Sunday, July 19, 2009
Reflections of a Road Trip: In the Amish Country
It has probably been 18 years or better since I last visited Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This region is the very heart of Amish country, or at least that which is well-known to the non-Amish. At the time it struck me just how perilous their situation was, with incredible societal pressures bearing down on them. And not just from society in general, but from the mere specifics of their particular location--in a populated area much too close to the growing city of Lancaster. I wondered how they would be able to hold out. The fact that Lancaster County is one of the most beautiful in the nation does not help matters. But upon my recent visit, I am heartened by the fact that they seem to be holding out very well indeed. The city of Lancaster sprawls out along the Lincoln Highway, sucking up the old Amish communities of Paradise, Kinzers and Gap. Tourist enterprises seemed poised to swamp Intercourse and Bird in Hand along the Old Philadelphia Pike. But the Amish agricultural world begins immediately behind the commercial strips. By the time you have traversed several hundred feet, the sense of their world begins to take over. In short, the ramparts of defense against modernity seem to be intact.
I did not venture here to gawk at the Amish. My ancestors of the surname I bear came into the Pequea Valley from Scotland in 1720. My particular forebear, a younger son, moved on to the North Carolina frontier in the 1750s, but others of the family stayed here for a number of generations. Using the wonders of modern GIS technology, I was able to overlay their 1734 land patents onto a Google Earth aerial. So doing, I was able to pinpoint exactly where their farms were located. I wanted to see this land, as well as visit the Episcopal Church they helped found in 1729 and a couple of the old graveyards where my people buried. So, the Amish aspect was incident to my main purpose. They came later and bought up the land of the original English and Scots settlers (like mine). Today, my family's original homestead in the New World is a pristine Amish farm. It couldn't be in better hands.
Old family farm (now Amish), Lancaster County, PA
I must say that I would have made a terrible Amish person. I am too much a product of the modern world, I suppose. But it is hard to say, looking at their world from the outside. That said, I have tremendous respect for these people. Regardless of what you think about the theological underpinnings of their way of life (which I largely reject), the culture is a silent and damning rebuke to the excesses and wreckage of modernity. The contrast could not be more stark. I stayed at an old tourist court on the Lincoln Highway. Having driven from far western Michigan the day before, I was a bit fatigued and slept a little later that Saturday morning. By the time I started my day, the tourist hordes were already milling around Paradise. Taken as a whole, we were not a pretty sight--shorts, tee-shirts and flip-flops seemed to be the uniform of choice. None of us seemed to have missed many meals. After frequenting the tourist shops along the highway, many of them would probably cap-off their day in the Amish country by taking the kids to the nearby Dutch Wonderland Amusement Park, as touted by countless billboards featuring their grinning purple spokes-dragon. For you know, nothing says Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish like purple cartoon dragons.
But once you actually drove through the Amish farmlands, a different pattern of life was being played-out. This was no "weekend," but a work day like any other. The laundry was already hung out to dry on lines stretching from the farm houses to their barns. Barefoot girls were mowing the yard with manual push mowers. Men were in the fields harvesting. Young boys were moving cows from the dairy to pastures across the road. Young families were loaded into their buggies (pulled by the most beautiful horses imaginable) on quick trips into Intercourse or Bird in Hand for provisions. Everyone was brown, lean and angular. One sensed a discernible rhythm to their lives, in vivid contrast to the aimlessness of we weekenders.
I was to have supper with new friends Richard and Fran at the historic Revere Tavern that night. Their families had both lived in the area for 10 generations or so. In fact, Fran's family had owned the neighboring farm to my family back in the early 1700s. Her people had stayed put, and as a consequence she knew most everything there was to know about the area, and not only knowing everyone there, but how their family fit into the context of a 280-year local history. I found it all very European.
White Horse Tavern, Lancaster County, PA
I met Richard earlier in the day, as we walked around St. John's Cemetery, with its gravestones dating back to the 1740s. He took me on a tour of the church itself. The present structure is the 3rd, built in 1834. For lunch, we grabbed a sandwich and a couple of Yuengling lagers at the White Horse Tavern. A local family (still in the area) built this establishment in 1740. The original building survives, and most importantly, it has always been a tavern. As it is located halfway between my family's old farm and their church house, I feel confident that I was not the first of my line to put my feet under the bar there. Richard and I talked of the various pressures on their Amish neighbors. First, there is the simple fact that they have staked out a counter-cultural existence amidst the swirl of a modern world. This is exacerbated by the fact that their lands here are not isolated, but close to cities and sliced by highways. This in turn makes real estate prices sky-high, with the choice Amish land coveted for both residential and commercial development. Finally, there are simple demographics. The Amish marry young and have large families. I passed a young couple in their buggy on a back road between Paradise and Intercourse. Their very young son sat on the bench between them, while the wife held the baby. I thought it an idyllic Amish country scene. As I passed them and looked in the rear view mirror, I saw that their 3 older children were sitting on the buckboard behind. As I say, this was a young couple, and there will surely be more children beyond these 5. This is typical. Simply put, not all of these young Amish can remain here. There is not enough land for all of them to farm. So, many move on to other Amish communities in other parts of the country. Also, the young people are given a choice about the time they are 17 or 18. For a year or so, the teenagers are allowed to sample the modern world, to drink and party and experience the outside for themselves. I had seen a documentary about this before, so I was not unfamiliar with the practice. Afterwards, they choose whether they want to remain Amish or not. Richard told me that there had been tragedies. Teenage boys, trucks and alcohol are often a lethal combination. Four teenage Amish boys had been killed in a recent pile-up on the dirt road that runs beside my family's old farm. Lord have mercy.
St. John's Episcopal Church, founded 1729
I asked Richard about one sight that caught my attention. I saw a couple of Amish men mowing their yards with new zero-turning radius riding lawnmowers. Apparently, there is some loophole, or dispensation when it comes to this sort of thing. He knew of one man who had an underground electrical line into his house which powered a washer and dryer. And, it was not unknown to see the occasional Amishman sitting at the end of the bar at the White Horse Tavern. But by and large, the center seems to be holding.
On my way out of Lancaster County, I passed along the back roads of the southern section of the county, on my way to Port Deposit, Maryland. I was interested to learn that the Amish are not merely huddled in the touristed area east of Lancaster, but are in fact scattered all over the county. Everywhere, I saw young Amish walking together in groups or taking the family buggy out for a ride together. Apparently, Sunday afternoon after church services is the free time that young Amish have to seek out their peers and hang out together, as young people are wont to do. This is how it should be.
Family plot, St. John's Episcopal Cemetery