Jeff Jardine: Modesto has no business pushing business into Wood Colony

jjardine@modbee.comJanuary 11, 2014 

If you ever had the opportunity to drive through Pennsylvania’s Amish country, you’d be absolutely mesmerized by the lush green landscape and the well-kept farms.

Dutch and Germans settled there in the 1720s, and some live no differently now than then: no electricity or running water. They use horse-drawn plows to disk their fields and plant their crops. They dress plainly, the men in black and white and the women in long dresses. They still rely on horses for transportation as well, traveling in buggies modernized only by bright-orange triangles that make them more visible to motorists.

Change is ever-present and closing in. The Amish have become tourist attractions and thus rely on tourism to pad their incomes. Up-the-dial cable shows feature young Amish who break away from the church, their families and homes, and try to adapt to mainstream society. Industry and urban growth constantly threaten their way of life.

What does this have to do with the Valley, and Modesto in particular? Modesto’s City Council wants to transform Wood Colony northwest of the city into an industrial area. That would suggest agriculture somehow is not an industry but instead a profitable hobby – that while some folks enjoy growing roses, others relax by pruning 2,000 walnut trees or baling hay.

What’s next? Convert the McHenry Mansion into a Starbucks drive-thru? On second thought, let’s not give the city any new ideas. Better yet, leave the old ones alone as well.

Granted, industrial development and the jobs politicians promise will take decades to materialize even if is approved by the Local Agency Formation Commission, which includes the county’s nine cities. And nobody can force Wood Colony farmers to sell their land, some council members contend. True. But all it takes is one sale – the first one – to trigger change that will alter the community and undermine a way of life.

Members of the German Baptist Brethren church began settling in Stanislaus County in the 1870s, bringing with them a faith and culture that, “Wood Colony District” author Lowell Beachler wrote, is frequently “compared to” or “confused with” that of the Amish and the more progressive Mennonites.

Indeed, several of the original Wood Colony families – the Wolfes, the Overholtzers, the Shelleys, the Garmans and the Teeters among them – came from areas of Pennsylvania including Lancaster County. They brought along a love for God, family and farming that has endured through the generations.

The church has experienced numerous shake-ups beginning with the Divide of 1881-84, when the Brethren nationwide split into three groups. Periodic church meetings led to other divisions, including one a couple of years ago that occurred because church members from the eastern United States opposed the freedom to use computers to help run the farms while the locals intended to use them, Wood Colony resident Jake Wenger explained. And yes, their descendants drive automobiles and run farm equipment. The colony now has people who belong to a variety of religious denominations, but two constants remain: agriculture and a deep sense of community.

Wood Colony, Beachler wrote, essentially came into being in 1902 when Albert Shoemake and Oramil McHenry bought 1,760 acres west of the Southern Pacific railroad tracks and north of Woodland Avenue to Beckwith Road. They named the area after Modesto resident Ebenezer Wood. They then subdivided the land into 20- and 30-acre parcels and began selling it, with German Baptists becoming their best customers. The Cover family planted the county’s first walnut orchard in 1906.

Similar communities existed along Prescott Road and in the John Muir area of what is now central Modesto. Both eventually became part of the city, and the farms were replaced by housing (including what became the infamous drug-riddled slum known as Freeway Village along Prescott Road), said Don Beachler, Lowell Beachler’s brother. They lived at times on farms in both areas before annexation.

There are other areas north of Modesto, including along Ladd Road, where those from the German Baptist culture still live and farm. But, Don Beachler said, “there’s no community feeling like the Wood Colony has.”

Previous attempts to impose on Wood Colony fizzled, including one in the early 1990s. A shopping center concept failed in part because the existing roads over Highway 99 – Briggsmore-Carpenter and Standiford-Beckwith – were deemed incapable of handling the increased traffic, and also because the economy wouldn’t support it at the time.

Those roads still won’t support the kind of truck traffic that industrial uses would bring, meaning the truckers would instead beat up existing and worn country roads such as Shoemake and Beckwith to eventually connect with Highway 132 and Interstate 5.

In the 1990s, some members of the church told a Modesto Bee reporter they would rather move, possibly to Washington, than fight development. The heritage, Lowell Beachler wrote, prohibits them from participating “in war or the shedding of the blood, or to take an oath with the uplifted hand, or in going to law for profit or revenge, thinking all differences should be settled by arbitration.”

They neither vote nor serve on juries, but do pray for government leaders and pay their taxes.

Perhaps such pacifism led city officials to believe they could draft the colony without resistance this time, too. They were wrong, as recent meetings at Hart-Ransom School and in the council chamber suggest. The Wood Colony folks are entrenched in their heritage, their community and the mind-set their kinfolk brought with them more than a century ago from Pennsylvania and other points east.

Leave them be.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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