POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 15, 2014
MODESTO, Calif. » Farmers and other residents of the rural district known as Wood Colony refer to the 110-year-old arboreal landmark in their midst — a gigantic walnut tree of Grimm's fairy-tale proportions — as simply, the Tree. To many people in this unincorporated community, settled more than a century ago by a religious group called the Old German Baptist Brethren, the mighty tree is a kind of tabernacle, a living testament to the district's deep roots, fertile soil and unshakable resolve.
The colony, just under a two-hour drive from San Francisco, is little known to outsiders, which is just the way residents like it. Many of the Brethren, a plain Anabaptist group somewhat akin to the Amish and Mennonites, are fourth- and fifth-generation farmers who tend an unspoiled landscape of bee boxes and walnut and almond orchards.
But a recent skirmish with the city of Modesto over plans to bring about 1,800 acres of Wood Colony under city jurisdiction, which many residents regard as a blueprint for development, has forced this reticent community into the public eye. In a place where "Oh, gracious!" is a common expletive, "Pray for Rain" signs along the district's two-lane byways have been joined by ones urging citizens to "Keep Wood Colony Green" and "Save Wood Colony: Almonds, Not Asphalt."
"My granddaughter still lives in the ranch purchased by my great-grandfather," said Alan Cover, an almond and walnut farmer who also raises prized lambs. "That's a thread that runs through this community."
The city's Chamber of Commerce, supported by the mayor and other elected officials, says that some sort of "pathway to prosperity" is needed to expand the tax base and address chronic unemployment, which hovers around 13 percent, twice the national average. The updated plan calls for bringing part of Wood Colony into the city's sphere of influence, making future annexation possible and transforming a nearby road into a four-lane highway with overpasses to help lure industrial, office and business park development.
But for many residents of the district — which covers roughly 3 to 4 square miles, depending on who is counting — the political and geographic boundary between Wood Colony and the city is sacrosanct. While more accepting of modern technology than the Amish, the Old German Baptist Brethren, who make up about one-third of the district's 1,000 or so residents, live a life atypical for California, where families remaining in one place for generations are a rarity.
From his classroom window at the Brethren Heritage School, Lloyd Wagner, a 51-year-old social studies and English teacher, can see the cemetery where his baby daughter, his brother who died at birth, his grandparents and most of his great-grandparents are buried.
Fourteen years ago, Wagner was diagnosed with Guillain-Barri syndrome, which left him paralyzed; he has since recovered use of his hands and arms. In the hospital, he said, he had a lot of time to contemplate life.
"I was thinking about how many people within a 5-mile radius would probably drop everything to help," he recalled. "I came up with about 200 names."
Many Brethren, including Wagner, wear traditional dress. Bonneted women stitch their own clothes amid neat stacks of colorful fabric and glass jars filled with buttons, and the twice-yearly visit of the sewing-machine repairman is a major event.
The district is named for Ebenezer Wood, an upstate New Yorker turned farmer who settled here in the mid-1800s. The debate over Wood Colony's future has been complicated by Old German Baptist Brethren customs, which discourage political involvement, military service and voting.
"We believe prayer goes a long way," Wagner explained.
The group originated in what is now Germany in the early 18th century. In recent years, the 6,000 or so Old German Baptist Brethren living in the United States have struggled with encroaching urbanization and the loss of agriculture, said Gerald J. Mast, a communications professor at Bluffton University, a Mennonite college in Ohio, home to the country's largest Old German Baptist Brethren community. Debates over alternative occupations and use of the Internet are continuing.
Despite the Brethren's political neutrality, he said, some districts do countenance involvement in local issues, particularly in the West.
"There is a deep streak of pragmatism," Mast said. "They are working hard at maintaining community, and they're fairly savvy in going about it."
In Modesto, Wood Colony residents, including the Old German Baptist Brethren and their allies, have shown up by the hundreds at City Council meetings, which have been the most contentious in recent memory.
The Brethren "don't speak up," said William Heinrich, who was raised in the Brethren church but is now senior pastor at the Sovereign Grace Baptist Church. "Therefore it is our responsibility to speak up for them."
The word "annexation" echoes through the Colony's board-and-batten houses, many of which boast orange trees and stately palms. Carol Whiteside, a former mayor of Modesto and the founder of the Great Valley Center, a regional public-policy think tank, said that should the general plan amendment move forward, only a zoning change would be required for interested parties to sell off Wood Colony land for development.
"These decisions are so easy to make 10 and 25 acres at a time," she said. "People don't look at the cumulative impact."
Garrad Marsh, the current mayor, says that the city needs "shovel-ready" land near major transportation thoroughfares to attract business. The agricultural designation proposed for Wood Colony is intended to protect it, he said. Yet many residents, he said, "perceive it as a 'bait and switch.' They are of the belief that any change is unacceptable."
Longtime residents like Paul Wenger, the president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, who operates the Wood Colony Nut Co. with his sons, said the emphasis on "jobs, jobs, jobs" did not acknowledge almonds and walnuts as two of the state's most lucrative crops, buoyed by global demand and endorsed as "superfood" by Dr. Mehmet Oz. (Modesto's AAA Minor League Baseball team is called the Nuts.)
Farms like his own, Wenger pointed out, are family-run operations producing locally grown food.
"For crying out loud, they talk about sustainability and putting people back to work," he said. "That's agriculture."
Those who fear for Wood Colony's future would do well to consider the Tree, said Lowell H. Beachler, a local historian.
"I think it's here for a reason," he said recently over a helping of hot chicken salad casserole during lunch at the home of Heinrich, the pastor. "God is protecting that tree as a center of the community."
Patricia Leigh Brown, New York Times