Mennonite Farm Life on Display

by John Ruth, with Joel Alderfer, for the Mennonite Heritage Center

 America’s love affair with 35mm. slide transparencies ran from the late 1940s into the 1970s.  Fortunate indeed are those stuck to Kodachrome – whose authentic colors have not been diminished by half a century of casual storage.  Over a quarter-century span, countless family gatherings were transfixed and bored by the marvel of colored photographs glowing on a screen.  Returnees from trips proudly proved that they had been to the Grand Canyon, stood under the redwoods, or strolled Florida beaches in winter.  In comparison, there were fewer family scenes, and many of them were posed portraits. 

John & Lizzie Bean Guntz,- 1954

By the end of the 20th century, the endless travel pictures had become hopelessly dull and irrelevant to many, while the occasional shot of local, daily work and play were accruing a growing fascination. Ironically, many families of affluence have little to show of the domestic habits of their grand-parents. Not so with the family of John and Lizzie Bean Guntz, farmers near Royersford in western Montgomery County, and parents of a daughter Anna Elizabeth, born in 1913.

The Guntz farm, where Anna lived for most of her life, had belonged to her parents and her grandparents before that. They were a conservative Mennonite farming family, members of the Vincent congregation based across the Schuylkill River in Chester County.  Anna found employment doing housekeeping in the Collegeville area, including for several upper-class families in town, where she was loyal and much appreciated. 

Guntz cousins – 1953

In the early 1950s, Anna bought an Argus C3 camera and began taking pictures on slides. What she lovingly recorded was the unfolding, trans-generational life of her extended family, transpiring simply around her on the home farm where she lived with her parents.  With no photographic training or strategy, this self-effacing and sensitive woman with no children of her own poured the love of an aunt into what grew into the most endearing visual record we have of Mennonite family life in her community and time.

John & Lizzie Bean Guntz,- 1953

A poignant aspect of Anna’s bounty of slides is in their coming to us from when one had to buy film and pay for its developing from modest wages.  Instead of taking 40 digital shots and discarding 39, as is common today, in 1952 one might frugally allow oneself one or two exposures, with the hope, while waiting for the film to be processed and mailed back, that the subjects had not blinked.  It is remarkable, then, that of the several thousand slides Anna has left, over three hundred remain as iconic of the context of her life.

Picking bluebells

Asked how she had learned composition, Anna seemed indignant.  Composition?  What is that?  “Why, these were my nieces and nephews!”  She leaves with us a celebration of life in a setting now almost strangely superseded, but intimately, even lyrically, made available to viewers through her loving lens.

A photo exhibit of selections from the color slides of Anna B. Guntz, as well as family farm artifacts, are on display at the Mennonite Heritage Center until June 15, 2019 (click for more info).

(Some of the items on display – click for larger versions)