Places and People: The Shenandoah Valley

Autumn Fundraiser 2013, Day 3

Day Three of the Autumn 2013 Fundraiser, served up with a smile, a sure sense of place and traditions, and for extras, one of our own favorite quick suppers. The meal which just happens to coincide with the post. As I was writing out the recipe here, I realized we had the ingredients on hand. Now wouldn’t that make a fine dish to set before the King the Baron, especially on a cold autumn evening when he’s been poring over the thank-you notes up there in his Eyrie?

Tip jarThe Baron’s discussion of his family photographs yesterday got me to thinking I might follow in his tracks. But as I contemplated the idea, I realized few photos made it over on the boat in my parents’ journey to North America. Mother had a precious one of each of her parents — a candid shot of her father smoking a pipe near his roses, with the dog, Toby, standing guard. And one of her mother seated in the garden, smiling.

Besides those, she had her own Confirmation picture, her passport photos, and the professional picture of her closest sibling when Sister Celine made her final vows as a Franciscan nun. Accidental memories, really. But where are the photos of her other eight brothers and sisters? There is almost nothing. Was it a combination of war, hard times, the rush of leaving Europe for the safety of North America… and the way things simply get lost in transit? When I asked, she’d shrug. There was a good formal portrait of her mother as a young woman, but I think someone sent it on to her later, when peace returned.

It is often the case that immigrants are both anxious about leaving home, and usually in a hurry to get past the pain of leaving everyone behind. Is there even time to look through the albums, or find the stacks of black and whites thrown in a drawer? The few she had were surprisingly unfaded — those old Brownies took pretty good pictures that kept . Certainly they held up better than the Kodachromes or the Polaroids which followed after.

At any rate, here at home we switched gears, especially on remembering what today was: the Baron would be driving Ms. Dymphna over the mountain for a standing doctor’s visit (routine). It would be a chore, were it not for the landscape we traverse to get there. Going from the Piedmont across to the Valley never fails to move me. For the Baron, as a landscape artist and Virginia boy, it is a thoroughly enjoyable hour — and it’s only an hour if there are no freight trains blocking our way or hay wagons to slow our progress on the smaller roads. If we leave with time to spare, even those obstacles don’t matter.

The Shenandoah Valley isn’t on that map from the first day’s post, though it really ought to be. There is nothing quite like it; at some point we usually end up discussing some part of it we’d not mentioned in a while. One frequent point is the distinctive presence of the Mennonite communities in the Valley, some dating back to the first quarter of the 18th century. They moved in from Pennsylvania mostly, leaving that agrarian environment to found other farming communities here, in a very different environment.

You can’t help but notice the Mennonites: their attractive farms, their distinctive dress, and their admirable ethos: hard-working, cheerful, and prolific. Unlike their Amish cousins, many Mennonite groups don’t shun the convenience of electricity or cars, or avoid higher education for their children. Any business concern run by the Mennonites is a thriving place.

But first, before the people, let’s look at the place they chose to settle in the 1720s — the Shenandoah Valley. Over time, they were more welcomed by the Indian tribes than were the English, as you’ll see.

This wiki entry is wide-ranging and full of helpful links. Whoever wrote it knew the territory:

The Shenandoah Valley is both a geographic valley and cultural region of western Virginia and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia in the United States. The valley is bounded to the east by the Blue Ridge Mountains, to the west by the eastern front of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians (excluding Massanutten Mountain), to the north by the Potomac River and to the south by the James River.

The cultural region covers a larger area that includes all of the valley plus the Virginia highlands to the west, and the Roanoke Valley to the south. It is physiographically located within the Ridge and Valley province and is a portion of the Great Appalachian Valley.

The Great Wagon Road (later called the Valley Pike or Valley Turnpike) began as the Great Warriors Trail or Indian Road, a Native road through common hunting grounds shared by several tribes settled around the periphery, which included Iroquoian, Siouan and Algonquian-language family tribes. Known native settlements within the Valley were few, but included the Shawnee occupying the region around Winchester, and Tuscarora around what is now Martinsburg, West Virginia. In the late 1720s and 1730s, Quakers and Mennonites began to move in from Pennsylvania. They were tolerated by the natives, while “Long Knives” (English settlers from [the]coastal Virginia colony) were less welcomed.

During these same decades, the valley route continued to be used by war parties of Seneca (Iroquois) and Lenape en route from New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to attack the distant Catawba in the Carolinas, with whom they were at war. The Catawba in turn pursued the war parties northward, often overtaking them by the time they reached the Potomac. Several fierce battles were fought among the warring nations in the Valley region, as attested by the earliest European-American settlers.

Later colonists called this route the Great Wagon Road; it became the major thoroughfare for immigrants’ moving by wagons from Pennsylvania and northern Virginia into the backcountry of the South. The Valley Turnpike Company improved the road by paving it with macadam prior to the Civil War and set up toll gates to collect fees to pay for the improvements. After the advent of motor vehicles, the road was refined and paved appropriately for their use. In the 20th century, the road was acquired by the Commonwealth of Virginia, which incorporated it into the state highway system as U.S. Highway 11. For much of its length, the newer Interstate 81, constructed in the 1960s, parallels the old Valley Pike.

[Note: when you travel Route 11, the road passing through small Virginia towns in the Valley, the same one which saw armies pass and turn, and earlier, felt the steady rhythm of warriors’ feet from Georgia through to Canada, for a while you feel the wisdom of the trail-makers who laid this road out over millennia. With their bare feet they made it. You know you’re simply the latest travelers in a long procession.]

Along with the first German settlers, known as “Shenandoah Deitsch”, many Scots-Irish immigrants came south in the 1730s from Pennsylvania into the valley, via the Potomac River. The Scots-Irish comprised the largest group of non-English immigrants from the British Isles before the Revolutionary War, and most migrated into the backcountry of the South. This was in contrast to the chiefly English immigrants who had settled the Virginia Tidewater and Carolina Piedmont regions.

The Shenandoah Valley was known as the breadbasket of the Confederacy during the Civil War and seen as a back door for Confederate raids on Maryland, Washington and Pennsylvania. Because of its strategic importance it was the scene of three major campaigns. The first was the Valley Campaign of 1862, in which Confederate General Stonewall Jackson defended the valley against three numerically superior Union armies. The final two were the Valley Campaigns of 1864. First, in the summer of 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early cleared the valley of its Union occupiers and then proceeded to raid Maryland, Pennsylvania and D.C. Then during the Autumn, Union General Philip Sheridan was sent to drive Early from the valley and once-and-for-all destroy its use to the Confederates by putting it to the torch using scorched-earth tactics. The valley, especially in the lower northern section, was also the scene of bitter partisan fighting as the region’s inhabitants were deeply divided over loyalties and Confederate partisan John Mosby and his Rangers frequently operated in the area.

A Mennonite account puts it more starkly. This is from a speech in 2005 about the effects of the Civil War on their communities in the Valley:

“And now General Sheridan, with the instincts of savage warfare, determined to utterly devastate this beautiful valley. He therefore set his troops at work, and all the way from Staunton to Winchester was soon one scene of desolation. He burned every house, every barn, every mill, all the corn cribs, hay-stacks, and the entire food crops of all kinds for the year. Not only this, but he seized all the ploughs, harrows, spades, and every description of farm implement, and putting them into piles, made his soldiers burn them. He then drove off all the cows, horses, oxen, cattle, sheep, pigs, and every living animal for the use of man in all that wide valley. In fact nothing that devilish ingenuity could invest was left undone to transform the loveliest and most fertile valley in the world into a desolate and howling wilderness. Not less than ten thousand innocent women and children were by this savagery reduced to starvation, and thrown, in the fall of the year, out of comfortable homes, to perish in tents and caves by the cold of the winter.”

The winter was a most bitter one climate-wise as well as war-wise.

Bittinger continues:

“The Dayton area of Rockingham County, suffered the severe brunt of this destruction. On October 3, a young officer, Lieut. John R. Meigs, a highly regarded staff aid of Sheridan’s, was killed in a confrontation with three Confederate Scouts a mile or so north of Dayton. Sheridan, wrongly informed that Meigs was murdered by local citizens, was angered and ordered the burning of all the houses and barns within a radius of three miles from the place where Meigs fell, including the town of Dayton. Although the order for the burning of Dayton itself was later rescinded, many homes and barns were burned within the designated circle. The burning included the area between Harrisonburg and Bridgewater eastward to the vicinity or just beyond the Valley pike and westward from Dry River to Mole Hill and the Rawley Springs Turnpike. This holocaust was devastating to the people, and many fled northward with Sheridan’s refugee wagon train.”

Those memories have faded, but it doesn’t take much for them to return, especially as the federal government becomes more intrusive.

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Many in Virginia find the Mennonites attractive. They are a still place in an ever more frenetic world. But who are the Mennonites, and how do they differ from our Amish folk in Maryland and Pennsylvania? Here’s some background on the formation of these denominations, back in Europe. This is taken mostly from a Virginia magazine article, “The Plain People”:

Contemporary groups with early Anabaptist roots include the Mennonites, Amish, Dunkards, Landmark Baptists, Hutterites, and various Beachy and Brethren groups.

There is no single defining set of beliefs, doctrines, and practices that characterizes all Anabaptists.

The era of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation in Europe spawned a number of radical reform groups, among them the Anabaptists. These Christians regarded the Bible as their only rule for faith and life. Because of their radical beliefs, the Anabaptists were persecuted by other Protestants as well as by Roman Catholics.

Mennonites have been characterized historically by a love for the Word of God, and by a strict demand for holiness of life.

The evangelical and non-revolutionary Anabaptists of Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands, were somewhat of a trial to the leading reformers because of their radical views on the nature of the church and of the Christian ethic.

January 21, 1525, is generally considered the birth date of Anabaptism.

…the Mennonite church, which was founded by a former Catholic priest named Menno Simon in Friesen, Germany, in the 1530s, predates the Amish faith by more than 100 years.

The Amish faith took shape in 1693 when a group, led by Mennonite Elder Jakob Ammann of Switzerland, split from the Mennonite church due to what they believed was an increasing liberalization in church discipline and a gradual slackening of strict separation from the world.

Where the Mennonites value education, employ technology, and all but a few, like the Old Order Mennonites, drive cars, the Amish shun all technology, and do not educate their children beyond the eighth grade, preferring to remain separated from the larger world. The Amish have remained surprisingly much the same in lifestyle and practice since their arrival in America. However, most Mennonites have seen that it is possible to interact with the world without becoming worldly: They are then, in the modern world, but not of it.

The Mennonites were some of the first European settlers in the New World, arriving in Pennsylvania in the 1680s from Germany where they suffered persecution for their Anabaptist beliefs.

Today, though, there are other parts of the country, including Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kansas where Mennonite churches can be found in great numbers. There is one place in particular (apart from the earliest settlements in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania) where they have lived the longest in thriving numbers: That place is Virginia.

The diaspora and migration of these groups began when they filtered down through Pennsylvania and into the Shenandoah Valley in search of expansive and rich farmland, beginning in the middle of the 18th century. But even then they were not in lockstep, nor all of the same ilk. There are a great many stripes of Mennonites in the Valley, from the most austere to the more progressive like those at Eastern Mennonite University, in Harrisonburg. But they share religious devotion and remain the same family-oriented and industrious people they were when they first settled in Virginia 250 years ago; inventive and astute in agrarian and food-related business, the building trades, folk-crafts, raising livestock and, above all, farming.

But they are also full of surprises. Mennonites today are involved in business ventures—some modern, some passed down through generations—and community and relief efforts, which not only cause them to brush up against the world and modern technology, but to find ways to employ it. This has made them remarkably open to outsiders, and brought the world to their doors in growing numbers.

Mennonites are much admired in Virginia. Their elders developed an ingenious template for mediation that has spread through family courts, group living situations, and community conflicts such as landlord/tenant disputes. Mediation is a robust alternative to orders handed down by the judge, or worked out by expensive lawyers. For those families willing and able to use the Mennonite system, it is refreshing to be free of the strictures of legal codes and an indifferent judicial system. Some years ago, I studied in the Mediation Program with the idea of becoming certified to volunteer in community disputes. I had almost finished my ‘apprenticeship’ when I began to experience the beginnings of fibromyalgia… I still recall it as a rigorous system for listening. We don’t realize how little we truly and deeply listen to another; instead we wait politely for our turn to interrupt.

Here’s how the Mennonite Church USA views itself:

  • a network of congregations and ministry organizations linked by history, theology and geography,
  • with a shared call to Christian faith, evangelism, discipleship, peacemaking and service.
  • [it] seeks to be an agent of God’s call to individuals, congregations and organizations to follow Jesus and embody faith, hope, peace and love in the world.
  • …centered in Jesus Christ, spelled out in seven attributes. …

For many people seeking a return to something more lasting, a shelter from an increasingly violent world, these seven attributes begin to seem very attractive:

  • Community in an era of individualism
  • Faith in an era of secularism
  • Hope in an era of cynicism and despair
  • Peace in an era of violence
  • Love in an era of polarization and hatred
  • Life-affirming ethic from womb to tomb
  • International compassion in an era of nationalism

Gates of Vienna readers know where we would part company with these attributes, even as we see why they’re attractive.

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Now for some food!

I used to have several Mennonite cookbooks, but gave them away when we changed how we eat. I still remember them fondly: hearty food for farmers, served with a smile by their wives and daughters…

Mennonite cooking is essentially an American variation of German food via the Pennsylvania Dutch. Their cakes and pies are for sale throughout the Valley.

Here is a supper dish that we’ve eaten often. It was given to me years ago by a woman who worked for an organization whose purpose was to preserve regional foods in Virginia. Since traditions are still strong in a multitude of Virginia enclaves, it’s probably a matter of visiting those communities rather than doing library research. From planked shad (and shad roe) in the coastal areas right on through the Highlands hunters who go out to kill the meat they put on the table, there is a wide variety of foods and ways to prepare them.

Sometimes they converge, though. One thing Highlanders and Mennonites have in common is a love of home-made sauerkraut, and each family usually makes its own. So here’s a Mennonite dish even the Highlanders would eat (that is when those Scots-Irish could afford ginger snaps and hadn’t already drunk up all the beer).

Depending on how high up the food chain you eat, the meat will vary from, oh, thick slices of center cut bacon or an uncured knuckle down to plain old sausage or hot dogs. It’s usually some form of cured meat, though pork is used on occasion — especially at hog-killing time when the meat hasn’t had time to cure.

For our purposes at Schloss Bodissey the meat we use depends on what’s on sale at Whole Foods (known locally as “Whole Paycheck” since it’s pricier than stores which sell nitrate-and-preservative-laden meats). I’ve made this German/Amish/Mennonite dish with both uncured sausage and knuckle; let’s say sausage for this post since it’s quicker and I’m fixing it for dinner tonight.

Sauerkraut and Sausage

Ingredients (all approximate. You can raise or lower the amounts based on your family size and tastes):

Rendered bacon fat — a few tablespoons — or butter, the same
1 pound of cooked sausage links
1 jar of Bubbie’s sauerkraut (it’s not cooked and is very close to homemade)
½ can of beer — any old beer. For us, it’s whatever someone left behind. If forced to buy a can I get something the Baron will drink the other half of. But he can’t have it until I figure out if this dish has enough pot liquor. Usually it does.
½ onion, chopped
½ cooking apple, chopped or sliced
1 handful of ginger snaps — OR — powdered ginger and molasses (that avoids the flour for us)
1 tsp of caraway seeds, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 tsp good mustard. Or a pinch of Coleman’s powder if you have it.

Heat a sauté pan until it’s hot enough so the rendered fat won’t stick or burn (heating the pan empty first helps to avoid sticking)

Add a tablespoon of fat and melt it.

Add the chopped onion, cover the pan and reduce the heat. The point is to ‘sweat’ the onions until translucent but not brown – about five minutes. Push the onion to the sides of the pan.

Add another spoon of fat, the meat (cut into chunks or left whole) and the chopped apple. Cover again and cook until the apple is very limp and the meat has browned some.*

Turn up the heat and add the beer. Cook until it has mostly boiled off.

Turn down the heat and add the whole jar of kraut.

Add the crushed seeds, the bay leaf (crunch it in your hand into several pieces), and mustard. Cover. Cook on low (with a diffuser if you have it) for about ten minutes.

Add the ginger and molasses or (if you can tolerate wheat, lucky dog) crumble a handful or two of ginger snaps into the pan, pushing the crumbs down into the broth. They will dissolve and thicken the liquor. Those of us with wheat problems will have to settle for thinner broth.

You can cook it for a few minutes and then set aside for the flavors to meld.

This is even better the next day, but your family will usually insist on right now.

* Once you’ve got the meat in the pan, begin boiling however many potatoes you’ll need. Serve them boiled or mashed — or as the Irish say, “spuds in their jackets”. That is, boiled whole and unpeeled. They’ll be done about the time the sauerkraut and sausage is ready.

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Both groups raise their own meat, and in addition the Highlanders hunt for venison and wild fowl. The German stock from whom the Mennonite descended may have done so back in the old country, but the peaceable dissenters often favor bow-hunting to firearms. However, customs aren’t absolutely uniform among communities so it all depends on where you are in the Valley.

One Mennonite woman, a skilled bow-hunter, holds the record for the size of the white-tailed buck she brought down in 2006. That’s a whole lot of meat to share. [I’m going to find that news item and give it to the woman who cuts our hair. She is an avid bow-hunter, often practicing from her porch. That woman has definitely got strong arms! She has other attributes too, ones which make the Baron sure to keep his hair nice and trim.] [Note from the Baron, who did the final edit: “Attributes”. Heh.]

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We had a busy Day Two. The Baron and I appreciate all the generous readers who checked in from the following places:

Stateside: California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, and Texas

Near Abroad: Canada

Far Abroad: Australia, India, Sweden, and the UK

See y’all tomorrow! Or later today, actually…

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One thought on “Places and People: The Shenandoah Valley

  1. I saw the Baron’s bit of editing up there.

    I finally thought of who it is our Amazon blonde hairdresser brings to mind: think of Li’l Abner’s Daisy Mae, only with brains and a great sense of humor, besides being a crack shot. And they have three active children, all as healthy and vital as she is. The oldest will have an academic scholarship to college soon…

    This is a salt of the earth family. They go to church at least once a week, and *everyone* attends. It wouldn’t occur to the kids that it might be optional.

    She cuts the hair of all the boys at the Juvenile Detention Center and visits the nursing home to do the same…

    That family is such a relief: complex, but not neurotically complicated. “Daisy” has wonderfully wicked mother-in-law stories; her escape valve is to tell them to some of her women customers… She married her highschool sweetheart, but she’s a “foreigner” because she’s from the western part of the county. They’ve decided she doesn’t “fit in with us”.

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