A Day in Pennsylvania Dutch Country

In Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, there are Amish restaurants, Amish gift shops, Amish "museums," a one-room Amish "schoolhouse" (with animatronic pupils), even an "Amish village"--an oxymoron, since the Amish, whose social life is organized around the home, do not build villages. Nor do they build amusement parks, though one of those is attributed to them, too.

For such counterfeit experiences, approximately 4 million people spent $1.2 billion last year, according to the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau.

To get a more authentic idea of Amish life, visitors can have dinner with a local family, or visit a Mennonite-Amish working farm. Some Old Order members--a term that refers to both Mennonites and Amish, who are religious cousins--want to be understood better, if only so they will be treated less like zoo specimens.

I went for another option. The Mennonite Information Center in the Lancaster County Business District introduced to Lester Hoover, a spry, bespectacled, 10th-generation Mennonite in conservative, but modern, dress. Lester is one of the center's guides, available to solo travelers with their own cars on up to motor-coach tours. A former seller of inspirational books, he occupies himself in retirement by guiding tours.

To our left was Route 30, a main artery lined with factory outlets, strip malls, fast-food restaurants, and billboards directing people to "real" Amish attractions. "Turn right," said Lester.

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Not everyone traveling by horse and buggy, Lester told me, is Amish. "Amish" is an umbrella term for several similar but varied groups that include Mennonites and true Amish. In Lancaster County, there are about 40,000 "plain people," as they call themselves, making up about 10% of the county's total population.

And their numbers are growing around the county's three main towns--Strasburg, Intercourse, and Bird-in-Hand--where they come to trade with the "English" (as they call the non-Amish).

Lester took me to the Leola Produce Auction, where Amish and Mennonite farmers bring their goods to market to supply grocers and restaurants with the "Lancaster Country produce" advertised on their signs and menus. We arrived at noon, too late for the auction, but boxes of plump, fragrant strawberries and bulbous scallions tempted me to snag samples. We found one delighted buyer packing his van with flowers. "Dollar a flat," he said. "Can't beat that."

Lester fell into conversation with a vigorous, elderly gentleman who recognized his surname and remembered where Lester's father's farm used to be. Since Lester himself is going on 80, the exchange demonstrated the depth of roots and family names in a strong community. The two switched from English to Pennsylvania Dutch, a language derived from German that to my uncomprehending ear had a quaint, sweet sound.

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