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Mar. 07 2012

Discovering Lancaster

By Reed Hessler | Posted in Host Blogs | No Comments

Last week, my wife and I watched a PBS documentary on the Amish, and it brought back memories of our trip last summer to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Our journey was for genealogy research, since I have discovered in the past two years that I had ancestors who came to Lancaster and adjacent Cumberland Counties in the early eighteenth century. I will discuss my epic journey of genealogy in a series of future blogs, since I am becoming  aware that it is a field of growing interest. I never dreamed how far it would take me. But for now I would like to share some observations of Lancaster.

I had travelled through Lancaster as a child to visit relatives further north, and my only memory was a Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant with a windmill, where I fell in love with shoefly pie. Last summer was my first visit since about 1965, and my wife and I eagerly sought out the windmill. To my delight, it was still there, and so was the shoefly pie. The name of the restaurant, which I had long forgotten, was Dutch Haven, which they now bill as “the place that made shoefly pie famous”. Dating from the 1920’s, it ceased being a restaurant in the 1990’s, and now is a bakery and craft store, where among other things you can buy an “I love Intercourse” cap, referring of course to the town of Intercourse, Pennsylvania, just a few miles north. If you were ever an adolescent boy, you no doubt have heard of the town of Intercourse, but my wife and I actually had a chance to drive through it for the first time in our lives a couple of days later. Very picturesque countryside.

Right next door to the Dutch Haven is Jakey’s Amish Barbeque, which like the shoefly pie was exceedingly delicious. When I asked the server if the recipe was really Amish, he said not really, it was from North Carolina. Like many things in Lancaster, it’s called Amish to attract the tourists. Nothing wrong with that if it tastes good, I said. 

The old Lincoln Highway, which once ran from the East Coast to the West Coast, runs through the city of Lancaster and several miles east of the city through some of the most beautiful farmland in the world. Like any highway through a suburb of a major city, it is an endless procession of traffic and shopping malls, but in a way I have never witnessed before in my life. Behind every mall, is an endless array of farmland, and not just one farm, but a farm beyond it, and another farm beyond that. It’s as if the malls are creating a wall between the commercial culture of urban Lancaster and the pristine farmland beyond.

My wife wanted to “eat Pennsylvania Dutch food and gain five pounds”, so we asked the motel clerk for a recommendation. The buffet was good but overpriced (about twenty-five dollars for all you can eat), so we opted for the soup and salad bar and some delicious microbrews. Next day to avoid the tourist traps, we asked the woman at the Mennonite Historical Society which we visited for our research where we could find good Pennsylvania Dutch food. She told us that a few miles east on the Lincoln Highway (Route 30) was a buffet restaurant called Diener’s, run by Amish and Mennonites. If you go be forewarned, the place is run by farmers who go to bed early, and in spite of serving dinner, closes at 6PM. Luckily, we arrived early, and had one of the best meals of our lives. Simple, farm fresh food, spread out on at least twenty tables, all you can eat for $9.99.

The next morning we woke early. My wife, brandishing a guidebook, had mapped a drive through the beautiful farmland of Amish country, north of the shopping malls on Route 30. She had also found yet another Amish/Mennonite buffet called Yoder’s which got a rave review in her guidebook, and was conveniently located along our northern route.

As often as I have seen the pictures, I was still amazed to see how the Amish navigate their horses and buggies through highway traffic, which often is not proceeding slowly. You get a reassuring sense that this is their world, and you must adjust to their way of life if you wish to be a part of it.

The farms behind farms behind farms I previously mentioned unfolded before us in  a vast panorama. I tend to be a fast driver, but I found myself driving considerably below the speed limit just to take it all in, and frequently feeling the need to speed up when cars lined up behind me. The towns have such charming names: in addition to Intercourse, there is Paradise, Eden, Bird in Hand, Fertility, Blue Ball, and Zooks Corner.

Along the way came Yoder’s, which we expected to be like Diener’s the day before. But in this case Yoder’s was an Amish/Mennonite shopping mall, tastefully designed in neo-Colonial style, complete with a Christian book store, and (like Diener’s) Biblical quotations posted on the walls, comforting since all were of the “Love thy neighbor” and “God loves you” variety instead of “God hates liberals.” (Believe me, I once saw billboards like the latter in North Carolina).

If Diener’s had twenty food tables, Yoder’s must have had thirty, and the lunch buffet was $9.99. (A few dollars more for the dinner buffet.) Every bit as delicious as our meal the day before. I told my wife I was eating cream corn, and she corrected me that the corn had been cooked in its own sweet juice that I mistook for cream. I find it difficult to tell the difference between the Mennonites and the Amish, but it seemed that most of the Pennsylvania Dutch we saw were Old Order Mennonites. Many of them spoke German, which I later learned was a Pennsylvania Dutch German dialect. Because the restaurant was quite crowded, we ended up in the banquet room across from a table of about a dozen or so Mennonite teenage boys and girls in traditional dress. At one point, I noticed they were sitting silently with their heads bowed, obviously in prayer.

My genealogy research has revealed that, unknown to me until recently, I had Mennonite ancestors who came to Lancaster County from Switzerland via Germany in 1717 to escape religious persecution. They maintained their religion through my maternal great great grandfather, who died in 1875, and my great grandmother finally married outside the faith (Although her uncle, my great great grandfather’s younger brother, became a Presbyterian earlier). My late mother and grandmother never spoke of our Mennonite ancestors, and I wonder if my mother even knew they existed. Seeing the  pious young men and women praying, and hearing the adults speaking Pennsylvania Dutch German, I could not help but wonder if they were like my ancestors.

Before our visit to Lancaster, we had just come from a stay in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, about two thirds the size of Lancaster, with its own shopping mall strewn highway on its outskirts, and some very beautiful farmland as well (although the two are meticulously separated), but otherwise as different from Lancaster as day from night. Carlisle is a historic town, which studiously promotes its history through signposts and the like, and surprisingly cosmospolitan, perhaps due to the presence of Dickinson College and the U.S. Army War College. As a lover of international cuisine, I was delighted to find a Belgian restaurant (with over a hundred beers), a brew pub with Irish food, a Middle Eastern restaurant (which I haven’t tried yet) , and a Japanese noodle restaurant (with srihacha sauce readily available for my hot spice addiction). The people we met were uniformly charming and friendly. And yet a whiter community you would not find. My wife and I barely saw a single African-American or Asian during our entire stay, except briefly on the Dickinson College campus and the aforesaid noodle restaurant.

The city of Lancaster, on the other hand, in the heart of conservative Amish country, is as ethnically diverse as Baltimore, with African-American and Latino citizens very much in evidence, while  on the other hand the area along the Lincoln Highway almost feels like a Pennsylvania Dutch theme park, full of little children and the elderly (since my wife and I have both turned sixty, I guess we qualify as the latter). Some Amish farmers even charge tourists a fee to allow them to help with the farm work, not to mention the buggy rides.

None of this seems to alter the intergrity of the Amish lifestyle. As my wife  very astutely observed, when the Amish realized they were becoming a tourist attraction, they took control of the business. There is no big corporation in charge of Amish farm tours or buggy rides. This is a way for the Amish to share their lifestyle with the outside world while keeping it at arms length. Many of them have gotten rich in the process. I can think of no better example of the American promise of freedom of religion or the fulfillment of the American Dream.

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Reed Hessler

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Reed is WBJC's evening host. His full bio can be read here.

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