Monday, April 1, 2013

The Mennonites of Landis Valley: An Interview with Museum Curator Jennifer Royer

A panel from the new exhibit,
"The Mennonite Faith in Landis Valley"
Perhaps you’ve noticed it as you’ve approached Landis Valley’s entrance:  the large brick building and picturesque cemetery neighboring the Visitor Center.  That is the Mennonite church at Landis Valley, today known as Landis Valley Christian Fellowship, and is the only house of worship ever built here.  Its history is closely intertwined with our museum’s:  Henry L. Landis, grandfather of the museum’s founders, helped get the land surveyed for the meetinghouse; the Landis family is buried there; land and buildings have been exchanged between the church and the museum; and the church makes and sells its famous chicken corn noodle soup every year at Herb and Garden Faire and Harvest Days.

Now the symbiotic relationship is on display in Landis Valley’s newest exhibit, “The Mennonite Faith in Landis Valley.”  Recently, Landis Valley curator Jennifer Royer sat down for an interview with the Valley Gazette, the museum's newsletter, to give visitors a taste of what to expect from this newest permanent exhibit, to be housed in half of the former “Sexton’s House” behind the Visitor Center.

Valley Gazette:  What sparked the idea for this particular exhibit?

Jennifer Royer:  There is a natural curiosity by visitors regarding the Mennonite faith and the Landis Valley Mennonite Church, which has been so important to the community.  The exhibit gives a brief overview of both areas and encourages further research and study if visitors are interested in more in-depth information.  Hopefully, this exhibit will answer some of the questions that visitors have and also encourage them to visit the cemetery and learn more about the church.
VG:  How long has the Mennonite Church been in Landis Valley? 

Royer:  In 1847 the church, then known at the Reading Road Mennonite Church, built the first central meetinghouse and cemetery in Landis Valley.  This church stood on the same side of the road as the cemetery.  A larger church was built in 1884 on the opposite side of the street.  The current church was built in 1928.
VG:  What customs particular to the Mennonite faith will the exhibit highlight?

Royer:  The exhibit will discuss the differences between the Amish and Mennonite faiths with regard to clothing, education, and technology.
VG:  How are Amish and Mennonites different from other groups of PA Germans? 

Royer:  I think the question is really how are the Amish and Mennonites different from each other, not other groups of Pennsylvania Germans.  It is assumed that all of the Amish and the Mennonites are the same, act the same way, and believe the same things.  This is not true.  The Mennonites are protestant Christians that share a belief system that is very similar to the Amish.  However, how each group interprets these beliefs and how they believe that they should be carried out is very different.  For instance, most people associate the Amish with their clothing.  The Amish have strict guidelines on clothing that encourage humility and ensures that clothing does not accentuate physical characteristics.  Mennonite clothing varies depending on how conservative a particular group is.  Some groups wear clothing similar to the Amish.  Mennonites of less conservative groups can wear anything that they wish.  You would not be able to pinpoint them as Mennonite based on their clothing.  This is just one difference between the Amish and the Mennonites.  They are a number of other ones.  Some of the differences are highlighted in the exhibit.
VG:  The Sexton’s House is really old.  Have we ever been able to date it?

Royer:  No one knows how old the original Sexton’s House, now the Harness Shop, is.  The building, however, is a German log house with timber frame facade, built in the tradition of a common Pennsylvania German dwelling.
In addition to seeing the exhibit, visitors are encouraged to wander around the adjacent cemetery and search for the Landis brothers and their family, among other notable Landis Valley residents such as Jacob Landis Sr., who was buried there in 1848. “The Mennonite Faith in Landis Valley” opened on Charter Day, March 10. 
Check out this video interview of Landis Valley Museum Director Jim Lewars, who talks about the exhibit opening on Charter Day.  Courtesy of Blue Ridge Cable News.