After the world came crashing down on Nelson County, the Mennonites showed up. Scores of them. They searched for the missing, they shoveled mud out of businesses, they rebuilt homes.
They were by no means the only outside volunteers who came to help, but they arrived in huge numbers — as many as 150 were there in the first days after the disaster, according to “Roar of the Heavens,” a 2006 book by Stefan Bechtel about Hurricane Camille — and they kept coming.
“We owe a debt to those folks, who spent two years rebuilding our community,” said Dick Whitehead, a volunteer at the Nelson County Historical Society and one of the organization’s primary archivists of Camille photographs and related stories.
They were part of the Mennonite Disaster Service, a volunteer network of Anabaptist churches that has been responding to disasters to help rebuild communities since the 1950s. Those who arrived in Nelson came from around the United States and even Canada, but many, like Joseph Beery and Joe Shank, lived in the surrounding area.
Beery, now 95, and Shank, now 84, were dairy farmers who lived near Dayton, west of Harrisonburg. They also are Old Order Mennonites, meaning they eschew some modern conveniences, such as automobiles, but they are serious about their faith — and part of what they believe is the importance of following biblical teachings to love your neighbor.
The mission is simple, Shank said: Help people overcome whatever hardship they’ve experienced and “get back to as normal a life as they can.”
“Why wouldn’t we like to do that?” he said.
When Beery was asked why he was involved in something like this, there was a long pause on the end of the phone line. Finally, he gave a most succinct response:
“For the love of mankind,” he said.
After Camille came through and the Tye River flooded, the mud was knee-deep in the old store now known as the Mountain View Tea Room.
“I had to wash it all out,” said Frances Fitzgerald, who was and is the owner. Then, a volunteer from the Mennonite Disaster Service stopped by.
“Young lady, would you like some help?” she recalled him asking.
“I wouldn’t mind,” she replied.
The man left, but soon returned with a truck filled with other volunteers who went to work.
“They pulled all the furniture out and washed all our stuff off,” Fitzgerald said. “They did an excellent job. I was just looking for one or two [of them], and they brought a whole truckload.”
She added, “You don’t know how much you appreciate somebody until you’re in a bind.”
Traveling to Nelson was Shank’s first experience with MDS; in the ensuing decades, his volunteering after disasters has carried him, as he put it, “from Florida to Maine” and a few other places, too. He recalls mucking out basements and businesses and assisting with some rebuilding jobs. His wife, Ruth, did some painting a time or two, as well.
“I came home from Nelson County that first night and I could not sleep,” said Shank, recalling 50 years ago as if it were yesterday. “I was visualizing … all the devastation, the mountains washed away, all that kind of stuff. I was young. I had never experienced something like that. I couldn’t make myself realize the magnitude of what those had experienced. Our position was to help them to try to pick up the pieces and go on with life.”
Beery, Shanks’ neighbor near Dayton, figures he traveled to Nelson “40 or 50 times” for over a year.
“I always came back at night,” Beery said in a phone interview. His wife and eight children helped pick up the slack at the family dairy farm while he was away. He now has more than 100 great-grandchildren.
Beery’s late twin brother Dan was head of the local MDS unit at the time, and he remembers going over the mountain to Nelson in the days soon after Camille and pitching in to clean up homes and churches. Later, he was part of the rebuilding effort.
Just following the parable of the Good Samaritan, he said. They weren’t looking for recognition and certainly not pay.
But they’re not opposed to someone doing something nice for them, which is how they ended up with a horse-drawn hearse.
The old hearse was in disrepair in the basement of a Lovingston funeral home that some of the Mennonite volunteers were helping to clean after the flood. It had sat there unused for many years, and one of the Mennonites apparently commented that they sure could use a hearse like that. The next year, the funeral home loaded the hearse on a trailer and took it to the Mennonites near Dayton.
“It needed some repair, but we fixed it up,” Beery said during a July conversation. “We just used it this past Saturday.”