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This area has been a major farming region since German settlers came across its limestone-rich soil and rolling hills 3 centuries ago. Lancaster County boasts the most productive nonirrigated farmland in the United States, and it's the nation's seventh-largest dairy-producing county. The natural abundance of the region, the ease of getting goods to market in Philadelphia, and the strong work ethic of area residents have preserved major portions of the land for farming. In its day, Lancaster was a leading center of commerce, culture, and politics. The largest inland city in the United States from 1760 to 1810, it was even a contender in the choice of the new nation's capital. Agriculture, however, is now under threat from suburban sprawl as the county has become an increasingly popular suburb of Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Placid fields are being replaced with the housing developments and strip malls demanded by a mushrooming population.

Tourist Dollars vs. Strip Malls: The Amish Today

It wasn't until the mid-1950s that the Amish became a "tourist attraction." As the rest of America rushed to embrace the growing presence of technology in everyday life, the Amish tenacity in maintaining traditional customs and values made them seem both exotic and intriguing. For better or worse, the reclusive Amish, who reject all forms of "worldliness," spawned a major tourist industry.

Most people, including many Amish, saw tourism in a positive light. Money flowed into the county, and the Amish found a growing market for such goods as quilts, wood furniture, metalwork, crafts, and foodstuffs -- with customers literally appearing at their doors. However, less-benign consequences of development are becoming increasingly apparent. The growing Amish population has more than doubled to 28,000 in the past 2 decades (following the biblical edict to "be fruitful and multiply," families may have seven or more children), but as outsiders flock to Lancaster County, the non-Amish population has grown to about 500,000. Their need for housing is driving up land prices and attracting developers. In past years when Amish families looked to buy farmlands for their children, they turned to non-Amish farmers. Today, those non-Amish farmers can get much higher prices from developers.

This means that many Amish have been forced to leave their farms, build new houses (you can tell an Amish home by its dark green window shades), and set up nonfarming businesses. The construction industry in Lancaster County includes many Amish workers, and women who traditionally worked at home on the farm are increasingly running restaurants and shops or overseeing quilting and craft enterprises. Despite the injunction to remain separate from wider society, many families aggressively exploit the cachet that "Amish-made" gives to foods, craft objects, furniture, hex signs, and other souvenirs and products.

Meet the Amish

In the early 18th century, a time of persecution in Europe, William Penn's "holy experiment" of religious tolerance -- plus word-of-mouth reports about the region's fertile farmlands -- drew thousands of German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania. They were lumped together as Pennsylvania "Dutch." Mennonite sects, particularly the Amish, became the most famous of the immigrants, but the Colonial period also saw a mixture of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, French Protestants, English from Maryland, and Jews from Iberia arrive in the region. The ethnic makeup of the county changed little between 1796 and the late 20th century.

The religions of the Pennsylvania Dutch are part of the Anabaptist strand of the Protestant Reformation. Anabaptism is a Christian faith that emerged during the 16th century, and Anabaptists believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, in baptism only for adults mature enough to choose this rite of transformation, and in remaining separate from larger society. Menno Simons, a Catholic priest from Holland, joined the Anabaptists in 1536 and united the various groups, whose members came to be called Mennonites. In 1693, Jacob Amman, a Mennonite bishop who found his church too tolerant of lax sinners, broke away to establish the Amish Church.

The three major sects in Lancaster County, the Amish, the Brethren (also called the Dunkards), and the Mennonites (there are numerous orders), share many beliefs, including those concerning adult baptism, nonresistance, and basic Bible doctrine. They differ in matters of dress, use or avoidance of technology, degree of literal interpretation of the Bible, and form of worship. For example, the Amish conduct worship services at home, while the Mennonites hold services in churches, which range from small and simple to large and majestic. The Amish do not proselytize, while Mennonites have a strong tradition of missionary work.

Today, the Amish reside in 21 states and in Canada. In Lancaster County, most continue to work on farms where fields are still plowed with horses or mules instead of tractors. While you won't spot any electrical lines (this energy source represents a dependent connection to the "outside" world), Amish farm existence is neither primitive nor ascetic. Homes are furnished comfortably (if quaintly by today's tastes), propane lamps provide ample illumination, and propane or air compressors power stoves, refrigerators, and other appliances. They are a trilingual people, speaking Pennsylvania Dutch (a German dialect) at home, High German at worship services (the German of Luther's Bible translation), and English with members of the larger society. Non-Plain People are referred to as "the English" -- a reference to language rather than ethnic heritage -- and worldly styles or practices are described as "Englishy."

Since family is the vital social unit among the Amish and large families the norm, more than half of their booming Lancaster County community is under the age of 18. Dozens of mailboxes are marked with the names Zook, Stoltzfus, and Zinn -- a testimony to prolific extended families. The practice of "shunning" -- an Old Testament-sounding excommunication from family relations for Amish who marry outsiders, violate basic tenets, or leave the church after baptism -- is still enforced, though relatives will sometimes talk when unobserved.

Children attend school in simple one-room schoolhouses, built and maintained by the Amish, through the eighth grade. There are over 200 such schools in Lancaster County. Students, who are taught only the basics by an unmarried teenage Amish girl with an 8th-grade education and no special training, are exempt from the standard state curriculum and may leave school by age 16.

To the visitor, the two most distinctive characteristics of the Amish are their clothing and their use of horse and buggy rather than cars. Both these features are linked to their religious beliefs. The distinctive clothing worn by about 30,000 "Plain People" in Lancaster County is meant to encourage humility and modesty as well as separation from larger society. Amish men and boys wear dark-colored suits, straight-cut coats without lapels, broadcloth trousers, suspenders, solid-colored shirts, black socks and shoes, and black or straw broad-brimmed hats. Men wait to grow beards until they are married, and do not grow mustaches. Women and girls wear modest, solid-colored dresses with long sleeves and long full skirts, covered by a cape and an apron. They never cut their hair, but gather it in a bun on the back of the head, concealed by a white prayer covering. Amish women do not wear printed fabrics or jewelry, even wedding rings. Single women in their teens and 20s wear black prayer coverings on their heads for church services. After marriage, a white covering is worn.

The Amish are reluctant to accept any technology that could weaken the family structure. Their horse-drawn buggies help keep them close to home by limiting distances that can be traveled in a day, and every boy receives his own "courting buggy" upon turning 16. Telephones, needed to conduct business, are located in roadside shelters rather than homes, and are shared by neighboring families. As new ideas emerge, each congregational district (about 100 families) evaluates them and decides what to accept or reject. The fundamental criterion is that an innovation should not jeopardize the simplicity of their lives or the strength of the family unit. Amish teens do sometimes succumb to sampling worldly temptations such as listening to rock music or changing into "English" clothes and sneaking off to movies -- behavior that's forgivable prior to baptism. In fact, this normally rebellious teen stage of life has been sensationalized, exaggerated, and distorted by several TV shows on the Amish rite of passage called rumspringa (run wild). Even after getting a taste of "English" culture, the vast majority of Amish elect to remain in their tight-knit community -- often dying in the same house where they were born.

There are a number of excellent books on the Amish way of life. The classic is John Hostetler's Amish Society (Johns Hopkins, 1993). A more impassioned, personal take is After the Fire: The Destruction of the Lancaster County Amish (UPNE, 1992) by Randy-Michael Testa. Children's books include Growing Up Amish (Atheneum, 1989) by Richard Ammon and Raymond Bial's Amish Home (Sandpiper, 1995), with wonderful photographs. Since Amish do not permit photography, film depictions are bound to be compromised, as was the case with both the crime-drama Witness (1985) and the farcical For Richer or Poorer (1997). For an entertaining read that's a perfect Lancaster vacation mood setter, pick up any of Tamar Myers's delightful Pennsylvania Dutch mysteries with recipes (www.tamarmyers.com), such as Hell Hath No Curry (Signet, 2008).

Some Facts About Pennsylvania Dutch Country

  • The Pennsylvania Dutch Country hosts 11 million visitors a year.
  • Lancaster was the nation's capital for a day, when Congress fled from Philadelphia on September 27, 1777.
  • In-line skates and scooters are considered acceptable forms of transportation among the Amish, though bicycles are not permissible.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.