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An Insider's Tour of Amish Country


© St. Petersburg Times

LANCASTER, Pa. -- Heavy spring rains had left the fields soggy in the Pennsylvania Dutch country. The good news, in a place where everyone talks about the weather, was that warm weather had finally arrived, so the plowing could begin.

One of the great pleasures of visiting this special part of America is driving the back roads and admiring the farms, beautiful and prosperous.

Then, too, the Old Order Amish families that own and work them are, to most of us, such a mystery.

So, on a Saturday morning when the sun finally burst through, in field after field we were treated to a splendid, if simple, sight: a rig of maybe a half-dozen mules or some Belgian horses hitched to a plow and crossing the fields methodically, often with just a barefoot, teenage boy in charge.

About 10 a.m., we came upon an interesting gathering near the town of Paradise. Perhaps 100 people -- parents to wee children -- were gathered at a small stream, fishing poles in hand.

It proved to be the annual fishing contest, put on by the local sportmen's club, which stocked the stream the day before. Interestingly, more than half of the families participating were Amish, struggling with baiting hooks and restless toddlers just like everyone else.

To outsiders, the lifestyle of these families who call themselves "the plain people" is remarkable. (An astute guide told us, "Anyone who calls themselves Amish or uses the word "Amish' on a sign is not real Amish: They would never use their religion to promote themselves. . . . The way to identify a real Amish business is by a sign that says "Closed Sundays' or "No photos, please.' "

Emanuel ("Call me "Manny' ") and Eleanor Fisher are such a couple. They farm, he runs a woodworking shop, and to make a bit of money on the side, they serve home-cooked lunches to tourists.

No matter that they rely on propane for power, use horse and carriage to travel about and still adhere to the strict dress codes: for adult men, beards, bangs trimmed straight across, trousers with suspenders, laced black shoes, black hat in winter, straw hat in summer; for women, long dresses, head coverings, laced black shoes, no makeup or ornamentation.

Among themselves, they speak a dialect that is a combination of German, Swiss and English. But they could not be more hospitable to their guests.

At lunch, we were served baked chicken thighs coated with crushed corn flakes and seasoned salt, egg noodles slathered with butter, steamed red potatoes, cole slaw, dutch apple pie, tapioca pudding and chocolate cake.

This was accompanied by homemade bread and an unusual applesauce, orange in color. When I asked Mrs. Fisher what was in it, the reply was as basic as she: "Oh, I just mix in apricot Jell-O."

I thought I was back at my grandma's for Sunday dinner. Except here we sang a song together after the meal.

There are 48 distinct groups of "plain people" in this part of Pennsylvania, each with its own set of leaders and own interpretation of the rules. Most groups are Amish, Mennonite or Brethren.

But I did not know this when I first glimpsed Donald and Florence Billet. They were the only two people in plain dress at a cocktail reception for travel writers at a hotel in Hershey. I sidled over, and Donald Billet, a bear of a guy, smiled wide and pressed his card into my hand.

"I bet I'm the only plain person you've met who has an 800 number and a fax machine," he said. He was right.

He and his wife, Florence, then pregnant with child No. 5 (families of 10 to 12 children are common here), operate Red Rose Excursions, a tour company. They are members, he explained, of a group of about 200 people called the River Brethren.

"Like the Amish," he said, "we are anabaptists -- we believe in adult baptism. However, we believe in baptism by immersion, which is where we got the name the River Brethren. . . . Some people call us the "Dunkers.' "

He explained further: "We split off from the Amish way back in the 1700s. As a result, we aren't nearly as strict. Although we wear the plain clothing, we drive cars and use electricity. . . . You might say that we have a foot in both worlds.

"But who better to interpret the plain people to visitors? We think that makes us good guides."

Billett's insights are all the more interesting because an impressive audio-visual presentation called The Amish Experience notes that the Amish staunchly believe that that a person cannot be of both worlds, that adults must choose whether to live within or outside the community.

Billet acknowledged losing some of the group's young people to the "outside world" every year.

On a Saturday, the town of Intercourse was bustling, both with tourists and the local folk doing errands. Tour buses, cars and carriages competed for the roadway. There's actually a small mall here, but more interesting are the real Amish shops such as Lapp's Coach Shop (note the mechanical fans overhead). An excellent stop for any visitor is the People's Place heritage center, where the lifestyle of the Amish is sensitively presented in a 30-minute documentary film and with exhibits and books.

As we were leaving Intercourse, waiting for several carriages to pass on Highway 340, a hand suddenly darted out of one of them and waved at us. Manny's silver-bearded face followed, with a wide grin. We had made a friend. If you go

The best way for you to meet and appreciate the plain people is to stay at a bed & breakfast, where the owners can usually arrange for you to eat with a local family or attend community functions such as craft shows and horse auctions.

During a morning excursion, we stopped to take pictures of an old mill, and right next door was the picturesque Osceola Mill House, operated by Robin and Sterling Schoen. The Schoens have nurtured many friendships in the community and will share them with you. The Mill House will be closed until September for historic restoration, but the Schoens will take reservations for visits after Labor Day. Call (717) 768-3758.

Shoppers should be sure to visit the shops Amish families operate out of their homes. One of these is J&B Quilts and Crafts (157 North Star Road, in the town of Ronks), where the selection of hand-crafted quilts was about 2 feet deep. Prices ranged from $390 to $750 for a queen-size quilt, with most around $500, prices well below those in specialty stores. A good way to locate these shops is to pick up a free copy of the Intercourse News.

For more information, contact the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau, 501 Greenfield Road, Lancaster, PA 17601; call (800) PADUTCH (723-8824). Request the Lancaster County Farm Bed & Breakfasts brochure. Cynthia Boal Janssens is a freelance writer living in Johannesburg, Mich.

Originally published July 6, 1997

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