtless correct. Samuel S. Moyer wrote that his mother, Barbara Shantz Moyer, as a child “would run out in the bush and play with Indian children, and how the Indians would be all around them and bring venison (deer meat) for a loaf of bread, etc. When the nights got cold many of the Indians would come in and lie on the floor with their feet toward the fireplace and sleep until morning. . .” Lorna L. Bergey reported that her grandparents, Norman and Susannah Cassel Shantz, lived on a farm in Wilmot that was annually visited as late as 1900 by aboriginals wanting to harvest ginseng. After the birth of Norman and Susannah’s eldest daughter several abor­iginal women gave the family a handwoven doll cradle made from black ash wood. Elizabeth Betzner Sherk recalled the fall council meetings of Mohawk braves across the Grand River from her home early in the nineteenth century. Generally, the Ojibwa seemed to trust the Mennonites to be honest dealers, as indicated in a story told by Peter Jones, an Ojibwa chief who had converted to Christianity and become a Methodist minister. In his History of the Ojebway Indians Jones told of a chief who accepted a lesser price for a piece of land from a Mennonite who had never cheated the aboriginals, as opposed to a “Yankee stranger.”

Ezra Eby, in his Biographical History of Waterloo Township, described in positive terms how “Indian Sam” Eby, an 1804 immigrant from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania “spent much of his time among the Indians and taught them many good things, in fact he was their law-giver, minister, interpreter and peacemaker.” The memory of aboriginal writers was much less positive. Eby had established a still soon after he arrived, and traded alcohol to the aboriginals in exchange for furs. Thomas McGee wrote in 1829: “I used to live here de Waterloo—All time get drunk—I go some times on dis road in the night, some times midnight—go up de river to Still house, after de whiskey. You know up to Sam Aby’s Still-house. Me was very poor, me hungry, me naked….”

Alcohol addiction among the aboriginal population became a significant concern after white settlers, including Mennonites, introduced alcoholic beverages to them. By January 1808, twenty-seven petitioners, probably mostly Mennonite, asked the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada to prevent the trading of alcoholic beverages with aboriginals, both because their drunkenness left the children hungry, and because it gener­ated behavior that frightened the white settlers. They recalled an October 1804 incident in which Abraham Stauffer was shot by an Ojibwa man they believed was drunk. John Erb, Abraham Weber, and Stauffer had been investigating a mill site below Block 2 when the man ordered them away from the site, and in the confusion shot Stauffer in the arm.

In the early years of the Mennonite settlement at the Grand River,  E. Reginald Good, who has written extensively on this issue, says the Mennonites and aboriginals appeared to mutually benefit from their contact. In the long term, however, their economic interests conflicted, and the Mennonites and other European settlers contributed to the colonization of the Ojibwa people. Increasing Mennonite economic development deprived the aboriginals of access to their traditional lands and the resources required for an independent existence. “Finally, Mennonites participated in forcing the Mississaugas out of their community and out of their history.”

To learn more about Mennonite relations with First Nations read In Search of Promised Lands.

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