Category Archives: rural life

Putting lifelong learning into practice

Old Order Mennonites, Shenandoah Valley

Sunday morning at Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite Church.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Exploring has always been in my blood. Curiosity has coursed through my veins all of my life.

The move from Ohio to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley merely whetted my appetite to become familiar with my new surroundings. A myriad of opportunities abound, either spontaneously or scheduled, to explore this beautiful, historic setting.

The view from Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite Church.

Many of my junkets have been self-started. A lazy afternoon’s drive around the rolling, scenic countryside brings new people and places into my life. The Shenandoah Valley region is rich in history, a personal favorite subject. I needed more.

I joined scores of other retirees who were also eager to still learn a few things in life. James Madison University, located in Harrisonburg, offers a Lifelong Learning Institute to that end.

I just completed my second class, an overview of Mennonites in the valley.
Phil Kniss, the pastor of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, taught the class. He is an astute student of Mennonite history, so I knew I’d learn a lot.

The first session served as a historical survey of Mennonites, tracing their beginnings to the 16th century Reformation. Because of their steadfast beliefs, many Mennonites endured persecution to the point of martyrdom.

Consequently, many moved from their European homelands to the New World, where they hoped for a new chance to live peaceably. Unfortunately, conflicts followed them right into the 18th century as they settled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. They tried to live in peace farming the fertile soil, but war found them again.

Armed with that information, class field trips sent us into the lives and history of the many sects of Mennonites in the valley. A small choir enthralled us with their magnificent singing at the local Mennonite high school that is celebrating its 100th year.

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At the Old Order Mennonite elementary school, I flashed back to former Ohio days of living among the Amish with their own private schools. The horse and buggy Old Order Mennonites are spiritual cousins to the Amish.

At the unassuming Old Order Mennonite church, a devoted preacher succinctly explained the scriptural basis for their simple way of living. Like all other Old Order men, he was clean-shaven but spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, an anomaly among his people.

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At the buggy shop, we laughed and learned through the wisdom of the father-son combo that so efficiently ran the business so necessary to the Old Order way of life. The elder’s humor kept us on our toes.

In an Old Order Mennonite home, we gave thanks and feasted on a scrumptious home-cooked meal. The sparkle in our host’s eyes twinkled her delight in our contentment.

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At Bank Mennonite Church, we learned of an orchestrated church split with genuine intent to agreeably disagree on specific theological applications while continuing a parallel spiritual path. Congregates dressed and lived like Conservative Mennonites in Holmes County, Ohio with a notable exception. Again, the men had no beards.

At the final class at Crossroads Heritage Center, we explored a type of living museum. Guides explained pioneer life as we wound through original, relocated old houses and various other buildings.

It was a fitting location for the last class. From high on a hill, the valley played out below us. The city bustled beneath the hot morning sunshine. Yet, the farmland’s still earthy springtime fragrances enveloped us.

From that vantage point, I imagined the struggles, the heartache, the determination and the desire to live their lives in community together through productivity, and finding peace and satisfaction in weaving their daily lives together.

Strangely and marvelously, I felt right at home.

View of the valley from the garden at Crossroads.

© Bruce Stambaugh

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Filed under Amish, architectural photography, column, family, history, human interest, nature photography, Ohio, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, travel, Virginia, writing

Beautiful bird, beautiful song

Dickcissel, Shenandoah Valley
When a friend posted on social media audio of Dickcissels singing at dusk, I wanted to see the birds. Dickcissels are rare here, according to birding records and range maps. Dickcissels are listed as scarce for Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley breeding maps.

With my morning and early afternoon tightly scheduled, I knew I had a small window of opportunity to find this beautiful bird with an even more beautiful song. Severe storms were forecast for the area for the early evening. I headed north 10 miles as soon as I could. When I reached the intersection where the birds’ song had been recorded, I immediately heard them upon exiting my vehicle. Finding them was a different story.

I had seen my first Dickcissels in similar habitat in Ohio. Unfortunately, they are drawn to alfalfa fields dotted with weeds like ironweed that grow taller than the legume the farmer planted. Sure enough, using my binoculars, that’s where I spotted the first male Dickcissel. I felt pressured to photograph the birds. Thunder rumbled in the distance near the Allegheny Mountains 20 miles west.

To my surprise, a Dickcissel rose out of the thick foliage and flew directly towards me, landing on a tree branch right above my head. As I raised my camera to capture the bird up close, it took flight and perched on an ironweed plant nearly a football field away. I clicked away anyhow.

I scanned the field in the direction of other Dickcissels that I heard. I found a pair about 50 yards south of my location. Just as I started to walk south, a male and female flew to the woven-wire fence that surrounded the hayfield.

I immediately stopped and found a place to brace myself to steady the camera. Even before I could get off my first shot, the female flew, leaving the male to sit along, singing eloquently. I clicked away hoping for some decent results. A light rain had already started obscuring the sun, which gave me less light to work with.

Finally, when a car approached from the south, the beautiful bird flew in the direction of its mate. I headed for the car, happy to have witnessed both the bird and its enchanting song.

“Beautiful bird, beautiful song” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under birding, birds, human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, weather, writing

Singing in the sunset

Shenandoah Valley, sunset

Singing in the sunset.


One of the joys about being in the out-of-doors is experiencing the unexpected. Nature’s ways never cease to pleasantly surprise me.

Such was the case recently when I went out to photograph the sunset. Doing so is always an adventure. You never know what the results will be. When I arrived at my chosen destination not far from our home near Harrisonburg, Virginia, I had a feeling my quest would be disappointing. I was wrong, not in the sunset so much as the aura of the setting.

I parked at the entrance of a nearby farm that doubles as an event center. I could see a thick bank of clouds hovering over the Allegheny Mountains 20 miles to the west. Usually, that means that the sun’s rays will be blocked from reflecting off of the congregation of cumulus clouds hanging in the evening sky. But I’ve learned that when it comes to sunsets, patience is a valuable virtue.

So while I waited, I watched the steers grazing in the sweeping, limestone-studded pasture. Other than the lone bull, they paid me little heed.

Soon, my attention was diverted to another source. An Eastern Meadowlark was belting out its evening song. At first, I had a hard time locating the bird. Just as the sunset reached its color peak, I spotted the bird high atop a deciduous tree whose leaves were in their infancy of unfurling. The song mesmerized me. It was as if the bird were serenading the setting sun. I have included a link to give you an idea of what I heard here.

If you can’t spot the Eastern Meadowlark, please click on the photo to enlarge it. Look for the bird center-right at the very top of the tree.

“Singing in the Sunset” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under birding, birds, human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Quilts: Works of art that tell stories

Virginia Quilt Museum

A wall of quilts.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Being career educators, my wife and I both enjoy new learning opportunities. In the year we have been residents of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, we have only put a dent in the many educational experiences that are available in the area.

Often times our discoveries are more by circumstance than planning. That makes it all the more fun and exciting.

We often seek out activities and places that pique the interests of friends and family that have come to visit. They frequently match those of our own.

Historic downtown Harrisonburg holds plenty of intriguing places to visit. The Virginia Quilt Museum is just one of them.

Located in an old but well-maintained mansion, the museum has rotating exhibits. When we recently visited there with friends, beautiful old and new quilts were on display.

The multiple galleries in the museum displayed quilts from both noted artists and early Virginia settlers. History, beauty, and even heartache awaited us on three different levels and around every corner of the museum. Each quilt told an aspect of a life we could only imagine.

Please click on the photos to enlarge them.

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The quilters’ masterful workmanship and use of vibrant colors more than captivated us. They helped us understand cultures and lifestyles we never could have experienced. I was simultaneously intrigued and awestruck at the skill, the people, and the story each quilt whispered and sometimes shouted.

Using fabric and thread, the artists stitched together tales of the strength of families and community. The use of textiles in many of the quilts represented the importance of fabric in both ancient and current African cultures.

Many quilts glowed both intimacy and joy while others were more subdued, accented with rich browns and smooth cream colors that automatically captivated viewers. You couldn’t help but admire the craftsmanship and splendor.

The exhibits represented five different presentations, three from Africa and two from Virginia. The quilts were a mix of old and new, telling historical and contemporary stories in various patterns, vivid colors, and an assortment of textures.

Nelson Mandela.

This unexpected but pleasant surprise was as much a lesson in humanity as it was quilting. One quilter spent a dozen years in several villages in West Africa living with the peoples of the land, observing, studying, living in their culture and participating in their daily activities. Her quilts vividly shared snippets of valued community life.

The older quilts were just as moving, knowing that enslaved women pieced together textiles out of necessity and for practical purposes. The women applied the skills they brought with them from their mother countries. They used their knowledge of piecing, embroidery, applique, and weaving.

Other quilts displayed were from early pioneers who settled in the Shenandoah Valley decades ago. Some of those family names continue in the valley today.

Whether from Africa or Virginia, each represented a window into a new world for me, one of courage and devotion to family, appreciation for their lives and setting in which they lived and live. Artistic creativity expressed joy and perseverance, a turbulent history, and determined survival.

Through these magnificent works, we learned that art, beauty, history, purpose, medium, skill, and storytelling transcend culture, language, location, and race. This exhibit was more than a quilt display. It was a needed and thoughtful spotlight on the human condition.

Quilts reveal colors, fabric, delicate hand stitching, creativity, and craftsmanship. They also can tell compelling stories as well. These particular quilts indeed were tales in tapestry.

Virginia Quilt Museum

Quilts replicating African life.

Photos used by permission of the artists.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under column, history, human interest, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, writing

The sounds of Virginia are similarly pleasing as those of Ohio

Old Order Mennonites, Rockingham Co. VA

Old Order Mennonite horses and buggies.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My Virginia office where I write is similar to my former Ohio office. Both were converted bedrooms right across the hall from our master bedroom. Just like Ohio, my desk is right in front of a big window where I can look out onto and into the world for inspiration.

Being an easily distracted person, I actually enjoy being diverted from my writing by life’s everyday interactions that I see. I find the digressions to be intriguing rather than agitating.

Coopers Hawk, Holmes Co. OH

Right outside my Ohio office.

Life’s noises, of course, filtered in, too. Contrary to what you might think, sounds stirred me as well.

The resonances I hear always have, do and will captivate me. Similarities abound between the Virginia and Ohio settings.

In Ohio, I loved the soothing sound of horseshoes clopping along against the hard macadam of County Road 201. On unusually quiet, warm days with the windows flung open, I could hear the rhythmical clack, clack, clack of the buggy horse’s cadence coming from a quarter mile away or more.

My wife and I both recognized how fortunate we were to hear that sound so regularly. Often we heard families talking or singing or sometimes occasional boom boxes blaring. Teenagers will be teenagers no matter their culture.

I miss that element of living among the Amish. Though Old Order Mennonite farms are close by our Virginia home, I’ve never seen or heard one of their buggies on our suburban neighborhood street.

Transport for Christ parade

Semis rumble down CR 201.

I always said that our Ohio home was built on the Berlin-Wooster expressway. County Road 201 served as the chief artery between those two locales. It made easy access to both places, especially for semi-trucks. That was one sound I despised.

I loathed their use of jake brakes heading north down Number 10 hill, a ski slope-like descent. The obnoxious clatter frightened birds, bikers, and four-legged animals and woke me up, often at 3 a.m.

We don’t have that problem now. Every now and then a large delivery truck cruises past the house. It’s the exception, not the rule. Most passers-by are bikers, walkers, and leashed canines.

A mechanical sound I did enjoy during Ohio winters was the county snowplows clearing the road of the latest snowfall. They always did a marvelous job. One year they knocked down our mailbox three times in the space of two weeks.

snowplow, Virginia

VA snowplow.

In Virginia, it doesn’t snow enough for the state to invest in snowplow equipment for secondary highways. Instead, they contract local farmers to clear the roads with big plows on large tractors. If I hadn’t been out shoveling myself, I would have never heard them. The snow seemed to muffle their diesel engines.

Sounds that reach my office aren’t always external. In Virginia, I can easily hear the washing machine thumping and the clothes dryer spinning, buttons and zippers clinking against the tumbling metal drum even though the laundry room is at the opposite end of our ranch home. Remembering to go empty the machines is another story altogether.

Our Ohio home was a bi-level. My office was upstairs, the washer and dryer were downstairs. I seldom heard the cycle-completed buzzers. At least that was my excuse.

I still hear children playing, dogs barking, birds singing, jets sailing overhead, sirens whaling in the distance. Those are universal sounds that are part of the human condition.

It’s been a year since we moved to Virginia. The similar reassuring sounds of life in the Commonwealth mimic those of the Buckeye State. Those are sounds I can live with anywhere.

Hose Co. #4, Rockingham Co. VA

Even Santa and Mrs. Claus rolled by our Virginia home.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Cootes Store

old general store, Rockingham Co. VA

Cootes Store.

It’s been nearly a year now that my wife and I moved from Holmes Co., Ohio to Virginia’s Rockingham Co. One way I’m learning about the area, its people, its topography, its history, its culture, is just by driving around. Of course, I usually have my camera with me to document what I see and find.

Before we moved from Ohio, we would pass through a small burg named Cootes Store on our way to visit our daughter and her family in Harrisonburg. It was hardly more than a crossroads in the northwestern part of the county. I found the name intriguing and just assumed that once upon a time a real “Cootes Store” must have existed there.

On one of my discovery runs, I found Cootes Store. Its personality jumped out at me through all of the old, eclectic merchandise visible inside and out. This likely isn’t the original building, but it is all that remains of what once must have been a thriving business to have a town named for it.

You can read more about the history of Cootes Store here. “Cootes Store” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under architectural photography, history, human interest, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, travel, Virginia

Finding happiness where least expected

backyard birds, Harrisonburg VA

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Male House Finch.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I had high hopes for attracting backyard birds to our Virginia home. I hung feeders from the two maple trees on our property almost as soon as the movers had unloaded our household goods from the moving trucks nearly a year ago.

Well, maybe it wasn’t that quick, but still, the feeders went up, one in the front yard and one in the back. I also erected a jelly feeder for the Baltimore Orioles and a sugar water feeder for the ruby-throated hummingbirds.

I was excited about starting our retirement years anew in Virginia. The grandkids were paramount in deciding to relocate. Birding came a little farther down the priority list.

Still, I wanted to see just what birds I would attract. To my surprise, it didn’t take very long for some prized yard birds to appear. Northern cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, American goldfinches and other species found the feeders right away. Tufted titmice, and black-capped and Carolina chickadees made occasional appearances, too. I was ecstatic.

Ohio backyard birds.

The results nevertheless were mixed. The numbers and species, however, were much fewer than what I had seen in Ohio. Back in the Buckeye State, orioles gulped grape jelly by the jarful. Hummingbirds zipped to my feeder by the kitchen window. At least seven woodpecker species visited my feeders, including pileated woodpeckers that brought their young to gorge on peanut butter suet.

Songbirds were abundant and frequent visitors, too. Showy white-crowned sparrows were favorites. I especially enjoyed the eastern bluebirds. They brightened any dull Ohio day with both their brilliant springtime feathers and their sweet lullaby calls.

In Virginia, daily drama cropped up around the bird feeders. Large, bossy, and noisy common grackles consistently scared the more desirable species away. They also drained the feeders once they brought their young. In addition, scores of squirrels munched their way through the feed they could reach. The more sought-after birds didn’t have a chance, so I took the feeders down for the summer. In Ohio, I fed the birds year-round.

I rehung the feeders in the fall. With the pest birds elsewhere, the better backyard birds returned. I was happy for that, and even more pleased when the dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows arrived for the winter.

Virginia backyard birds.

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It’s not that I expected Virginia to be Ohio. They were two different locales with entirely different habitats altogether. For bird watching, habitat is crucial.

We no longer lived in a rural flyway like we did in Ohio. The habitat of our suburban neighborhood in no way remotely resembles the bird-inviting one we had in Ohio. It is also wholly unfair to compare one year in Virginia to a lifetime of appreciating Ohio birds.

I photographed all the various birds I saw in Ohio. I have hundreds, perhaps thousands of digital shots. Reviewing them revives fond memories for me. But as much as I would like to, I can’t linger there.

Now, I take pleasure in the natural springtime wakeup calls of the white-throated sparrows, song sparrows, and cardinals. I pay more attention to the gregarious American robins that I once took for granted. I chuckle at the effervescent northern mockingbirds that frequent our neighborhood.

I miss those Ohio birds to be sure. However, the recent appearance of a migrating pine siskin sparked an epiphany.

That little bird brought home a valuable life lesson for me that is apropos far beyond the birding world. Be happy with what you have.

Harrisonburg VA

Where I feed the backyard birds.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under birding, birds, column, human interest, nature photography, Ohio, Ohio's Amish country, photography, rural life, Virginia, writing

Give thanks for springtime

Amish farm, sheep, green fields

Springtime in Ohio’s Amish country.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Spring! It’s a word that rolls off our tongues with joy and passion. I give thanks for this vibrant, vernal season, especially after the long, cold winter too many of us had to endure.

This past winter surely tested our patience. But patient we must be. As much as we welcome springtime into our lives, she, too, can be fickle and bring mixed messages. Much like fall, springtime weather can embody all four seasons. Still, let’s give thanks for springtime.

I realize that in our North American society, Thanksgiving is reserved for the fall. Canadians annually celebrate their Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October. U.S. citizens wait until the fourth Thursday in November.

The Thanksgiving holidays acknowledge all that we have. The reflective focus is on the harvest, glad to have reaped the benefits of all the hard labor used to produce the yield. But we also need to be thankful for the spring. There are no apples without the blossoms and the pollinators.

I’m grateful for springtime even though some years, like this year, she takes her good old time making her presence known. Still, I say, let’s all express our thanks for spring’s debut.

Spring’s arrival creates a variety of reasons to rejoice often based on where you live and what activities ensue. Much action has an agricultural bent. Suburbanites will gas up their lawn mowers for the first of many rounds around the yard. City dwellers will pot tomatoes, peppers, and petunias to baby on their balconies.

More ambitious gardeners with sufficient plots of land will plant their seeds and seedlings, always keeping a wary eye on any frosty forecast. Flowerbeds will be mulched, windows washed, and if time allows, neighborly visits will resume right where they left off last fall.

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Songbirds fill the twilight with concertos. Dormant lawns, long browned from winter’s sting, green up from an overnight shower. Azaleas, daffodils, dogwoods, redbuds, and forsythia brighten the awakening landscape. Shouts of children riding bicycles or skateboards echo through neighborhoods regardless of setting.

For all of this, I am thankful. Why not? It is the season of renewal, and after the winter that wouldn’t end we all need a breath of fresh air, we all need to inhale those sweet fragrances, we all need to enjoy each moment as the bees, birds, and butterflies reappear.

No matter how long spring takes to settle in to fit our particular comfort level, we should be most thankful that the season of hope and renewal is upon us. In keeping with that regeneration, it’s good to express our thanks to others each and every opportunity we can. Share your joy with others the way a mother robin cares for its young. Spouse, plumber, daughter, son, grandkids, stranger, receptionist, parents, waitress, checkout person, or whomever you meet will do.

Life is in a constant state of change. Spring is that reminder to us to embrace not just the new season, but life itself. The message of the purple crocuses is to put away your fears. Spring is here. Life is good.

Without the season of renewal, there can be no harvest. At this sacred time of year, let our thankfulness replicate our gratitude for life itself, the life we have lived, are living, and the experiences yet to come.

I’m thankful for spring’s freshness, its vibrancy, virility, brightness, and renewed blessings. Life’s eternal cycle of renewal has returned once again. Let’s rejoice and be glad in it!

blooming crocuses

Rejoicing in the sun.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Good Friday Church

Good Friday, Amish, Amish church

Good Friday Church.

My wife and I had the privilege of living among the largest Amish population in the world for most of our adult lives in Holmes Co., Ohio. Scenes like this one were common. The Amish take their religious holidays seriously. Good Friday is one of the most solemn for them. They gather for church, often holding communion that would include foot-washing.

Amish churches are divided by districts and size. Since the Amish meet in homes or barns for their church services, the congregational size is usually kept at a manageable size for the hosting families. That is, each church group is about 100 to 120 people, including children.

Since the Amish rely on horse and buggy for their chief means of transportation, the distance to church is also an important consideration in forming each church district. As the buggies arrive at the home where the church is being held, Amish men will park the buggies, unhitch the horses, and put them in a pasture or barn depending on the weather. The service usually begins at 9 and lasts until 11:30 with a light lunch that follows.

“Good Friday Church” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Snow on the Mountains

Allegheny Mountains, snowstorm, Gap WV

Snow on the Mountains.

Nature ushered in springtime with a significant snowstorm in the eastern part of the United States. We received at least seven inches of heavy, wet snow in Rockingham Co in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Though I would have preferred a warmer welcome to spring, the storm beautifully blanketed the landscape far and wide.

In this photo, the tree-studded Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia show the stunning results of a substantial March snowstorm.

“Snow on the Mountains” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under human interest, nature photography, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, travel, Virginia, weather