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Off the grid in Amish country

The 'Plain People' of Lancaster County, Pa., are opening their farmhouses to overnight guests. A B&B stay gives visitors a chance to experience a simpler way of life.

May 15, 2011|By Rosemary McClure | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A horse and buggy travel along a winding road in Lancaster County back country.
A horse and buggy travel along a winding road in Lancaster County back country. (

Reporting from Lancaster County, Pa. — — I scrambled out of bed at dawn's first light, dashed to the barn to milk a cow, stopped by the chicken coop to collect fresh-from-the-hen eggs, then doubled back to the farmhouse for breakfast. Six of us gathered around the table at Verdant View Farm B&B, prefacing our early morning meal with the cheerful strains of the Johnny Appleseed Song.

"Oh, the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed...."

Just another morning in Paradise.

That's Paradise, Pa., in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Home of Amish, Mennonite and Brethren religious groups. Farm folk who begin their day in a very different way from the way I usually begin mine.

The hilly region, a 90-minute drive west of Philadelphia, is a scenic collage of fertile dairy land, horse-drawn carriages, clapboard farmhouses and Amish men, women and children wearing solemn black clothing.

Once, the closest a visitor could get to becoming acquainted with an Amish family was to wave when passing a buggy. But with the recession making it harder for everyone to make ends meet, the Amish have turned to tourism, revealing more of their lives to visitors. You can sleep at an Amish or Mennonite bed and breakfast, shop at their quilt and furniture stores or stop at their farmhouse bakeries for a little chitchat and a big slice of shoofly pie.

Their participation in the booming tourism that marks this part of the country — 11 million visits annually — has broadened the scope of visiting Lancaster (pronounced Lankisster) County. Other recent developments have helped too: Pennsylvania Dutch country now boasts eclectic shopping, high-end accommodations and haute cuisine.

But that doesn't mean all the "low" points have vanished. The main highways are awash in billboards, buffets serve heavy, salty food, and tacky souvenir shops and hotels line the roads. On the roadways in summer, Southern California-style gridlock is common.

But there are ways to avoid the frenzy. Explore the farmland back roads, where the sideshows disappear, and the Amish go their own way, driving somber black buggies down the two-lane roads, their high-stepping horses clip-clopping on the pavement.

You can visit small towns such as Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse and Paradise, where you'll have a better chance of meeting the people who make the area interesting.

Ben and Anna Riehl, an Amish couple, opened their Beacon Hollow Farm to visitors as a B&B. There's no TV, but "most people who come here don't want TV," Ben said.

"They want to get away from all the gadgets and spend time together playing games and reading books."

Ben and Anna have eight children — large families are common among the Amish — and their brood does without the trappings of modern life. The farm has 130 head of stock, which means everyone is busy from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

School takes on a different meaning here. Amish children attend a one- or two-room schoolhouse through eighth grade and usually receive no education after that. (In the 1950s, a group of Amish parents went to prison for refusing to send their children to public schools. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Amish children could end their formal education at 14.)

The school controversy is just one of many involving the Anabaptists: Amish, Mennonite and Brethren groups, whose members call themselves the "Plain People." They were persecuted in their native Switzerland and began settling in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s in search of religious tolerance. Most spoke German, or Deutsch, which is how the term Pennsylvania Dutch evolved.

Of the three spiritual groups, the Amish are the most conservative, focusing on family, community and separation from the non-Amish world, which includes a reluctance to adopt modern conveniences such as electricity.

"We don't want to be tied to the outside world," Ben Riehl said.

But those who stay in the Riehls' two-bedroom B&B cottage do have electricity, which is provided through a battery pack. And every morning, the Riehls supply farm breakfasts of pancakes, scrambled eggs, homemade sausage and milk, of course.

The couple offers an honest look at an iconic American way of life.

"Where's Amishland?" I overheard a boy ask while dining at Good 'N Plenty, a tourist zone mega-restaurant that serves as many as 30,000 people a day. I could tell from the conversation that he expected something akin to Disneyland.

That's what many Lancaster residents don't want.

"Ultimately, we don't want to destroy what makes this place unique," said Lancaster businessman Dave Witmer, who owns Prince Street Café. "We want to preserve the county's rural atmosphere. Agriculture is still our largest industry."

At the same time, he's happy to talk about downtown Lancaster's evolution. "People are surprised to find a cosmopolitan, urban flavor here," he said. "Things are changing."

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