Armed with a GPS device that we received for Christmas, and which we'd never used before on a real road trip, we shoved off early Wednesday morning, April 20. We were blessed to escape the heavy rains that fell that day on western New York, and had a pleasant drive down New York State Route 17 and U.S. Route 15 through the Allegheny Mountains and along the beautiful Susquehanna River. We arrived at our initial destination, Ephrata, Pennsylvania, shortly after noon, couldn't find the local eatery we were looking for, and finally decided to have lunch at an Applebee's we happened upon (on a Christmas gift card from my parents--thanks, Mom and Dad!). With a couple of hours to spend before we could check into our nearby bed & breakfast, we headed to the cultural heart and namesake of the town, called Ephrata Cloister.
Located on several quiet, shaded acres at the center of town, Ephrata Cloister is one of America's oldest religious communities. It was founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel of Eberbach, Germany, who fled the violent religious conflicts and persecutions of 17th-century Germany in search of solitude and closeness to God in the New World. He didn't find the solitude he was looking for; instead, like-minded people found him. According to a good Wikipedia article about the Cloister:
Around this charismatic leader a semi-monastic community (the Camp of the Solitary) with a convent (the Sister House) and a monastery (the Brother House) was established called Ephrata. The members of the order were celibate. In addition to celibacy, the members believed in strict interpretation of the Bible, and self-discipline. Members were required to sleep on wooden benches 15 inches (380 mm) wide, with wooden blocks for pillows. They slept six hours per night, from 9 P.M. to midnight, and from 2 A.M. until 5 A.M., with a two-hour break to "watch" for the coming of Christ. They ate one small vegetarian meal a day. The only time the followers of Beissel were permitted to eat meat was during the celebration of communion when lamb was served. The members of the cloister spent much time at work or praying privately. Services every Saturday were led by Beissel, often being several hours long.That's quite the regimen! The "Solitary" brothers and sisters also wore nearly-identical white robes and slippers, indoors and out. There were other, more "normal" members of the community, however:
Other believing families [called "householders"] settled near the community, accepted Beissel as their spiritual leader and worshipped with them on Sabbath. These families made an integral part to the cloister, which could not be self-sustaining without them. The brothers and sisters of Ephrata are famous for their writing and publishing of hymns, and the composition of tunes in four voices. Beissel served as the community's composer as well as spiritual leader, and devised his own system of composition.The community's "dormitory" buildings were remarkable, as they soar four and five stories high--quite impressive for their time! It's remarkable, too, that they've survived almost 300 years virtually intact.
The indoor working areas, where the members engaged in writing, printing, art work, and music, as well as ate and slept, were very cramped and spare.
One amazing find during a 1998 archaeological excavation at the site, and which I saw on display in a small museum at the Cloister, is a glass trumpet, apparently from Germany, and the only one of its kind in North America. Its excellent condition led archaeologists to believe that it was intentionally buried, perhaps sometime during the 18th century.
Here's another remarkable item: a slipper found in an upstairs closet in the women's residence, which apparently had laid there undisturbed for more than two centuries:
Late Wednesday afternoon, we left the Cloister and drove a short distance to our bed & breakfast, a beautiful 1795 stone residence called the Kimmel House. The place is beautifully decorated in early American style; the owners, Dave and Bonnie Harvey, haven't missed a detail! Our room was furnished with lovely Shaker furniture, including a four-poster bed with an exquisite handmade canopy. Each day began with a delicious breakfast cooked by Bonnie. We were the only guests on the two days we were there, so we were the only ones at the dining table, but Bonnie chatted with us gave us lots of help with our day's plans.
After settling in at the Kimmel House and taking some rest, we hopped back into the car and drove a few miles to the village of Bird-in-Hand, where we had dinner at the Plain & Fancy Farm Restaurant. I chose this place based on my pre-trip Internet research, which has its limitations. It turned out that Plain & Fancy is housed in a rambling, rather modern building with an attached store full of made-in-China souvenirs, although there were some locally-produced items--kind of like a Pennsylvania Dutch-style Cracker Barrel, complete with non-Amish employees dressed in Amish-"inspired" uniforms! We could choose to eat "Family Style" and sit at a long table with other customers, passing around the plates, or personalized meals--we selected the latter. I was afraid that our meal was going to be as cheesy as the surroundings, but thankfully the food was very good and the service was friendly and capable. I had a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch meal of pork sausages (made on the premises), noodles with browned butter, pepper cabbage, dried sweet corn, and of course, shoo-fly pie for dessert! It was getting dark by the time we were done, so we drove back to the Kimmel House and relaxed in our room for the rest of the evening.
Following a marvelous breakfast Thursday morning, we spent a couple of hours touring shops in nearby Adamstown, Pennsylvania, known as the "Antiques Capital of the USA." Around noon we drove to the village of Lititz and visited the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery, the first commercial pretzel bakery in America (est. 1861). The "tour" was a bit disappointing, but we learned about pretzel history and how to twist a pretzel by hand, bought several bags of pretzels (one of my very favorite snack foods!) in the attached store, and even savored a couple of hot, soft pretzels for lunch! After that we poked into several craft shops in Lititz, then headed down the road a few miles to the village of Intercourse. We explored several more shops there, especially The Old Country Store and The Village Pottery where I bought a nice mug made by a local Mennonite artisan. Then it was on to dinner at the nearby Stoltzfus Farm Restaurant. In contrast to the Plain & Fancy Farm Restaurant where we ate the night before, the Stoltzfus place was located on a working farm in what was once a real farmhouse, unconnected with any store, and had a much quieter, more authentic atmosphere in a warm and inviting dining room. The meal was served family-style, but we arrived somewhat early and had a table to ourselves. Once again we had a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch meal, this time including ham loaf, sausages, fried chicken, pepper cabbage, chow-chow, potato stuffing, corn, and for dessert, shoo-fly pie (me) and pumpkin roll (Melany). The food and atmosphere were excellent--while we ate, Melany watched a little Amish boy out in the nearby fields playing with his dog!
After dinner, we decided to spend the remaining couple of daylight hours driving along the back roads through the countryside. This turned out to be the most interesting and fun part of our trip! Since the only printed maps I had of the area were pretty sketchy, our GPS unit was the only thing that enabled us to cut loose and still find our way back to the Kimmel House. As the sun slowly settled toward the horizon, we drove over and around the hills in the heart of Amish country, past many beautiful old farms--some with houses and barns obviously a century or more old (many of these places have been in the same family since the 1700s!). Family members of all ages and both genders were often out in the fields and barns working, even when the sunlight was almost gone. In these surroundings, seeing people live and work in the same clothes and using the same tools as people did two centuries ago, I felt transported back in time in a more compelling way than ever before!
We had two especially interesting experiences during this jaunt. We saw a group of mules or donkeys (I can never remember which is which) cavorting in a field near the road, apparently just after having been unhitched from a plough. We stopped to watch them, at which moment a group of cows in a field on the other side of the road galloped up to the fence to see what the fuss was all about. When was the last time you saw a cow gallop (are Amish-raised cows more alert and active than others?)? They made a hilarious sight jostling each other at the fence for a place in my picture!
We drove around a while longer. Just as the sun was setting and we started thinking about heading back to our B&B, we happened by a house near the road with a small sign announcing a scrapbooking-and-quilt store inside. Needless to say, we HAD to stop and check it out--and it was the best shop we visited the whole trip! Called Farmhouse Memories (no web site yet), it's run by a very nice lady named Rachel (write or call us, if you'd like, for the address and phone). She and Melany hit it off instantly--to hear them gab on about scrabooking, sewing, fabric, crafts, children, etc., you'd think they had known each other for 20 years! Up to that point Melany hadn't found in the other stores we'd visited much she liked at the right prices, but all that changed in Rachel's little shop! We even got to meet her little nephew, who showed us some cards he had made (very skillfully, too--we even bought some!). We were in there the better part of an hour, but finally parted feeling like we had made a new friend, not just found a store we liked. How often do you have an experience like that?
By this time, it was getting pretty dark, so we decided to go straight (in a manner of speaking; our route was anything but) back to the Kimmel House. Put to its greatest challenge, as we were out in the middle of farm country in the dark with no clue how to get back, the GPS performed flawlessly! Sometimes technology really can be a blessing!
Friday morning, after another of Bonnie's magnificent breakfasts, we decided to forego visiting the huge and rather crowded Green Dragon Farmers Market & Auction, there in Ephrata, and proceed on to Buffalo to pick up our dog Frank and cat Chloe from our son Rob's house, where they'd been staying during our trip. It was a long drive (7+ hours), but we had great fun chatting about our delightful visit to Pennsylvania Dutch Country (let us know if you'd like to make a trek there, and we'll supply you with all kinds of information and brochures)!