Where the Plain People Live
Amid the blur and traffic of Lancaster County’s tourist gridlock, it’s still possible to get a glimpse of the Plain People (the Pennsylvania Dutch), numbering some 70,000 divided between the strict Old Order Amish, the more liberal Mennonites and Brethren (who are less opposed to making money on the tourism their neighbors attract), and more than a dozen other Anabaptist splinter sects.
The Old Order – numbering some 25,000 here, making it the nation’s second oldest and largest Amish settlement – wear aprons, suspenders, bonnets, and broad-brimmed straw hats, and travel by foot, horse-drawn black buggies, and scooters (but no bikes!). These are modest, religious, and hardworking folk, whose pristine patchwork farms spread across this bucolic corner of “God’s Land,” which looks much as it did when the German and Swiss first arrived in the early 1700s.
The “English” (that means you, and all other outsiders) are encouraged to respect the privacy of these insular but kind people and their simple lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a nice, aimless meander down the area’s backcountry roads, which take you past one-room schoolhouses, neat fields cultivated by mule-driven plows, quaintly named towns like Bird-in-Hand and Paradise, and farmhouses and roadside stalls selling crafts, metalwork and woodwork, and cider and home-baked goods, including shoofly pie.
To keep mind and body in the Pennsylvania Dutch mood, book ahead at the Historic Smithton Inn, welcoming guests since 1763, when it was built as a stagecoach stop. Its eight lovely rooms have canopied beds covered with colorful handmade quilts and fireplaces.
It’s located adjacent to the Ephrata Cloister, an historic site. Composed of more than twenty beautifully restored buildings, it was once home to a Quaker-like monastic sect whose population reached 300 in its 1750 heyday.