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A glimpse of the horse-and buggy : AMISH COUNTRY : " One can hear the birds, the insects, the wind in the grass, the breathing of the horse. " Merle Good, "Who Are theAmish"?

July 28, 1985|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

LANCASTER, Pa. — When a tough Philadelphia cop falls in love with a beautiful Amish woman, the spotlight beams on this bucolic county in southeastern Pennsylvania.

It was here that Hollywood came to film "Witness," a picture about the cop and the woman that kicked off a stampede among moviegoers curious to learn about the land and the people in this fictional tale.

It wasn't that Lancaster needed the extra crowds. Long before "Witness" took to the screens, tourism was already a $275 million-a-year industry in this verdant corner of Pennsylvania. For years visitors have been sneaking glimpses of the horse-and-buggy world of a religious sect that reaps contentment from the rich black earth of the Susquehanna Valley.

These are the Plain People who shun the automobile, the telephone, TV and other material possessions worshiped by a world which, in their eyes, spins ever onward toward oblivion.

This isn't to say that certain Amish don't bend the rules. A minority belonging to the New Order sport fancy cars and enjoy the benefits of electricity. It's the Old Order, though, that draws the curious--those with the buggies and austere black clothing. What's more, it's serious stuff in a community where marriage is for keeps and divorce isn't considered.

Horse-drawn buggies belonging to the Old Order Amish race along country lanes and link with cars at traffic lights in villages strung out from Strasburg to Ephrata.

The Amish are especially visible on market day when they load carts with garden-fresh corn, strawberries, smoked meats, turkey sausage, fruits, eggs, apple butter and other farm produce. Still, it is while they plow farms with whitewashed barns and silos and endless rows of corn and alfalfa that they are in real harmony.

This is true Amish country and has nothing to do with the mockery tourism has made of this deeply religious group. One has only to drive down U.S. 30 with its lineup of cheap souvenir shops and two-bit amusement parks to learn how their lives have been burlesqued.

Other overpriced junk is displayed in Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand, although less offensively. Particularly in Intercourse and its charming Country Store with its display of homemade quilts, afghans, sunbonnets and patchwork pillows.

The Country Store is operated by Mennonite Merle Good who is also the curator of The People's Place across the street, a museum that provides a graphic glimpse into the lives of the Amish through a series of artful displays. A writer, Good stocks dozens of books about the Amish, a sect that broke with the Mennonites in 1693.

When Tinseltown arrived to film "Witness," the film company sought out Good to recruit 150 Amish extras. Good shuddered, telling the film makers "how foolish their request was." He adds, however, that director Peter Weir succeeded in providing his audience with an insight into the fabric and spirit of the world of the Amish.

Good tells you frankly that "4 million people come to Lancaster each year to eat the good food, breathe the fresh air and marvel at our backwardness."

So much for Hollywood.

Although the Amish frown on visitors, a number of Mennonites welcome strangers into their homes. John and Elaine Nissley take in guests on their 90-acre farm at Manheim where they grow corn and alfalfa and raise dairy cows, pigs and chickens.

In their fourth season as innkeepers, the Nissleys welcome guests with children who frolic with theirs in the hayloft and an old swimming hole near this 126-year-old farmhouse.

There's a porch with a swing and pets to play with. There are also rules: no smoking, no booze. And this being a Mennonite home, guests must get along without Dan Rather and the "Dukes of Hazzard," simply because there is no TV. It's an amuse-yourself atmosphere of wholesome pleasures.

"We love our farm," says Elaine Nissley.

What's more, the price is right--$12.50 a night for adults, $8 for teen-agers and $5 for children 12 and under. Breakfast is an extra $2.50 for adults, $2 for teen-agers, $1 for youngsters 6 to 12 and free for toddlers. And you might as well forget the diet, what with a choice of pancakes, french toast made with homemade bread, scrapple, eggs, ham, bacon and sausage, farm-fresh milk and fruits.

While there's a Pennsylvania Dutch Visitors Bureau in Lancaster, the Mennonites operate their own visitors center on Millstream Road three miles east of Lancaster. This parent body of Old Amish Order combines tours of Lancaster County with visits to Amish homes, a cheese factory, carriage shops and a store that stocks homemade rockers.

Elsewhere, quilts made by the Amish sell at auction for $300 to $1,000 and there are tours conducted by the Mennonites ($5 an hour) that take in Bird-in-Hand on market days as well as roadside stands operated by the Amish on country back roads.

John Beiler, who operates the Candle Barn at Intercourse, was asked by one visitor, "What do the Amish do in the evening?"

Beiler shrugged. "They sleep, I guess."

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