It begins at an inner-city stable in one of the grittiest areas of Baltimore, Maryland. A vanishing breed of urban horsemen prepares for a weekly visit to Pennsylvania Dutch country. There, Mennonite farmers equip them to carry on a tradition handed down through generations of African-American families.
Arabbing is a trade and folk culture that has almost dwindled away. Arabbers are street merchants. They peddle fruit and vegetables from horse-drawn carts in city neighborhoods. The practice took root among black families in Baltimore after the Civil War.
On a recent morning, a few of the remaining street peddlers took their ponies to get shod. While it’s impossible to find the services they need in their own big city, the clip-clop of hooves is a common sound in New Holland, Pennsylvania. The urban salespeople depend upon a group of Old Order Mennonites to keep their businesses trotting along. New Holland’s Mennonite residents shun most modern conveniences. But their craftsmen still make wooden wagon wheels, carriages, leather harnesses, horse shoes, and equine tooth files.
The two cultures form an unlikely but interdependent bond. What joins the tight community of African-American horsemen from impoverished West Baltimore and the self-isolating Swiss- and German-descent farmers? Only their individual determinations to live on the margins of modern society. Daniel Van Allen of Baltimore’s Arabber Preservation Society calls the connection “the meeting of two subcultures.”
Interdependence is a biblical value. God created people to be in relationship first with Him and next with one another. (See 1 John 1:3.) In New Testament times, the gospel spread rapidly as new believers went about daily business with unbelievers. It’s no mere coincidence that the New Testament was written in Koine (pronounced KOY-nay) Greek—the common language of the marketplace. (Our word “coin” comes from the same root as Koine. It refers to how buying and selling is a common practice of all communities.) Nor was it by chance that God used merchants like Lydia (Acts 16) to establish and grow His churches in busy city places. Connections made through commerce led to communities that served one another in spiritual needs as well.
“We rely on Mennonite know-how because we don’t have the knowledge and the tools to do some of this stuff anymore. It’s the way we found to keep this life going,” says James “Fruit” Chase. He is the leader of a roughly 20-horse stable that’s the strongest remnant of Baltimore’s old arabbing tradition.
The arabbers get their name from an old term for peddlers in 19th century London. It is pronounced “AY-rabbers.” Long ago, anyone who moved from place to place—even within the same city—was referred to as an “A-rab,” meaning someone of a nomadic nature. The term is used for the Baltimore peddlers today, not to imply an ethnic identity. It makes reference to their movement through the city streets to find customers. The Baltimore arabbers today work out of three licensed stables. These are tucked away in areas where healthful food like the fruits and vegetables they offer are rare. Most street food there consists of greasy takeout or corner market packaged conveniences.
With his charismatic personality and easy smile, Chase has developed a warm friendship with the conservative Mennonites. The West Baltimore horseman arrives at Leon Hoover’s farm in camouflage, jeans, and sneakers. He’s greeted by the bearded farmer and his sons in straw hats and suspendered britches. Hoover’s wife wears a bonnet and long dress. On the Hoovers’ 34-acre farm, water is still pumped by hand and scripture verses are read by candlelight. The Old Order Mennonites typically distrust city folk—but not in this case. “We trust James,” says Hoover. “The children like to hear his stories from the city.”
Chase too finds the escape from the bustle of the streets refreshing. “It’s like a piece of heaven,” he says as he relaxes on the porch swing. The visits fuel him to keep doing the work he provides at home.
“I let my city stress fade up there until I cross that Maryland line again,” says Chase. But when he does make his way back into his city, his faithful customers emerge. Often, those who buy from the arabbers are elderly. They listen for the jingle of harness bells signaling the horse-drawn carts have arrived on city blocks of boarded-up properties. As arabbers earn their living, they provide these tired poor with fresh food they couldn’t get otherwise. And the rural Mennonite farmer sustains his own family with his role in keeping that provision going.