Pennsylvania Dutch Country, aka Lancaster County, offers a beautiful country getaway just a few hours from New Jersey and New York City residents. The region is well-known for its mix of Amish, Mennonite and mainstream Pennsylvania cultures; and its “Amish Experience” is heavily promoted in advertising from concert and theater venues, attractions, outlet stores, hotels, etc. This mix of attractions brings millions of tourists to Lancaster County annually; yet, sadly, most of the tourists return home seeing or experiencing little of the Amish culture that is so abundant in the area. At Knee Deep Into History we encourage vacationers to explore other cultures and to scratch below the surface, regardless of the vacation—including Lancaster County.
As a starting point, we encourage readers to read up just a bit on Amish tradition and culture before visiting the area. We’re not talking reading twenty books; we’re talking about learning and understanding just some basic facts like the Amish Biblical aversion to graven images (aka photographs) of themselves. This will make it easier and more enjoyable to interact with them on their terms.
We won’t pretend to be experts on the Pennsylvania Dutch Amish; but we do have some ideas on how to encounter them in their own setting. Here’s a hint: Just about every major attraction along the highways is owned and operated by enterprising Mennonites or mainstream Pennsylvanians, who act as middlemen, purchasing goods from and employing some of the local Amish. If you want to experience the Amish (and Mennonite) culture more directly you can: 1) get off the highways and explore the backroads and/or 2) make a conscious effort to visit the smaller, less touristy shops along the highway. In many cases these are still run by Mennonites, but they are more authentic.
Getting off the beaten path and onto the back roads is the best way to meet the Amish. By and large, they shun excessive advertising, but they still need to market their abilities and products to earn a living, regardless of whether they are farmers, quilt makers, furniture makers, butchers, etc. A good number of items get sold to middlemen, often Mennonites, who sell them in the commercial enterprises that crowd the highways. However, many also sell out of their homes / farms. Generally, the only advertising one sees is a simple wooden sign announcing the profession or products for sale. Have the courage to stop in! We had a wonderful experience with a farmer, purchasing some tasty home-made cheese, root beer and fresh vegetables. (We were not on the hunt for blankets or furniture on this trip.)
The second strategy is to visit the smaller, non-tourist shops along the highways and on the back roads. Most of these are still run by Mennonites, but they offer products that the Amish and Mennonites use. (If you see a horse and buggy parked outside or if there appears to be no electricity inside, you know it passes the authenticity test.) We stopped at Kauffman’s Fruit Farm and Market on Route 340 in Bird-in-Hand and picked up a wonderful assortment of fresh vegetables, home-made noodles, spices, baked goods and meats. The store does not look like much, and the parking lot is tiny, but the selection of authentic products was wonderful. We also stopped at the Somerset Farm Market on Railroad Avenue near New Holland, PA. See the photo below.
Finally, make sure to drive the backroads a good bit rather than spending all your time visiting attractions on the major highways. With smart phones and Google Maps there is no chance of getting lost; and one can surreptitiously view Amish life: Farmers working the fields, children playing, families tending gardens, etc.
Family commitments likely mean that you’ll have to do some commercial stuff too; but we believe taking some time to explore Amish culture will make for a more rewarding trip.
Knee Deep Into History Battlefield Tours LLC offers tours of the WW1 and WW2 battlefields in Europe with an emphasis on getting participants into the field. As tourist travel to Europe is not possible currently, owner Randy Gaulke and his wife Laurie took a mini vacation to Lancaster County; which served as the basis for this article.
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Thank you, Randy, this was awesome!