BROWNFIELD, Maine — There are several things this town in the foothills of western Maine is known for.
One is the Great Brownfield Fire of October 1947 that destroyed much of the town.
Another is Carol Noonan and Jeff Flagg’s Stone Mountain Arts Center, which since 2005 has presented nationally renowned musical acts in a remote setting that first-timers have a hard time finding (and even a harder time believing that a performing art center could possibly be located that far out in the boonies — but after their first visit, like the performers, they become believers).
Then there’s Vinnie’s Sunflower Farm Pizza, which was absent from the Fryeburg Fair last year due to COVID-related labor issues, but word has it he will be back this year.
The fourth: Brownfield was the home from World War II on of television inventor Philo Farnsworth (1906-71).
A final reason to have some curiosity about this bucolic town — reached by taking Route 5 from Fryeburg — is the Mennonite community of 25 families that is thriving here. All told, there’s a total population of 135 people, including children.
No, you won’t see members of the community driving buggies Amish-style. Unlike the Amish, they do embrace technology to some extent — using flip phones and driving motor vehicles. But like the Amish, they are religiously and socially conservative. And like the Amish they stand out for their attire (well, at least the women do). Women can be seen wearing small caps of a sheer white fabric and full-length print cotton dresses. They wear no makeup or jewelry.
Men dress in unflashy tones during the week, but as this reporter discovered when he was welcomed to a Sunday morning service last weekend at the Shepherd’s River Mennonite Church in Brownfield, they wear white long-sleeved dress shirts and black pants to services. Girls and boys follow their parents’ lead in matters of dress.
At the church service, men and boys sat on the left side of the white-walled church and the women and girls on the right.
When a church hymn was called for, hearing their voices lift was moving. “The voices and harmonies were incredible,” I told my church row neighbor, Matt Cormier of Porter, after the service.
“We all grow up knowing the hymns,” he explained.
The sermon stressed service to God through service to others, following the example of Jesus Christ as told in the Bible, and of “not just seeing the cross, but carrying the cross.” Yet unlike in a Catholic church, I did not see any crosses on display, nor any liturgical statuary.
“No, we go for modesty,” I think is how Cormier, who is a carpenter, explained it to me.
During the two-hour service, the windows were wide open, allowing the summer mountain breezes to blow freely into the sanctuary.
Younger boys — some barefoot — sat on their fathers’ laps, and young girls did the same with their mothers.
At one point during the service, the children left the room to allow for an extended adult give-and-take discussion of the day’s teaching. Only the men engaged in the dialogue with the pastor. (I was later told that’s generally the case; the women don’t normally engage in the discussion.)
After a time, the children returned to join the adults and the service continued.
Speakers included Pastor Clarence Martin, Pastor Marvin Zimmerna, Deacon Jon Siegrist and guest speaker Dwight Nolt from Pennsylvania.
One of the speakers spoke about a trip the day before when about 30 people took a bus with fellow Mennonites from Pennsylvania to Congress Street in Portland, Maine, where they “brought the church to the streets,” as one church member described it to me, for a “street meeting.”
The speaker said one man asked if they were a cult, and he said no, they were Mennonites, conservative members of the Anabaptist movement of the Protestant reformation that traces its roots to the 1500s. “Then he asked if we were for Trump, and I said no, we are apolitical,” said the speaker, adding that Mennonites don’t vote.
I later asked Cormier if I had heard that “not voting” correctly, and he affirmed that indeed I had.
When pressed for an explanation, Cormier said thaMennonites believe God puts leaders in power — all leaders, whether they are good or bad, and takes them down for their day of reckoning, whether in this world or the hereafter.
So, Cormier said, the role of Mennonites is to be non-voting “soldiers of prayer.” He added that they do not fight as they are missionaries for peace.
That did not surprise me, because I had read up about the troubles that peace-loving Mennonites encountered over the centuries, including during the Civil War and World War I, before the government finally came to recognize them as conscientious objectors during World War II.
Cormier also explained that members do not use alcohol, tobacco or drugs. Members marry within the sect. Technology has a practical use, not for social media.
“We are in this world, but not of this world,” is how Deacon Siegrist later explained.
I had initially reached out to Siegrist — who is owner/operator of the Brownfield Country Market — about doing a story on the Brownfield Mennonites, and after some discussion, he cautiously agreed.
He invited me to the Sunday morning service, which is always open to the public (the sign outside the Shepherds River Mennonite Church of Brownfield, which was built in 2012, says, “Everyone Welcome”).
I can say that the setting provided tranquil solace.
I am not saying I am ready to become a Mennonite, but as is the case with all religions, they believe in the Golden Rule that offers the same lesson for all of us: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, so I could relate.
Afterwards, Siegrist invited me to the fellowship meal — it is served once a month downstairs at the church, so I picked the right service to come to. I was made to feel at home at the potluck dinner, and over peas, noodles and beans, I politely pressed with further questions about how the community came to be.
Siegrist said church member Barbara Fenton of Brownfield first contacted the Mennonites in Pennsylvania in 2004 about starting a community in Brownfield. She is still part of the church, telling me at the fellowship dinner that she was drawn to the church because she wanted a “more narrow connection to God.”
“There were about six families that were asked to move to this community by the church after being contacted by Barbara,” said Siegrist.
“It is sort of our church model — you look for areas to expand into. So you look for interest, and Barbara had contacted the church,” he said.
“This started 14 years ago as a small mission church,” said Siegrist, who said the Brownfield community has been welcoming to the Mennonites.
“We feel very blessed by that,” he shared.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Siegrist and his wife Danette and their three sons and their families came to Brownfield in 2009 from Georgia, where he and Danette — who is from Georgia — had done outreach work for the Mennonite community there for 12 years.
He said some members of the Brownfield community came from Pennsylvania; others from Maine. They work in a variety of professions, from mechanics to carpenters to store owners and more.
In 2010, the Siegrists founded their Brownfield Country Market, the tremendously popular grocery store located on Route 5 that is renowned for its fresh produce.
Although everyone who works at the market is a Mennonite, Siegrist underscored it is not a church-affiliated business and that it’s owned and run by his family.
It’s the same for other local Mennonite businesses, including Laurie and Karl Rau’s Good Bread Bakery and Joy Weaver’s Joy’s Kitchen jams, jellies and pickles business, both of which sell their products at the Brownfield Country Market as well as, on Tuesday evenings from 4-7 p.m. in the summer, at the North Conway Farmer’s Market at the North Conway Community Center.
“I make my items in my home kitchen,” Weaver — now of Fryeburg, Maine, but originally from Pennsylvania — told me at this week’s farmers market in North Conway.
“I also teach at the Mennonite school (for grades 1-10 — children receive the equivalent of 12 years of public school education, according to Siegrist) in a wing downstairs at the church. This is a way to supplement my teacher’s income,” Weaver said.
Rau hails from western Massachusetts and was raised as a Lutheran. He moved to Brownfield with Laurie from Newport, Maine, to be part of the Mennonite community and to launch their bakery.
Last Saturday morning, Sun photographer Rachel Sharples and I rendezvoused with Siegrist at the Brownfield Country Market and followed him east on Route 5 to the intersection with Route 160, where we turned north for a short drive to his cornfield, where 7 acres are devoted to six successive plantings every summer of the tasty Anthem variety.
Next-door is a new market building under construction that will total 17,000 square feet when it opens next spring. It will not only feature 7,000 more square feet of space, it also will have more parking, which is an issue at the current store.
“We can’t build into the hill, so we are expanding here,” said Siegrist, as he walked up the farm field path. The 15-acre cornfield was purchased anfive years ago by the Siegrists. It’s fertile farmland, located alongside the Saco River.
There we met up with his and Danette’s three sons, Keith, 26, who works in the market; Joshua, 24, who is the farm manager; and Derrick, 18, who works in the fields (they also have daughters Kayla, 22, who is a teacher at a Mennonite missionary station in the Bahamas, and Sherri, 14).
As we walked along, the morning sun was burning off the fog at that point, and it looked like something out of the movie “Field of Dreams,” as the equally modest Siegrist brothers appeared out of the dissipating fog and sunlight in the field of corn to extend their hands to say hello.
“I have to tell you that they like this publicity stuff about as much as I do — my sons and I aren’t the type that gets excited about media,” shared Siegrist, as we shook hands with the sons.
Siegrist opened the husks of a few ears of corn the sons had collected as they do every morning (except Sunday) to the beautiful yellow-blonde kernels.
After bidding adieu to the sons, we headed back to the market, where business was already picking up as the time neared 10 a.m.
“The corn goes right from the field to the market every day we’re open,” said Siegrist, careful to underscore that whatever success his family has achieved over the past dozen years at their market is God’s will.
“We have been very blessed beyond what we deserve,” said Siegrist, as customers continued to stream into the store to fill their carts with corn and other produce as well as non-crop products that the market imports from markdown sources, allowing for low prices on those products.
“We marked our 12th anniversary July 1, and we have grown every year. We have a loyal customer base, and we are grateful. All the good things that go on here we give God the credit,” Siegrist said.
And just how good were the six ears of corn once we got home to boil them?
In a word: heavenly.
For more about the Good Shepherd’s Mennonite Church, call (207) 935-1520. For further information about the market, call (207) 935-6071.