Lancaster County PA, not what I expected

In Gentle Journeys by Susan3 Comments


We included a visit to Lancaster County Pennsylvania on our trip across the Eastern U.S. because it is repeatedly cited as a popular retirement location.  I envisioned tranquil farmlands, a slower way of life, and the ubiquitous Amish horse and buggy.  It seemed like a good place for a couple of people who like to get around by bicycle.

Almost all of my preconceived images were dismantled one by one.

First, traffic was dreadful.  It’s not the locals, it’s tourist — us included. Tourism is big business.  An NPR article from 2014 said tourism in Lancaster County is worth $1.8 billion a year.  I have to wonder how many of these shops, strip malls, and hotels were once Amish farms.

Craft offerings in an Amish store

Craft offerings in the Amish stores we visited were disappointing.

Second, I was dismayed at the quality of the “crafts.”  An endless string of shops sell tacky decor items that can be found in any souvenir shop across the country.  I wanted to oohhh and aahhh at craftsmanship even if I wasn’t in the market to buy anything.

Finally, there are the amusement parks, the horse and buggy rides (at least half the buggies on the road held tourists), and giant smorgasbord restaurants all claiming to have the authentic Pennsylvania Dutch recipes of their forefathers.  Food like shoofly pie - a concoction of molasses and brown sugar that dates back to when the pantry was bare and the ingredients simple.  I know I should have tried it but I just couldn’t bring myself to buy a piece of sugar pie.  I must be the only one who can’t.  The official state bumper sticker is “I Break for Shoofly Pie”.

With all that said, you’d think I had a horrible time.  It wasn’t, it was just sad.

How did the Amish end up with weird, ripoff tourist attractions in the midst of their gentle lives on such rich farmland?

How it all started

Before Lancaster County was a tourist trap it was a refuge for one of the oldest Anabaptist communities in the United States.

The Anabaptists believe that baptism must be chosen by a person in adulthood.  This ran contrary to both the Protestants and Catholics who believed an infant should be baptized.  And for this heinous crime, they were persecuted and punished by burning at the stake, beheading, or drowning.  Of course, this was long, long ago.  Unlike today, in the 15th and 16th centuries people had so little acceptance of anyone’s differences.  Aren’t we a funny lot?

The Anabaptists fled Europe for Lancaster County 300 years ago at the invitation of William Penn, the English Quaker.  He invited them and others who were being persecuted for their religion to join him in a place of religious freedom.

The new settlers were Mennonite, Amish, Brethran, Moravian, and Hutterite.  They came from Switzerland, The Netherlands, Germany, England, France, Scotland, and Wales.  They joined the Lutherans, Quaker, Presbyterian, and  Catholic followers among others.  This diversity made Lancaster County one of the most cosmopolitan in the new world.

A history from the Lancaster County Historical Society provides a fascinating take on the challenges of settling just one small section of this vast United States.  It also addresses how the settlers intertwined with the Native American peoples who sold their land to William Penn.

Sidebar: How the Amish Live

Only about half the Amish are farmers.  They work in every trade you can imagine including restaurants (where they have electric lights, refrigerators, and air conditioning) and tractor repair even though they won’t personally use a tractor.  We saw horse breeders, (with solar powered electric fences), furniture and buggy makers, and kitchen/bath remodelers among other construction trades.

Most Amish farms are small by today’s standards: 90 to 100 acres. I was surprised they grew tobacco but then learned the men do smoke, mostly pipes.  They even use herbicides and pesticides on their commercial crops to maximize yield although some choose to farm organically in their family plot.

Many compromises occurred over the years in how to use electrical power.  And, there is a difference between how they live in their home versus what is acceptable in their businesses.  Battery power, propane generators, and solar power are all common today.

Riding in cars and other motorized vehicles is permitted but driving is not.  In other words, adults can hire a driver for a winter get-away (many go to Sarasota Florida), and use a taxi to get there.  Children can rollerblade or use a scooter but not a bicycle.  It seems contradictory, but the goal is to keep the family in their community.

Amish who work for themselves or run a business employing others will pay no social security or medicare taxes because they choose not to take those benefits.  In fact, they buy no health insurance and seek health care only when symptoms interfere with carrying out their work.  Amish are subject to all other state, local, and federal taxes.

Higher education is prohibited among both men and women with schooling ending at age 14.  Yet, they take education seriously, creating and paying for their own one room schoolhouses about every 1.5 miles.  When the schoolroom exceeds 35 students, they draw new boundaries and set up a new school.  The teacher is always an unmarried woman (girl) and she also has only an 8th grade education.

Personal appearance choices are the most obvious to outsiders.  Clothing is always solid colored and simple.  Women cover their long, uncut hair with a bonnet.  Married men sport a beard.  Their wedding dresses are their Sunday best with the addition of a white cape and apron.

Church, weddings, and funerals are held in the home.  In this patriarchal society, when a man marries he also accepts the responsibility of preaching when it is his turn and becoming a Bishop, if the community should select him.  Each church district has about 150 people and the bi-weekly service is hosted in a rotation of private homes.

Lancaster County Today

Even though the two largest populations are Mennonite and Amish, tourism in Lancaster County is predominately Amish oriented.

We thought an afternoon spent with The Amish Experience would give us the most complete picture in our limited time.  They offer a history film, a tour through the farmland, and a guided visit to a reconstructed schoolhouse and family farm home.  The guides were “English” (which means everyone who is not Amish) so it lacked authenticity for sure.  We were disappointed with the experience.

A replica Amish school room

We wanted to learn about Amish culture in a respectful way.

Most of the tour focused on how the Amish live in contrast to how most people live in modern society.  When they arrived in the new world 300 years ago, it was their religious beliefs that set them apart from their neighbors.  The sidebar on How the Amish Live summarizes the key points we learned.

There is no escaping modern society.  So, yes, the Amish do use technology. Appointments have to be made, vendors have to be called, and products have to be delivered.  About 15 years ago the state of Pennsylvania required all Amish buggies to be wired for lights and turn signals for everyone’s safety.

As a group, Amish communities decide how to incorporate technology into their lives while placing their home and community values first.  An interesting article from Psyche Magazine is intended to provide the rest of us with ideas taken from Amish culture on how to be selective and conscious of our technology decisions.

I’ve been pondering my own set of “guiding principles” for using technology ever since we left Pennsylvania.  For instance, I just bought a new Samsung Tablet and got all excited about asking Google to look up information through voice recognition.  (I know, it’s been around for years but our equipment is all pretty old.)  The first thing out of Jamie’s mouth was, “Do you really need/want that? Do you want to think about turning it off?”

If you’re ready for a cleansing, you’ll enjoy the article. I know I'm ready.

Susan writes about the things that make life meaningful for her. This includes places we’ve been and what we’ve experienced as nomads these last several years. And now, includes finding a place to call home.

As we come closer to a “settled” life, Susan will begin to emphasize aging gracefully with a plant based diet, plenty of yoga, and physical activity. She is certified to teach Hatha, Vinyasa, and Yin yoga. Adaptive and Senior yoga certification is coming soon.


  1. We live in Lancaster county and years ago I was an Amish country tour guide. It sounds like you followed the tourist trail (Route 30 east of Lancaster city). Few locals take that route if it can be avoided. Plus, it’s been developed to included every crappy chain-whatever you can find anyplace else in America.
    The real Lancaster county is a few miles away, but still close if you know where to go.

    1. Hi Dan,
      It’s nice to hear that there is a real Lancaster County behind the touristic claptrap. In fact, we enjoyed a peaceful interlude in Strasburg.
      Thanks for your comment.

  2. My parents grew up in Ephrata and I still have relatives there. We even have a few Mennonites as distant relatives. My mother lived on the farm until she was eight and went to a one room school house until high school.
    After reading your post I am happy I was able to get to know Lancaster County pre-tourism. Memories of the family farm, Green Dragon Farmers’ Market and old Main Street will remain a strong part of who I am.

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