Thursday, July 24, 2008

25. Pennsylvania and the Amish

We associated Pennsylvania with the Amish, but really didn’t know much about them. Amish people were often characterized as a strange clan of very religious but poorly educated folks who made sturdy furniture and fine quilts but refused to adopt the conveniences and lifestyles of modern society. Since that’s what we heard, we wanted to learn more about their unique lifestyle and see their farms and products. So, we headed west toward the largest settlement in Pennsylvania in the vicinity of Lancaster.

The terrain changed from flat to rolling hills as we got into Amish country. Small farms dotted the landscape and each was surrounded by its own patchwork of mixed crops and woodlands. It was some of the prettiest countryside we had seen so far. The farms were very neat and well-kept. Most had good sized farmhouses, a barn or two, a couple silos and an assortment of farm animals. Not all of the farms were Amish. If there were no utility lines going to the house and a buggy or wagon was parked in the yard instead of a pick-up truck, it was most likely an Amish farm. We saw lots of horse-drawn buggies along the country roads and in town.

Mennonites and Amish share similar backgrounds and customs. They live and work side by side in the area. The Old Order Amish are the ones we see on post cards and calendars. They are very religious and stick closely to the old traditional ways. The men typically wear overalls with solid color shirts (usually blue) and black hats. The women wear long solid color dresses and small bonnets. Amish men are expected to grow beards after they’re married. Older men who have failed to marry, may also grow beards as a sign of their maturity.

We saw an excellent movie and picked up some literature at the Amish/Mennonite Information Center. Bonnie loves horses and wanted to ride in one of the buggies. So we hopped aboard a horse-drawn wagon for a back roads tour of the countryside.

Our driver/guide was a young Mennonite bachelor with several earrings, a plaid shirt and good sense of humor. He explained that Mennonites aren’t as strict as the Amish. They wear colorful clothing, drive cars, use electricity and tend to blend in better. Both groups encourage their kids to leave the nest and explore the world after finishing their 8th grade education. Some find the outside world to their liking, but many return to the family. Once they decide to stay with the faith, they are baptized. If an Amish member decides to leave after being baptized, he/she is usually banned and not allowed to return. When they marry, it’s for life with no provisions for divorce. You have to be seriously dedicated to faith and family to be Amish.

Our guide explained that the Amish are determined to remain as independent as possible and refuse to be hooked up to the electric system. They can provide everything their family needs on a 65 acre farm and they manage very well without electricity in their homes. If they have more acreage, they raise additional produce and animals to sell. Horses are essential for farm work and for transportation so they are very careful to take good care of their horses. Our guide was a horse dentist for a while and gave us an overview of what that job entails.

While the men of the family are out tilling the fields and tending to the livestock, the women are taking care of the domestic chores. They are also producing beautiful quilts, canned and baked goods, jams and jellies and other things that fill the local stores. The quilts are works of art and the ones we looked at were selling in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. It would be nice to know how many hours of work went into them. The cultural center of Amish country seemed to surround the small towns of Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse. Tourists like to have their pictures taken by the latter's town sign. Both towns are rich in small stores, quilt museums, farmers markets, buffet style restaurants and very nice old brick buildings.

Many Amish women and young girls work in the stores. It was also interesting to learn that they have adopted cell phones as one of their tools. It makes their work much easier. They get around the electrical hurdle by having a non-Amish friend take the phones home with them to charge them up for the next day.

Workers use mechanical horse-drawn farm machinery in the fields and small buggies trot along the roads, oblivious to the cars, trucks and motorcycles that surround them.

It appeared to us that the Amish and Mennonites continue to enjoy their simple productive lifestyle. But we couldn’t help feeling that they are being caught in a sqeeze. New growth, development, traffic and congestion are closing in. We also noticed lots of non-Amish businesses that are cashing in on the Amish image. Many stores sell quilts, furniture and other items that are not authentic Amish products. We also noticed a certain amount of disrespect. Some stores carry amusing (but insulting) products such as bobble-head Amish, goofy Amish cartoon figures, funny dolls, etc. They don’t deserve that. Based on our observations, the Amish are simple quiet productive people who prefer to live in a manner that's different than ours. They came here from Europe to exercise that freedom and, as long as it works well for them, we hope they’ll be able to continue their choice of lifestyle well into the future.

The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania was a few miles from our campground. Ron didn’t know it was there, so it was a pleasant surprise and became a “must see” item on our list. It was a terrific accumulation of old full-sized engines, train cars and other railroad related memorabilia.

After a couple hours in the museum we went across the highway to the depot and boarded an old train for a slow ride through the farm country on one of the oldest RR rights-of-way in the country.

We’ve probably eaten our weight in Hershey chocolate over the years. So, we took a side trip to the factory in Hershey, PA, not far from the capital city of Harrisburg. We expected the usual factory tour, but were a little surprised and disappointed at what we found. It was a huge Chocolate World complex, consisting of a Disneyland-like amusement park ($47 admission), a chocolate museum, a food court, gift shops and other candy-related things that we really didn’t need to see. We did go on the free “simulated” tour of the factory. It whisked us through in a matter of minutes on a roller-coaster like conveyor complete with animation, hi-tech video and continuous singing of candy songs. It was obviously designed with kids in mind, and the place was full of kids. It was a unique experience indeed.

Bonnie’s niece Nancy and her husband Ed invited us to visit them in their new home in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. They let us park the RV in their driveway next to the pool, which was very convenient. They also let us take a refreshing swim and lounge around for a few days. Ed came to our rescue and replaced some broken bolts that were holding a stabilizer bar under the motor home. It steers a lot better now. Thanks again, Ed. They were great hosts and we had a very nice time there.

Ed’s company was having its annual picnic that weekend, so we tagged along. It was held at Knoebel’s Amusement Park. It’s an old park with roller coasters, carousels, flume rides, a ferris wheel, lots of food, etc., and no parking or admission fees! It’s located in a heavily wooded little valley far from freeways and urban areas. It was a hot day and the place was full of people having a good time.
Ed and Nancy took us on a long all-day tour of the farms, covered bridges and small towns of central Pennsylvania. Many of the farms were Amish, but without the tourism that they would have to put up with in Lancaster. We were amazed at all the beautiful large old homes in the small towns, and the very low prices. Ron was ready to buy and renovate a few of these relics.

Ed also took us through his hometown of Shamokin, an old coal mining town. It has seen better days, but is still very interesting in its classic architecture and narrow streets. We had some really good pizza at James Pizza, a small old corner tavern that probably hasn’t changed much in 50 years. Ed’s dad was a regular there.
After lunch at a roadside cafe with Ed and Nancy along the Susquehanna River, and a great week or so in Pennsylvania, it was time to move on down the road once again.