Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is world famous for being Pennsylvania Dutch Country and is the home of the largest Amish community in the world. The Amish’s story began like many of our ancestors. 300 years ago, the Amish left Europe for America to escape religious persecution. I have always been curious about the Amish lifestyle and customs so I was really excited to have a day to learn a bit and even more excited to try all of the the local foods.
It is amazing that just a few hours from New York and Philadelphia an entirely different world exists that rejects cars, electricity, and modernity. Even bicycles are prohibited in some communities.
Amish Farm Tour
The best thing we did during our visit, by far, was visit a working Amish Farm. We went to Old Windmill Farm in Ronks, Pennsylvania. The farm is run by Jesse and Anna and their family.
Our tour was led by Sadie, their 12-year-old daughter. If I could be guaranteed a kid like Sadie, I would have zero hesitation about having kids. She was bright and polite, and probably works harder than half the people I know. She gave us a captivating tour and a detailed explanation of how their farm works.
I got to meet Dancer, a carriage horse. Sadie told use that she had just been out for a run in the buggy with Dancer that morning. Children can start driving buggies at age 12.
My favorite part, hands down, was getting to feed the calves. They were adorable. The one on the left was only a month and a half old and it was already so big! I wanted to take one home with me but I’m not sure how to check a cow at the airport.
The calves were all about their bottle and were not very skilled at sharing. But I tried to make sure everyone got some. After feeding the babies, we got to meet their moms.
I even got to try my hand at milking, which was a lot different than my experience milking a goat. It was hard to make happen, but Bessie (the cows don’t have names, but she looked like a Bessie) was very patient with my inexperience.
We also got to feed their chickens fresh alfalfa. They love the leaves. However, I learned it is a task that is better accomplished with one hand at a time. Chickens do not care if they take your finger along with the alfalfa.
One brilliant feature of the farm is its namesake windmill. The windmill is connected to a well and every time the windmill turns it brings water up for the farm.
The farm was wonderful and made me wish I had a small one of my own. But maybe just a garden and a few goats . . . milking cows is clearly not my forte.
Amish Buggy Ride
When we first started planning our trip I hoped that we would get to see some Amish buggies in person. But with over 30,000 Amish in Lancaster County, they were easy to spot. There are a few different types, but they are all in the same shade of grey, as dictated by their church.
We took a buggy tour with AAA (Amish All Around) Buggy Rides. Having a late summer ride through Lancaster County was a delightful way to spend a late summer afternoon. The weather was perfect, and at least 20 degrees cooler than what I am used to at home.
The ride went down a back country rode and went past a few Amish farms and by an Amish schoolhouse. The entire ride was lined with gorgeous scenery.
We learned a lot on the ride about Amish homes and how they incorporate some technology into their lives. For example, the guide said you could tell Amish homes apart because the have green shades on the windows. Also, while the Amish avoid the modernity, they have incorporated some aspects into their farms. For example, they can use mechanical equipment to tend to and harvest their farm, but it has to be pulled by horses (which I knew). But I learned that they have also permitted the use of weed whackers and leaf blowers, which helps explain why their lawns are so perfect.
I definitely plan to take another buggy ride on my next visit. Regardless of the company you use, it is just a lovely way to see the area.
Pennsylvania Dutch Food
Because I don’t eat meat, I don’t often get to sample local fare. However, in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, many of the unique local foods are delicious desserts. I came armed with a hit list of foods I was dying to try.
Birch Beer and Homemade Root Beer
I’d never heard of birch beer before I planned my trip to Lancaster. Birch beer is similar to root beer or sarsaparilla and is a carbonated soda made from birch bark or the sap of a birch tree. Apparently it is very popular in the area. I didn’t find any homemade, but there are several commercial varieties that are from the area. The birch beer I tried was less sweet than most root beers, I which I really liked. I’ll have to track some down at home.
You can actually find homemade root beer at most roadside farm stands. We got a bottle of it from Bluegate Bakery and it was delicious.
My first whoopie pie changed my life. Several states claim to be the home of whoopie pies (including my native Virginia), but regardless of the origin, they are a long lasting Pennsylvania Amish tradition. Whoopie pies consist of two cookie sized (traditionally chocolate) cakes with marshmallow creme in the center. And it is heaven. I only bought one and I am both thankful for and loathe that decision. I would have loved to have a few to devour, but it would have been a terrible dietary decision. And no, a fresh whoopie pie is nothing like a moon pie. That is like trying to compare Alec and Stephen Baldwin.
Shoofly pie sounds like is it from the South, doesn’t it? I mean, it is full of rich molasses, and Southerners love that crap. Nope, it is another native of Lancaster County and was developed by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the 1880s. It is like if a molasses pie and a crumb cake had a delicious love child. They come in two varieties: dry bottom and wet-bottom. The dry-bottom has a cake-like consistency throughout and the wet-bottom has a stickier, gooier custard-like consistency for the bottom layer. We got to sample the wet bottom variety at Dutch Haven. It was sugary and delicious . . . and we brought back a few pies to give as gifts to our friends.
Wilbur buds are chocolate kiss-shaped chocolates (that pre-date Hershey kisses) made by the Wilbur Chocolate Company in Litiz, Pennsylvania. They are a favorite of the area. Their factory is located in town and you can watch them make their sweets from inside the shop. We got a few bags of the Wilbur buds as well as various other assorted sweets. The chocolate isn’t as sweet as Hershey’s, which is why I am telling myself that makes them better for me.
Julius Sturgis Pretzels
Julius Sturgis Pretzels was established in 1861 and was the first pretzel bakery in the new world. We had a special request to pick up some snacks there from a friend and we gladly obliged. We got some bags of our own and also grabbed a hot and fresh soft pretzel for the road. Yum!
Chow-Chow is a Pennsylvania Dutch dish that consists of pickled vegetables served cold and usually as a condiment. We picked up a few jars from a roadside stand (from Bluegate Farm and Annie’s Kitchen in Ronks) and it ended up being quite delicious. We saved one jar for later and I am looking forward to finding interesting ways to serve it.
There were so many other foods we tried, I can’t even keep track of them all. On our buggy tour we stopped for the best fresh made lemonade I’ve ever had (somehow it was simultaneously sweet and not sugary). We also grabbed some fresh homemade cheddar cheese and potato ships from Li’l Country Store next to the Old Windmill Farm. I could not stop eating them.
Even with all of our stops and snacking, I did not get to try apple butter with cottage cheese, cup cheese, fasnachts, jewish apple cake, or teaberry ice cream . . . all local delicacies. But there is always next time (and I ate way too much as it is).
Things to avoid in Lancaster County
Our day had a few low lights that I would urge every person to avoid. The so-called “Amish Village” in Ronks and the Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse. Both are horrific tourist traps that have absolutely nothing to do with the beauty of Lancaster County or the Amish lifestyle.
The Amish Village was giant waste of time and definitely sold a false bill of goods as far as claiming it was an “authentic 1840’s Amish farmhouse.” (It had electricity, lights, air conditioning, and was basically a house filled with anachronistic Amish props.) We also learned very little on the tour as it covered basics you could get watching any documentary or just by reading Wikipedia. Going there was seriously bad research on my part, which I later regretted.
Kitchen Kettle Village was not an intentional stop for us, as we try to avoid large gatherings of tourists and shopping centers. However, it turned out the buggy tour we selected departed from the village. While the tour itself was nice and relaxing (and I’d still recommend it), the masses of people and the trashy tourist kitsch was a mood killer.
If you visit Lancaster, stick to the local farms and farm stands for a more authentic experience. The difference is immeasurable and I am sure the farmers will appreciate your business.
I loved Lancaster County and I hope to make a return trip next summer and try to cover all the things we missed on this trip due to our short visit, wasted time at the Amish Village, and a lost wallet (ok, mine) that cost us an hour detour. It is a nice escape from the pace of my busy life and was a check on what is really important.