Learn about the lives and beliefs of the Amish and Mennonite people as you explore the history, customs and culture of this farming community.
The Amish people emigrated from Switzerland to the United States at the end of the 17th century due to religious persecution. Once a small colony, their population in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania has doubled to about 18,000 in 20 years. Visitors will find farmers working the land as their forefathers did, without motorized equipment or modern conveniences. Driving through the rolling farmlands you will see lovely sights of corn and tobacco fields, classic barns and silos, and cows grazing on rolling hillsides. Horse drawn buggies transport the local residents, and roadside farm stands run on the honor system!
A good place to begin your tour is The Mennonite Information Center at 2209 Millstream Road between Strasburg and Smokestown (717/299-0954). This educational center offers an overview of the life and beliefs of the Amish people in the 30-minute, 3-screen movie “Who Are the Amish?” and a walk-through exhibit about both the Amish and Mennonite religions. You can arrange a same-day guided tour, in which a local MIC guide will ride with you, show you the area and authentic businesses, and answer all your questions. Additionally, you can locate listings of Mennonite-run tourist and working farm homes.
Busy Lancaster is in the heart of Amish Country and 45 minutes from Hershey. Stop at The Pennsylvania Dutch Visitors Center at 501 Greenfield Road for info and maps of this historic town dating from the early 1700’s. Don’t miss the Central Market (717/735-6890) the country’s oldest farmer’s market, on Tuesdays and Fridays (6am to 4:00pm) and on Saturdays (6am-2pm) held at Penn Square at the intersection of King and Queen Streets. Here, you can purchase regional produce, flowers, meats, candies, jams, baked goods and Amish crafts at the oldest publicly owned farmer’s market, dating from the 1730’s. For a completely different shopping experience, there is a huge outlet shopping mall at the intersection of Routes 30 and 896. Note that most traditional businesses are closed on Sunday.
If you’re exploring the Central Market on Friday or Saturday, you may want to catch a late morning performance at Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre (717/394-8398) two blocks away. Shows tend to run just over half an hour and include child-friendly titles like “Rumplestiltskin,” “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” and “Peter Pan.”
Dutch Wonderland will keep the kids entertained, as the Kingdom for Kids, priding themselves on “making firsts happen” like first roller coaster rides, first tastes of cotton candy, and the first time driving a car. The grand opening for the 46th Season is on May 2-3, 2009, and will feature a performance by hometown celebrity, Isaiah Smith, who was a finalist on ABC’s hit show “High School Musical: Get in the Picture.” This is a complimentary performance with paid entrance to the park. Other stage shows include Thomas & Friends Live, a favorite, and Beyond the Castle Walls, following Princess Brooke and her friends.
The park has many great attractions like the new high-dive show, A Dragon’s Tale, which follows Queen Gwinneth and Puff, her pet dragon. With her dragons help, the Queen must defend her kingdom from the evil wizard and his knights. This show will be on a rotational schedule with the park’s existing show, The Adventures of the Frog Prince. Another new attraction is the Twister, a circular-motion ride for the entire family. The ride spins guests horizontally, and then fluctuates in a wavelike manner. After enjoying the rides, be sure to check out the new carry-out restaurant at the park, which includes Tex Mex options like quesadillas and tacos. Kids 2 and under are free.
The Quilt Museum at 3510 Old Philadelphia Pike (800/828-8218) exhibits an extraordinary collection of antique (pre-1940) Amish and Mennonite quilts along with information on their artists and owners. Additionally, exhibits of more contemporary quilts as well as examples from other cultures are often displayed. The gift shop is a favorite stop for quilters and quilt lovers.
The Old Country Store, downstairs from the quilt museum, displays the creations of 300 local craftsmen. Two other interesting stops in Intercourse are The Old Candle Barn on Main Street (Rte. 340) at 3551 Old Philadelphia Pike (717/768-8926) to watch the process of candle-dipping, and Carriage House Furnishings at 3572 West Newport Road (717/768-8712) to observe the restoration of buggies and purchase local handicrafts such as rocking horses, rocking chairs and mailboxes.
Visit the authentic Farmer’s Market (Wednesday through Saturday, from 8:30am to 5:30pm during July and August – check their website for schedule at other times) in the small and touristy town of Bird-in-Hand.
Prepare to spend some money on edibles (lots of fudge, cookies, jams, pickled vegetable, herbs, pretzels etc.) as well as folk crafts like candles and quilts.
Abe’s Buggy Rides at 2596 Old Philadelphia Pike (717/392-1794) offers 20-minute narrated rides in a horse-drawn Amish family carriage. It’s a fun way to tour a two-mile area of farms and historic buildings. While you’re awaiting your turn, watch straw hats being woven in the traditional Amish manner
This part of Pennsylvania is a haven for the train buffs in your group, starting with the Strasburg Railroad on Route 741 (717/687-7522). At the station you can tour the Paradise, a beautifully restored private railroad car built in 1916 and used by President Truman in his 1948 campaign. Then it’s “All Aboard!” for a 45-minute, nine-mile round trip ride in restored Victorian-era coaches pulled by a huge steam locomotive to Paradise, Pa. Full day hop-on/hop-off passes allow you to ride several steam trains pulling open-air, dining, lounge or historic parlor cars. You can also ride on the miniature Cagney Train, built in 1920, which is built and operates the same as large steam locomotives. June, September and December bring special rides on a visiting Thomas the Tank Engine; reserve ahead to meet the preschool set’s most popular hero.
After taking some rides, it’s onto the Mechanical Shop for a behind-the-scenes look at the where the trains are built and refurbished. Climb up to the Switch Tower for a tour and a birds-eye-view of the gorgeous countryside and approaching trains.
At the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Route 741 East (717/687-8628), discover the history of the railroad as you explore the immense new Railroaders Hall which contains more than 100 locomotives and rail cars ranging from a reproduction of the John Bull, an early steam engine, to a 220-ton engine built in 1943, and featuring the historical collection of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Tour the outside yard and view other engines, sleepers and dining cars undergoing restoration.
National Toy Train Museum, 300 Gap Road off PA 741 East (717/687-8976), is the headquarters of the Train Collector’s Association whose goal is the preservation of toy trains. Here you will find five toy train displays covering locomotive history from the mid-1800s to the present.
The Choo Choo Barn /Traintown, USA, Route 741 East (717/687-7911 or 800/450-2920) has a 1,700-square-foot miniature train layout also including trams, cars and ski lifts set in a miniature replica of Lancaster County. The realistic backdrop includes parades, a baseball game and, of course, an Amish barn-raising!
North of Strasburg on Highway 896 is the Amish Village (717/687-8511) of particular interest to school age children. Costumed interpreters demonstrate the life of the Amish with a guided tour of a typical home, schoolhouse, windmill, country store, and blacksmith shop.
A fun town to visit to sample some of the local specialties, such as the Julius Sturgis Pretzel House, 219 East Main Street on Route 772 (717/626-4354). Tour America’s oldest commercial pretzel factory dating to 1861 and enjoy many free samples and hands-on demonstrations of pretzel twisting, a skill appropriate for all ages.
The Wilbur Chocolate Factory Store, 48 North Broad Street also called Route 501 (717/626-3249).
Watch craftsmen and women hand-dipping candy and see displays of chocolate-making molds and tools.
Love the Simple Amish Lifestyle? More Details
For more information, contact the Pennsylvania Dutch Country Welcome Center or the Lancaster County Visitor’s Bureau (800/PA-DUTCH).
The following websites will also be useful in your trip-planning: Amish.net links to the tourist offices of Amish communities in 19 states and Canada, as well as dozens of Amish product vendors. At the Elkhart County C&VB site, this northern Indiana Amish community offers many local sites of interest to families. Amish Heartland magazine has posted many interesting stories online about the culture and history of these special people.
During March and April, town fire companies hold annual “Mud Sales,” (a local term for auctions), that draw bargain-hunters from as far away as Texas, California and Florida. People arrive very early to peruse everything from household goods to hand-made quilts to livestock. Food, such as hand-twisted hard pretzels and traditional baked goods is plentiful, and the bidding is exciting to watch. Check www.padutchcountry.com for a schedule of mud sales.
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