A Timeless Culture

South Carolina’s Mennonite communities

By Deena C. Bouknight

On a mild spring day down a quiet drive off an idyllic rural highway, locals meander into Swartzentruber’s Bakery. Just as she has been doing for almost four decades, 59-year-old Loretta Swartzentruber greets customers. Modestly dressed in a below-the-knees skirt and with her hair pulled back in a tight, prayer-cap covered bun, she exudes friendliness and warmth — despite the fact that her work day began at 12:30 a.m. and it is approaching noon. She credits her stalwartness to her faith. Loretta is a Mennonite.

She belongs to one of the original families that made a pilgrimage in 1969 from Virginia Beach, Virginia, after the Navy, urban sprawl, and commercial development made living there less desirable for a pastoral-seeking people. When she was 10, Loretta says her family and seven others picked up and moved to Abbeville County, South Carolina, where flat, lush, sprawling farm land was aplenty. In Abbeville, Cold Springs, and Due West — home of Erskine University — families purchased land, built churches and adjacent schools, and opened blue collar businesses. Over the years, other Mennonite families from different parts of the country joined the original group. Steve Swartzentruber, Loretta’s first cousin, estimates around 175 families with four to five children each attend five area Mennonite churches. The Cold Springs Church, where Loretta, Steve, and his immediate and extended family attend, has about 175 congregants. Steve, too, moved as a child from Virginia Beach.

According to The South Carolina Encyclopedia, 12 Mennonite churches were established in the state by the early 2000s. Active communities concentrate primarily in Abbeville, Aiken, Barnwell, and Oconee counties. The University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies listed the Mennonite population in the state 15 years ago as fewer than 1,000; no current numbers are available. Steve estimates, however, that the Abbeville County Mennonite community has grown steadily since 1969.

Yet, a mega church presence and promotable church attendance records have never been the goal for Mennonites. Instead, a tranquil, God-honoring life of service to those in need, valued labor, and genuine fellowship are foundational Mennonite characteristics.

A general misconception is that the Amish and Mennonite are one and the same. There are similarities, but vast differences abound. Both groups did, indeed, emerge from what were known as the Anabaptists of the Reformation, and importantly, the Amish and Mennonites are Protestants. They are not a cult or a sect. They worship the triune God, follow biblical teachings, and believe in the resurrection of Christ. However, sometime in the 1700s, an internal dispute in the Amish communities involving church discipline and outside-the-faith relations motivated some to form a less strict approach.

While the Amish who stray from their faith face shunning, Mennonites adhere to no such practice. The Amish avoid “worldly” comforts, such as electricity and automobiles, but while Mennonites might choose not to watch television or attend movies, most use technology and own appliances and cars. In general, Mennonites do not have strict rules regarding modern conveniences.

However, both groups are pacifists. Steve explains that as conscientious objectors, Mennonites do not protest against the military and respect soldiers and their decisions to serve their country, but Mennonites instead promote choosing “alternative volunteer service” for a committed time period to a facility or organization in need. Loretta, for example, chose to serve at age 21 in a Mennonite nursing home for 14 months.

Clothing is a similarity between the Amish and Mennonite women. Many make their clothing by hand and maintain simple patterns and fabrics that are easy to clean and durable enough to withstand a day’s work. Loretta does not sew her own clothes. Instead, she chooses fabrics and sends them off to a Mennonite seamstress who previously lived in her area but now resides in Colorado. Loretta’s long-time employee, Anna Mary Fisher, also a Mennonite, sews her own dresses. Some Mennonite women still meet for sewing or quilting circles, or “frolics.”

Mennonite men often, but not always, sport a beard. Amish men grow a beard after marrying. A Mennonite woman’s hair is often in a bun during the day and covered with a thin, small, white prayer cap, while Amish women will cover their bun-kept hair with a small bonnet. The goal is to dress practically and modestly.

“The simplest way to explain it,” says Steve, “is that we attempt to live out our faith through our culture. It’s about values and morals.”

Preaching and teaching occur on Sunday mornings at a Mennonite church, sometimes referred to as “plain church.” At Cold Springs Church, Steve is a one of several ordained pastors who take turns at the pulpit. None receive a salary, so all must work in other professions. Steve says that four times a year an offering is taken and shared among those working for the church.

Although the Amish must attend an Amish-run school, Mennonite parents may choose home schooling, but most children attend a Mennonite school. A few choose public schools. Also, non-Mennonite children willing to meet specific school requirements may attend a private Mennonite school. About 80 percent of the Mennonites in Abbeville County are enrolled in a Mennonite school adjacent to their church. “When our families first moved here in 1969, there were no private Mennonite schools so we had to go to public school,” explains Steve. “By the next year, we had our own school.”

Finally, Mennonites do not discourage college attendance “if there is a true purpose,” says Steve. The goal is not to waste money or time. The expectation among the Mennonite community is that children and adults are honest, hardworking, and trustworthy. Young people typically apprentice in a family business or attend college or a trade school to learn such hands-on skills as carpentry, plumbing, electrical, and welding.

Steve’s father, Ray, started a plumbing business, Ray’s Plumbing, after moving near Abbeville. Steve’s four brothers — Lowell, Glen, Kevin, and Brian — work as plumbers, as do two of Steve’s sons, Anthony and Carson, and nephews, Tyler and Wilson. His wife, Karen, and two sisters-in-law, Anna Mae and Gina, answer phones and run dispatch. Most of the family reside on the original 600 acres that Steve’s father, grandfather, and great uncle purchased in the late ‘60s. “Most farm, but plumbing supports the farming habit,” he quips. Steve and his brothers are also all volunteer firemen with the Cold Springs Fire Department.

Most Mennonites live and work in close proximity, and many are related. For example, Ivan and Gloria, Loretta’s brother and sister-in-law, own The Dutch Oven in Abbeville. Cindy and Marlin Overholt, brother-in-law to Steve, operate the Dew West Strawberry Farm. They lease the 1.5 acre farm from Marlin’s sister, Rose Stoll. Forty-year-old Stoll Industries, metal works, is a Mennonite-founded business. Generally, Mennonites share a Dutch, German, or Swiss heritage. Names like Stoll, Hershberger, and Overholt are common in Abbeville County.

Yet, interestingly, most of Ray’s Plumbing customers are not Mennonites because, as Steve points out, Mennonites have the skills to take care of their own issues. Loretta agrees. The bulk of her bakery customers are from outside the Mennonite community. “They know how to bake and make their own baked goods,” she says.

Another Mennonite community is in Barnwell County. In Blackville, Lill and Alvin Stolzfus own Wisteria Cottage on Lavender Lane, a four-person, serene accommodation that includes a traditional Mennonite breakfast featuring items such as farm-fresh eggs, bacon or sausage, fried potatoes, hot cakes, and homemade toast and jam. Visitors are also treated to homemade baked goods, such as Italian cream cake, pecan pie, or blackberry cobbler, along with seasonal fruit. If staying over on a Sunday, guests are invited to the local Mennonite church.

Also in Blackville is Miller’s Bread Basket. Susie and Ray Miller opened the establishment in 1987 to serve home-cooked Amish-Mennonite style food, which means “old fashioned, wholesome as can be … salt of the earth food,” according to Manager Katie Lapp. “We use, for example, real cheese and real butter, we buy as much locally as possible, and our strawberries are from a Mennonite farm.”

In 2014, Anna and Mervin Miller (no relation to the original owners) purchased Miller’s Bread Basket. Katie is Mervin’s sister. Their parents are Mennonite, and many of Miller’s Bread Basket’s employees are Mennonite, including the two women, Bonnie Peachey and Lill Stoltzfus (Wisteria Cottage), who bake breads, pies, cakes to order, cinnamon rolls, cupcakes, and much more for Miller’s. Katie says people drive from Charleston, Columbia, and other areas of South Carolina to purchase their baked goods.

Katie explains that at least 50 Mennonite families belong to the local Blackville Mennonite Church; and, she believes four Mennonite churches in Barnwell are filled with around 200 families. Similar to those in Abbeville County, many Barnwell County Mennonite families congregated in the area in the 1960s, traveling from Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, and other Northern states. Many of these original families moved as “old order Amish,” Katie says, but became Mennonites after moving to South Carolina.

Another well-visited Blackville Mennonite business is Healing Springs Country Store. Owned by Elsie and Robert Yoder for the past five years, the early 20th century store is located a half mile from the artesian wells of God’s Acre Healing Springs. The store offers fresh-made and affordable deli sandwiches, hoop cheese, ice cream, hot dogs, and baked goods. Plus, it carries some hard-to-find items like birch beer, made with herbal extracts and birch bark, and souse, which is hogs head cheese. Five to six part-time Mennonite employees assist the Yoders. Elsie makes her family recipe coleslaw, potato salad, chicken salad, bread, and cheesecake, while some baked goods are supplied by Cheryl Peachey and others are obtained from Nelson’s Wee Bake in Denmark. Located in neighboring Bamburg County, Nelson’s Wee Bake is operated by the Hochstetler family: Nelson; his wife, Debbie; daughter, Krista; and son, Trenton. This Mennonite family makes breads, sweet baked goods, and some sandwiches, including barbecue, for their shop.

Loretta says she is pleased to know that the bakery her family started still thrives. Swartzentruber’s Bakery grew out of a need to sell excess farm produce. Her mother took items, such as green beans, to a farmer’s market, as well as homemade whoopie pies, two soft cake-like cookies with cream or frosting pressed in between. The pies sold quickly, and then the family began taking their signature, family-recipe pound cake. The baked items were in such high demand that a bakery was built onto their home. She, along with her mother and sisters, made and sold the sweet baked goods, while her father made the bread and dinner rolls.

Her parents have since passed away, but Loretta resides happily in her grandmother’s home on the property and works about 50 hours within a three-day window to achieve the myriad of cakes, pies, cinnamon rolls, cookies, banana bread, and — of course — whoopie pies that grace the glass bakery displays. Customers to Swartzentruber’s also stock up on honey, natural homemade products, butter, and much more.

Besides her tireless work at the bakery, among the 20 to 30 quart mixers, shelves of sugar and flour, and lots of fresh local eggs, Loretta faithfully delivers a pound cake and a bag of coffee to the local funeral home whenever she learns of a death. She has participated in past quilting gatherings during which goods are made and sent to domestic and foreign missions. She helps serve when needed at church banquets and functions. As busy as she is, she says she is not unlike other Mennonites in that serving is inherent in their culture and faith.

“It’s just what we do,” she says.

«  back to issue