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.

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.

Afterward, Lester--a repository of details about seemingly every family and parcel of land in the area--directed me over more back roads. "The fellow who lives in that house set up his boys in two farms," he says, pointed across some fields. "But not everyone can do that, or maybe they can't make a living at it, so they have a sideline." At the next farm, he added, "Like that guy, his sideline is furniture."

We passed horse-drawn buggies and farms with mules hitched to steel-wheeled plows pulling men in black pants and straw hats, and herds of lazing Guernsey cattle. The fields were thick with alfalfa--grown as feed for dairy cows--and tobacco, a cash crop that, because of depressed prices and moral issues, some farmers are beginning to abandon. Women wearing white linen prayer bonnets and plain, black ankle-length dresses, their parted hair pulled back tautly into buns, tended flower beds and small gardens, their girls nearby wearing stockings and pinafores.

We came to a traditional Mennonite church, a long, white wooden building resembling a big community center. The doors were locked, so we peered through the windows at the separate anterooms for men and women and the plain sanctuary arranged with backless benches. No crucifixes or artwork, no raised platforms or podiums. All worshipers stand on the same plane, literally and spiritually.

Outside, Lester points past a stable where worshipers tether their horses, and a graveyard with simple headstones to point out an old brick church. Built in 1894 after members disagreed over whether there ought to be Sunday school and how the Bible should be taught, the new church had its own schism in the 1920s, this time over the acceptability of using cars.

Since building a third church was unfeasible, the two groups agreed to disagree, and to swap the building on alternate Sundays, which they continue to do eight decades later.

The Mennonites and Amish have a common ancestor in a group called the Anabaptists, or the Brethren, which began to ponder the purity of Christian practice shortly after the Reformation began. Their doctrine called for total, voluntary commitment, professed through adult baptism, plain appearance, and a direct connection between people and God, a point that directly undermined religious authority. In 1536, Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest, gathered the scattered Anabaptists of Northern Europe into congregations, earning the movement the "Mennonite" moniker. The Amish represent a more austere movement that grew up in the 17th century, when a group of Mennonites led by Jacob Amman challenged the movement for straying from the original teachings.

Both secular and church powers didn't hesitate to smash the fledgling movement, and the Mennonite-Amish began migrating to the United States, specifically to Pennsylvania, a haven for religious freedom. The Amish are clustered mainly in a few parts of the United States--the largest population is in northeastern Ohio, and in New York's Finger Lake region, where they have fled Pennsylvania's high land prices. Mennonites, less reclusive, live all over the globe. A 1994 population survey by the Mennonite World Conference put the worldwide Amish-Mennonite population at just under 1 million.

There is an astounding array of sects and practices within the Amish and Mennonites: Old Order Amish and "modern" Amish, Hutterian Brethren and Beachy Amish Mennonite. Lester, a self-described "mainline" Mennonite, distinguishes himself from what he calls "horse-and-buggy Mennonites."

Some are more tech-friendly than others. Old Order houses typically will not use electricity. Phones aren't permitted in the home, though many houses have a telephone box near their roadside mailboxes. Some houses go as far as windmills, wells and water pumps, and some Amish use machines in all but the productive land on their farms, where only mules and manual instruments are used. Yet others drive cars. "It's not written down," Lester explained, "but they all know their own rules."

Veteran Lancaster visitors, as well as the "English" who live there, say the best way to engage locals is at their markets and stores. Roadside stalls sell flowers, berries, pies, and preserves, and the countryside is speckled with stores and workshops with wooden ornaments, furniture, and splendid stitched quilts. A roadside shingle indicates whether it's OK to stop in; locals who sell to the public are used to talking to outsiders.

At Riehl's Quilts & Crafts, a few miles north of Intercourse, a barn, tobacco-curing building, and store adjoins a farmhouse. The proprietor, a 30-ish mother in traditional Old Order clothes, happily fielded questions from a curious trio of tourists on whether the Amish pay school taxes (yes) and receive government benefits (no, by choice).

One of her daughters, who looked to be about 15 years old, sat painting scenes on the backs of frying pans. Her artwork, alongside other items for sale, was displayed on the store's walls. In a playful tone, Lester asked her if she was a good girl. She bantered right back, saying that he obviously didn't know her too well. Then he asked where the nearest gas station was, a little like asking a vegetarian the way to the butcher's. Finally, she remembered a place back in the direction we'd come from.

There's an understandable impulse to want to take the experience of these different people home to share through photos. But ask first, since many Old Order people consider the practice offensive. And don't be offended if the answer is no.

"One fellow said he didn't want pictures of himself, because if he saw them all over the place, he might become proud," Lester explained.

"I don't know," I said. "I've seen many pictures of myself that made me pretty humble."

"That's a good one," he said. "I'll have to remember it next time." t

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