Friends in Amish Country

Published: July 20th 2016
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What a great and stress-free day! Lancaster is in the heart of Amish country, but they’re not the only folks that live ‘simply’ around here – you’ve got Mennonites and Brethren, too. So what was the first thing we did this morning? An Amish market!

The market is called Root’s, and it’s pronounced a little differently than I would’ve thought. But it’s a happening place. It’s like a big farmer’s market and flea market all in one, and it meets basically every day. And it’s massive. So many people were selling things, and many more were wandering the aisles – both indoors and out – looking for just about anything you could want. Many of the vendors are Amish or Mennonites, typically with their distinctive clothing and hairstyles. And if you want something, you can probably find it here. All kinds of food – fresh produce, jams, butter, meats, and candy, all the way to a French fry stand and several ice cream places. And then there are the ones selling clothes, or games, or junk. Very busy. Amy was nice enough to buy a whoopie pie for me – a local treat with lots of sugar, similar to an oatmeal pie but without the texture and a fluffier filling. I chose red velvet, since they had them. So good! They had loads of flavors, as you can see from the picture. But that’s always been a favorite of mine.

We parted ways for a while after the market. Amy needed to take the kids to the babysitter for the day, and I wanted to check out Wheatland, the home of James Buchanan, America’s 15th president. It’s in Lancaster, but I was hesitant about paying $12 for a tour of what I would consider to be one of America’s worst presidents. I can say without reservation, however, that this tour was well worth the price of admission. Since Buchanan has such a bad reputation – he’s the president who did basically nothing as the nation tore itself apart over slavery and then handed the job over to Abe Lincoln – you can imagine that the place doesn’t get much attention. They give a tour every hour, on the hour after 10AM. Mine was at 11, and there were only 3 in my group. A retired couple and myself – I’m starting to see a pattern here.

But with such small groups, the personal attention is so much better. The lady who gave our tour was dressed in a hooped dress from the period (1850s and 1860s). She is a retired teacher and I just loved to hear her talk. She pronounced the word ‘beautiful’ as it were ‘beauty-full.’ And she was very charming. After the second room, she commented that she could tell that I was very interested in the house, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wasn’t necessarily because of Buchanan – I’m just a presidential trivia whore. And I had seen Eisenhower’s home yesterday, and Jefferson’s the day before that. I totally loved this house, though. The rooms were decorated using mostly Buchanan-owned artifacts; and we have lithographs from the 1856 election showing exactly where the pieces were located in each room! It makes the restoration process so much easier.

I guess I didn’t realize how much Harriet Lane – Buchanan’s niece – did, or how popular she was throughout her lifetime. Since Buchanan never married (his fiancée broke it off and then died shortly thereafter, leaving him with a perpetual broken heart, according to our tour guide), Lane served as the First Lady, the first woman to actually hold that title. She was orphaned at 11, at which point he took her in and treated her like his own daughter. But she was friends with Queen Victoria and had a pretty active public life, including a boat load of philanthropy. So, she basically decorated the house, and many of the rooms have special significance to both her and her uncle’s life. Pictures can’t really do the house justice.

After Wheatland, I joined Amy and Kevin in the tiny town of Lititz, a “suburb” of Lancaster, for lunch. We met at what used to be the Wilbur Chocolate Factory (now relocated) and strolled around looking for a place for lunch. I thought the Irish pub looked like a winner, so we enjoyed the atmosphere, while I enjoyed some fish and chips for the first time in over a year. Ahhh. After lunch, we strolled down the main shopping street, finally going into the Sturgiss Pretzel shop, which claims to be the first pretzel factory in the new world. Their cheese pretzels stole my heart, so I bought the largest bag I could find in preparation for when my other snacks run out. I can’t wait! Lastly, we returned to the Wilbur building, which still houses a museum and shop. The purpose was buying chocolate, and I do lament that I couldn’t get too much, since I don’t have a cooler and basically could only get what I could eat within a short time. So I got a dark chocolate-covered pretzel stick – combining two of the best culinary contributions of Lititz. After that, I had to part ways with Amy and Kevin, who were such wonderful hosts and tour guides for the past two days. I was glad to catch up with them after a few years.

My final stop of the day was the Ephrata Cloister in nearby Ephrata. Amy had recommended it, and it truly gives a glimpse of what life would’ve been like in the area for this breakaway religious group in the 1700s. They were a German-speaking community, comprising mostly celibate men and women at the start but ultimately giving way to married families by the 1800s. Several of the original buildings are intact, and we even got to go in a few. The admission for the site, which includes a short video and the services of a tour guide, is $10. You can easily do the whole thing in an hour, but if you want to wander around the grounds, or visit the gift shop, it’ll obviously take longer. We went inside the house of Conrad Beissel, the founder of the religious order. We also got to go into the kitchen and sleeping area of the women’s building, and then the chapel. My favorite was the chapel – the configuration probably led to great acoustics, and Beissel wrote several hymns himself. When we were in his building, we got to see a large text print in the German Frakturschriften font. The guide asked if anybody could read any of it, so I volunteered my services. He was impressed. As should anyone be, since I am just that impressive. But seriously, it looked a lot like stuff that we had to read in old German classes, though this particular font was a bit of a pain. Back to the chapel, though – it has upper seating, which is where the women and children sat; men were more important, I guess, so they were seated downstairs at eye level with Beissel, or whoever the pastor happened to be at the time.

After the cloister, I made my way to New Jersey for the night. It’s my only stop in this state. I had hoped to see the Grover Cleveland home nearby tomorrow, but it doesn’t open until 10. Since there are other places I want to see even more than that, I have to make sure that I will get to them before they close, which precludes a visit to the Cleveland home. Alas, it’s not far from NYC, so the next time I make an East Coast road trip, it won’t be far out of the way. But I’m hoping to go to bed earlier tonight than I have in several days, since the time I get up seems to be pretty standard, whether I like it or not. Another early morning, but I’m looking forward to exploring upstate New York tomorrow.

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