Cabooses and Horses in Lancaster County

In the last week of my parents’ visit from Scotland, I decided it was important that they see another element of Pennsylvania that they had not yet seen – namely the Pennsylvania Dutch.  The Amish and Mennonite communities of Lancaster County have such a different way of life even from other rural farming communities or other religious groups that I thought that my Mum and Dad should see something of that for themselves in order to comprehend it.  I always feel a little uncomfortable about the idea of “people tourism”.  These are, after all, just people who chose to live a life that is different in its everyday aspects from those of us who live more mainstream lifestyles.  They are not zoo specimens and I would like to think that society generally has moved away from the type of anthropology that once categorised people so definitively with implications of inferiority and superiority inherent – and sometimes even explicit – in the comparison.  I, therefore, did not want to make it a day trip about wandering around gawping at Amish people because really that is a ghastly way to behave but instead devised a tour of a few locations that would take us through Amish and Mennonite farming areas and lead to a greater understanding.

As an aside, there was also a teeny weeny wee family history bent to the trip in that Mr Pict (and, therefore, our sons) is descended from a family of Mennonites who fled persecution in Switzerland – they are literally direct descendants of a chap known as Conrad the Persecuted – and settled in Pennsylvania before drifting to New York and Canada.  As well as that geographical migration, gradually that family drifted away from the Mennonite religion and subscribed to other branches of Christianity but nevertheless there is that family history connection that would help my kids understand what I was banging on about when I told them about that family line.

After a long, dull and uneventful drive, we arrived in the area around Ronks and Strasburg as that was to be our locus for the day’s trip.  The first stop was at the Red Caboose Motel.  The littlest Pict and I had visited there with my in-laws not long after we arrived in America last Autumn but none of the other boys had been and obviously neither had my parents.  It is a motel that comprises rooms created out of old cabooses from a wide variety of rail companies.  We are not a train daft family by any stretch but I think some time it might be fun to stay overnight there just for the unique experience.  It’s also as close to camping as I really want to get.  We wandered around looking at the different livery on the cabooses, petted the horses waiting to take people on buggy rides, climbed a silo in order to take in the view of the exceedingly flat countryside and nearby Strasburg Railroad and the boys played on some play equipment sited in a field.  That was perfect for them after a long stint in the car.  There are also farm animals on site for the kids to enjoy.  The turkey bit my Dad’s hand.  My Dad has a history with turkeys.  When he was evacuated during World War Two, he and his brothers were billetted on a farm with a farmer who had lost a leg in the trenches during the First World War.  The one-legged farmer had a one-legged turkey who, because of that affinity, had survived becoming dinner and was something of a pet.  The turkey, however, took an instant dislike to my Dad and would terrorise him, chasing him around the farm and pecking at him.  My Dad has, strangely enough, not been very fond of turkeys his entire life.  Being attacked by one at the Red Caboose Motel did nothing to persuade him out of his opinion.

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After the boys had burned off a little energy, we went into the Motel’s restaurant which is housed in a refurbished train coach car.  It’s a narrow space with small tables so the seven of us had to spread out across two tables but it again makes for a unique experience.  From the windows, we got a good view of the Strasburg Steam Train heading off on a tourist trip and Amish men in the field opposite harvesting tobacco.  The breakfast menu was pretty typical fare but the food was well-cooked and tasty.  My vegetable omelette was light and fluffy and crammed full of perfectly cooked veggies and the boys all had the kids’ portion of pancakes which would have stuffed an adult.  Replete, we headed off on the next leg of our journey which was just an exceptionally short (as in two minute) drive up the same road.



A visit to the Lil’ Country Store and Miniature Horse Farm disconcerted me at first as I was driving a car right into the middle of an Amish Farm.  It felt disrespectful.  However, an Amish man returned my wave was I drove up the drive way past his home which was certainly encouraging.  Once parked up, my seven year old virtually launched himself out of the car to race towards the barn where the horses were stabled.  I have no doubt mentioned this half a dozen times before but he is daft for horses.  And unicorns.  And peguses.  Pegasii?  He is campaigning to own a falabella since we could have it in the house.  Not happening.  Anyway, this farm happened to have a couple of regular sized horses but also a number of horses from a miniature breed.  My son was in horsey heaven.  I am not a massive fan of horses of any kind but I have to admit that these horses were pretty charming, even the one who were told (by a teenage boy) often bit people.  It’s probably horribly and offensively girly of me to even think it but something about their shrunken stature made them cute in a way that I just don’t respond to their full-size counterparts.  Or perhaps I just don’t find the small ones intimidating.  The kids were in bliss stroking the noses and tousling the manes of each horse.  There was even one who had just had a foal.  A baby miniature horse.  How precious is that?

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I had a quick, passing glance in at the workshop which abuts the stable and saw a few Amish men and boys – some probably the same age as my youngest – all beavering away on various carpentry projects.  I always sucked at woodwork at school – though not as badly as I sucked at metalwork – but I have always loved the smell of shaved wood and fresh sawdust.  Whenever I see skilled crafts people immersed in their work, I always wish I had some sort of craft ability.  I make my own art, of course, but it must be very satisfying to be able to make something that you or your family or someone actually needs and makes daily use of.  I cannot knit or crochet, I can barely sew and I definitely cannot make things from scratch using tools.  Anyway, what they were producing was lovely quality, made with real care and attention.  Once we have moved into our own house, I might have to take another jaunt to Lancaster County and see what I can find.  We had a nose around in the Craft Store.  There were lots of lovely bits and bobs for sale.  My Mum bought a quilted fabric heat mat that was filled with aromatic spices so that the aroma would fill the air whenever something, such as a hot bowl of soup, was placed on top of it.  There were lots of tempting edible treats too.  My boys bought sticks of pure honey that they could guzzle for the rest of the afternoon.

The next leg of our trip was intended to be more educational since we had hitherto done experiential things.  Another brief car journey brought us to the Amish Village.  Established on several acres of land, the Amish Village contains a farm house that appears authentic and several other buildings which appear to have been moved there and reconstructed as a sort of “living museum”  – along the lines of Beamish in North-East England.  It’s aim is to provide some insight into the Amish way of life and really the focus of that intention is on the tour.  They do run tours out into working Amish farm communities but we opted for the basic package of the house tour and access to the village.  The tour was led by a lady who had been raised Amish and then become Mennonite so, from direct experience, she was able to tell us about Amish daily life and answer our questions.  It was really interesting to learn about the adaptations that were made to the home as some technological advances were accepted and assimilated into their culture.  We were all also interested to learn that the white apron that unmarried women wear is then put away at the point when she weds and will only be worn again when she is in her coffin.  It was also explained that men’s hats subtly change in design as they age in years.

Emerging from the house tour, we spilled out into the farm and village site.  The boys enjoyed seeing the horses, calf, chickens and pigs who were in the barn and some gorgeous peacocks who were housed in an aviary.  They also spent a lot of time guddling around in the water of the stream that runs through the site, which has a covered bridge crossing it and a water wheel.  We skipped a lot of the village buildings because the pester power of my kids pleading with me to buy various knick-knacks and trinkets and toys was just getting too irritating for such a hot day but we did mooch around in the blacksmith’s workshop and spend some time in the one-room schoolhouse.  It was all interesting and informative enough for the kids but as a grown up I would have liked it to be a little more informative and detailed in its presentation of Amish life.

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The final jaunt for the day was to the Farmer’s Market in Bird-in-Hand.  There were lots of lovely and enticing items for sale and the boys were delighted to see that many of the stallholders had free samples on offer so they pretty much nibbled and munched their way around the Market.  They loved sampling the jams and preserves, cheeses and sausages, strangely flavoured popcorn and spicy spreads.  The whole place had a really nice feel to it in terms of atmosphere and buzz.  I would like to return some time when we are under less time pressure.

We then concluded our trip with a terrible journey home.  An accident caused some major tailbacks on the road and generated lots of frustrated and aggressive drivers.  Given that I am still pretty new to driving in America, driving on the right hand side of the road and am still really unfamiliar with the roads and geography of Pennsylvania, it rapidly became quite stressful – not helped any by the unhelpful behaviour of my children who began to act like caged beasts.  It was quite the trial and definitely a test of my skills, patience and tolerance for driving in my new country.  Where we lived in Scotland, the mountain pass that led to Glasgow often used to close because of landslips and we would be forced to take a circumlocutious journey to get around it but at least then the roads were small and quiet.  Having to contend with lane closures and merges on major roads a few lanes wide which were filled with angry commuters was a whole other ordeal.  But I managed somehow.