HOW THE “MILL EXPERIENCE” INFLUENCED MY LIFE:
FIVE VIGNETTES FROM IMPRESSIONABLE YEARS
Three influences dominated the formative period of my youth.
As I grew up in St. Jacobs, Ontario from the 1940s to the early
1960s - my family, church and father’s occupation as manager
of the mill had a marked influence on my entire life.
Entering the latter phase of my seventh decade – I am 68 as
I write these words from Calgary, Alberta where I have lived
for over thirty years – I am growingly aware that each of these
important institutions shaped how I would live my life and the
person I would become.
Reflecting on these things – perhaps for the first time ever
– several images popped into my mind as dramatically as if
they had been formed yesterday. The fact that all of them
originated at least half a century ago says something about
how significant they really were.
All that I will present here are related to “the mill.”
Other images will have to await another time and telling.
Here then are stories that centre on a number of influential
persons and experiences drawn from my early years as a
precocious, adventurous boy who grew up in St. Jacobs
and related to “the mill.”.
C.M. SNIDER AND BYRON SCHWARTZ
It was never “Cliff” or “Byron.” It was always
“Mr. Snider” and “Mr. Schwartz.”
Showing respect for one’s elders (father, pastor or boss)
was a natural part of growing up during that era and the
German-Canadian community within which we lived.
I am grateful for the societal upbringing I had back then.
Since that time, and as I matured, treating people
respectfully continued to be an important aspect of my
approach to others. Feminism, pluralism and the decline
of the classic Canadian class-structured society of old
Ontario brought marked changes to my life, but that early
training served me well.
I have subsequently lived and worked in a variety of
cultures and social circumstances but have always remembered
instinctively those early lessons about what a basic attitude
toward others should be.
My parents, Alf and Marieta, made it clear that it was not
appropriate to address my dad’s “superiors” at the office in
a casual or off-handed way.
C.M. Snider owned the business. Byron Schwartz preceded my
father as the bookkeeper/manager. I was taught not to make
distinctions between my elders but to treat them all
respectfully. As far as I knew, both these men deserved my
regard because they were older and for the responsibilities
they had. Gradually I began to realize that honoring many
others and recognizing their roles and obligations in society
was also very important. Understanding that key lesson has
helped me to navigate social transitions, for example, from
male-dominated hierarchies to inclusive organizations that
could be led by a female or a male; regardless of age,
religion or race.
Canada has become a model for the world as a society
attempting to live this advanced approach and I’m glad I
learned my first lessons about that while growing up.
I have also come to terms with the abuses of social
stratification and paternalism. Ultimate human respect is
earned and is not given automatically.C.M. Snider and
Byron Schwartz did not abuse their positions of authority.
They treated my family with consideration. Because of
their examples I have never forgotten that without mutual,
human regard it is impossible for society to function as
ALBERT STRAUSS AND BILLIE
“Billie Strauss is going with his family to a big stadium in
Hamilton this weekend. It has to do with a special celebration
After sharing this with my dad I also told him that because
the Strauss family was Catholic, the priest in Elmira was
organizing a parish visit to celebrate the bodily assumption
into heaven of the Mother of God. The pope had declared this
miracle in 1952 and two years later Catholics from all over
the world were recognizing this special teaching in large
gatherings like the one in Hamilton.
I also mentioned to my father that some of the other boys
in our public school had teased Billie for “worshiping” Mary.
They called him a “Mick” and I knew that this had hurt him
My father cautioned me. “Don’t make fun of Billie because his
faith is different from ours. “We are mainly Protestants in
this German-Canadian village,” dad said.We are Mennonites,
Evangelical United Brethren (Methodists) and Lutherans,”
he continued, “but that doesn’t mean we have the right to
put down the few Catholics here. They are Christians too.
They just happen to practice their religion in a different
way from us.”
Mom and Theresa, Billie’s mother, were also friends and
enjoyed baking and icing wedding cakes together for many
satisfied customers in the region.
Albert was Billie’s father. He worked with my dad at the
mill and was in charge of both the declining flour operations
and the growing animal feed production there. ‘Bert and dad
got on well in spite of their different temperaments. Dad
was thoughtful while ‘Bert was emotional. Still, there was
rarely any controversy over religion among the mill staff
who were all Protestant except for that one RC in their midst.
This is not to say that people avoided discussing religion
at work. Indeed, the opposite was true. ‘Bert did his best
to explain that Mary was the Mother of God but that did not
mean she was as important as Jesus. Dad carried on lively
conversations with many Old Order Mennonites and a few
others who did business at the mill. The “Old Order”
(horse and buggy people) would discuss the importance
of living close to the land and their animals. They
treated both with great care.
C.M. Snider would often listen intently to these discussions
but only occasionally did he make a contribution. He tended
to keep his faith to himself. Mr. Snider went to First United,
Waterloo and served in a number of capacities there. I remember
that he once spoke of sitting on a church council where he had
to deal with a serious problem concerning a minister who was
charged with the sexual abuse of young boys.
My experience at the mill with those who managed, worked and
frequented the place taught me that it was possible to maintain
diverse religious beliefs and practices while focusing on the good
things we all held in common. That valuable lesson has served me
well over the years as I encountered people of other faith traditions,
My father’s advice to me about Billie Strauss and the way I
watched dad mix with ‘Bert and the others at the mill provided
a lifelong example.
I never thought I could learn much from Amsey Martin at the
time, but subsequent experience has shown that he taught me
much. That is to say, he helped me learn things to emulate
and to avoid.
Amsey was a “cross-over” person, of sorts. He made a decision
to leave the community that had formed him, but he never did
fully leave that community.
Amsey grew up among the “Old Order” people but he decided
during his early teen years that he wanted a car and liked
having a radio and a TV. Of course, those modern conveniences
were forbidden in his Mennonite church so he had to find
friends a lot like himself. These friends were usually
ex-Old Order Mennonites who had also chosen to live like
him. They were not, on the whole, bad people. They needed
to make adjustments; but their options were limited.
My dad had a maxim that applied to people like Amsey
(at least at that time in his life.)
Amsey was, in a true sense “too heavy for light work,
and too light for heavy work.” That meant he didn’t fit
easily into his old or his adopted life and found himself
quite out of place in both worlds.
To use my dad’s maxim to describe Amsey was to employ
typical Pennsylvania Dutch, self-effacing humor. It made
a point without being put-down or derogatory. Even the one
to whom it applied could laugh at himself, as Amsey
Still, over time, I sensed a sadness about Amsey. He knew
he was caught in a no man’s land and he didn’t know how to
get out of that bind.
It took a considerable amount of wisdom and intelligence to
achieve the transition that many young Mennonite men attempted
in those years. Only a few were able to complete the cultural
and educational metamorphosis that would help them to succeed
in the new “worldly” environment they sought. Most ended up
doing undemanding work - like bagging and loading sacks of
animal feed at the mill.
Amsey was strong and good-natured. I would assist him with
the bagging and loading and then deliver the product to many
farms in the region. It was good for me to discover from my
own experience that I did not want to do that kind of manual
labor for the rest of my life and that staying in school would be
a good thing.
In retrospect I recognize that, unlike me, Amsey may actually
have been quite content with his lot in life. He seemed to be
a mismatch in two worlds but did not know it. He may have
lacked the will to escape his dilemma if he thought he had one.
From my perspective, I found it hard to appreciate that he
remained stuck in the transition. I did not want that to happen
Over the years, Amsey and I lost track of each other. I hope
that, overall, his has been a happy life.
On a number of occasions I found myself in situations that
might rightly describe me as being “too heavy for light work
or too light for heavy work.”
Whenever that happened I subsequently recalled two important
lessons that were first learned from my experience with Amsey.
I would not be stuck forever in an unhappy situation.
Changing my life or at least the way I thought about it,
continuing my education, transferring and applying my skills
to another context -- these have proven to be the wiser way
There are always alternatives. Life need not be dead-ended
Some developments are merely a century or so ahead of their
time. To my mind, the diversion of water from the Conestogo
River dam several miles upstream from the St.Jacobs mill
was one of them.
For many years the water pressure created by this two-mile
channel or “race” running alongside but above the river
would help to turn a water wheel at the mill. Eventually,
this wheel activated an electric turbine that started the mill
motors. With a number of innovations through the years, the
company continued to profitably grind the grains and blend
other additives that produced its flour and animal feed.
At the tail end of the “race bank” and after the water
power had done its work, it would return to the river,
uncontaminated, from which it has been separated two
Dad and I spent a number of my teen-aged years tending
that “race bank.” Our family needed wood for the coal
furnace that heated our home in those days. Dad discovered
that he could reduce his coal bill by burning wood in our
furnace during the early autumn and late spring.
Mr. Snider suggested that he had a solution to our heating
needs that would in effect “kill two birds with one stone.”
If we kept the race bank relatively free of the dead wood
that accumulated from the trees growing there we could float
tree trunks and limbs, stripped of their unusable branches,
down the race to the mill. At the grid which stopped most
everything but the water that flowed through the mill, we
could collect the wood and saw it into logs that would be
delivered home by our car and later used in our furnace.
The race bank was kept clean and we had lower heating bills –
two challenges solved in one rather basic operation!
Some might argue that there must have been considerable
saving in such a project to make all that effort worthwhile.
We might have saved $100 a year (reflecting 1950s currency
values) on this annual project. But there were other side-
considerations which could be described as attractive quality
of life benefits.
My dad and I spent many hours working and talking together
while tending the race bank. I have often reflected on how
fortunate I was to experience such bonding times with my
father. We developed a friendship that lasted for 35 years
until his death in 1989. We were able to do hands-on work
as a team which benefited our family and the environment.
I was engaged, early in my life, with tasks related to the care
of the earth and of humanity too.
I think that many people in Canada today are becoming mindful
of the important integration of green, economic and human
Unfortunately, I couldn’t pass on to the next generation
similar “mill bank” experiences. I learned things naturally
then that my children are trying hard to recover now in their
Canada is a very different country today than it was fifty
years ago when I was growing up in St. Jacobs. Central
Canadians and all of us are discovering that there is an
East, West and North to our land that we did not realize
existed in those days. People from diverse backgrounds,
living in disparate regions of this nation, have begun
discovering the miracle that is Canada.
That miraculous discovery can take many forms but it has
to start somewhere. Here is how a new awareness began
Almost all the people I knew for the first eighteen years
of my life were of white European extraction. We might have
thought that in our community there were divisions between
Catholics, Lutherans and Mennonites, and our English, Irish
and Germanic ancestors. We were nonetheless making a
marvelous transition from “ethnic” to “mainstream” Canadian
We were building a new nation - the likes of which had
never existed before in human history.
Once I began attending university in Waterloo I started
meeting people of non-white, non-European and non-Christian
backgrounds. But some years earlier Mr. Snider introduced
us to this new and intriguing world.
He took my family for a night “on the town” to enjoy
mysterious oriental cuisine at the Ruby Foos Restaurant
in Toronto’s old China Town.
Mr. Snider had met our Chinese host through business
contacts he had made in Ontario’s capital. Other than that,
we knew little about him.
Those were days before it was commonly known that Canada
had imported thousands of Chinese “coolies” to build
railways across vast tracts of land and to blast tunnels
through great mountains so trains could run through them.
It is only in recent decades that Canadians have
recognized our sad human rights legacy reflected in
our treatment of Japanese, East Indian and the First Nations,
as well as others. In spite of many bad stories, good things
When Mr. Snider took us to dinner at his Chinese friend’s
establishment in what was then the heart of “Tory Toronto”
my family was enthralled. We marveled at the décor. We
luxuriated on the exotic cuisine. Here was another
dimension of Canada and of the world that we had not
known and I wanted more of it!
Ruby Foos was not your typical place for a St. Jacobs
family to eat. More than that, our family rarely frequented
restaurants because we could not afford to eat out. Mom
had raised us on some basic foods she had learned to create
from her Scots-Irish mother and the German family she joined
after marrying my father.
Little did I realize then that this nation was built by many
people who started life here with various handicaps but who
nevertheless went on to make Canada a better place in spite
of their beginnings.
I could not have known then that our Chinese host was
probably the son of one of those “coolies” whose family
struggled into restaurant or laundry work after the
railroad no longer wanted them. Many successful Chinese
businessmen like the owner of Ruby Foos had to face almost
insurmountable barriers to make it in what was then a
class-conscious Anglo-Saxon world. I think this restaurant
represented a bad story that turned into a good one.
Even though Mr. Snider probably just wanted to give our
family a good time and a different experience in the big
city, I know that experience helped to unlock for me
a new and exciting dream. I began to crave a wider world
Global, cross-cultural living became a standard part of
my life as a pastor and teacher. Beyond that, I have tried
to make Canada and my local community a better place
by learning about the history, the differences and of how
we can turn our liabilities into assets.
A first taste of cultural transformation occurred for me
when we visited Ruby Foos.
Thank you, Mr Snider for all you did for my family. Thanks for
helping to ground me in the particular culture that was St.
Jacobs and for the mill that provided us with the “living”
we needed to build a life. Thanks also, for helping me to
begin envisioning a different world than I had previously known.
I can’t imagine a better way to have begun.