A Side of Amish Country You've Never Seen
Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County has long been the place to rub black-suited shoulders with the Amish. Thanks to a growing arts scene at the county’s urban core, it’s starting to cut loose (a little).
For that, your best bet is to hit up a mud sale, an open-air auction unique to Lancaster County. The Amish have been hosting them here since the 1960s, in spring. But recently, the mud sales have grown so popular—thanks, in part, to all the new residents in Lancaster—that they're now held on Saturdays from February to October, all over the county.
From Lancaster, I headed south on two-lane roads, beneath covered bridges and past silos, windmills, and grain fields. The landscape was a patchwork of rolling green-and-gold fields that, from an aerial view, probably looked something like a suburban lawn with big pats of butter on it. I arrived in Rawlinsville at 9:30 a.m. The air was filled with Pennsylvania Dutch—a German dialect the Amish use with one another—and the muddy field was a sea of Amish straw hats and Carhartt-brand ball caps, bobbing between a circle of tents and barns. Auctions take place throughout the day—quilts and handmade furniture at 8:30 a.m., horses at 11 a.m., and buggies at
1 p.m. The items up for sale are provided by locals, with a cut of the proceeds going to area volunteer fire companies.
After registering, I was handed a pink paper bid card and directed to the nearest tent, just in time to catch the bidding on a beautifully restored, 1920s oak-and-leather steamer trunk. "Come on, don't let $5 stand in the way between you and this beauty!" the Amish auctioneer yelled before a young couple snatched it up for $75. Another couple took home a gorgeous king-size quilt for $130; I'd seen a similar style priced at $300 at a shop in Intercourse. Who cares about the mud when there are steals like these?
Thankfully, Hazel Nestleroth didn't mind a little dirt either. When I arrived that evening at Airy Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast, the farmstay she runs with her husband, Mark, near Manheim, the cake-like mud I'd been slopping through all day had dried like a crusty fringe from my ankles down. Hazel cheerfully offered to launder my jeans and helped me scrub off my shoes. It probably helped that she and Mark had spent 25 years as pig farmers.
Like many farmers in Lancaster, Mark Nestleroth lives on the same plot of land his family has owned for five generations, since the 1850s. Nestleroth's 20 acres sit up on a hillside, overlooking a quilt of other farm plots, including a dairy run by the chocolate-making Hershey family.
Mark and Hazel opened their three-bedroom ranch-style home as a B&B just two years ago, but it's quickly gained a reputation as one of the area's best (1741 Airy Hill Rd., doubles from $139, including breakfast). It's easy to see why, after one bite of the sweet and gooey shoofly pie Hazel makes. "My mother never could bake a thing—seriously—until she found this recipe," Hazel said, as she showed me and a guest how to transfer dough from the rolling pin to the pie pan. On request (and for an extra $35 per room), she teaches baking classes and sends each pupil home with his own shoofly pie—and a laminated copy of the recipe.
In the morning, I woke to see a parade of horse and buggies speed by outside, on their way to Sunday morning church services. Hazel prepared a breakfast of omelets, pastries, and fresh fruit while Mark kept me and the other guests busy in the red wooden barn. We went on an egg hunt in the squawking henhouse, bottle-fed the two newborn calves, and gave the baby sheep their share of petting. After chores, Mark led us to a small stable, home to the Nestleroth's new star attraction: Bob, a baby miniature horse. His brown-and-white downy head stood less than 12 inches tall, and when he wasn't nursing, he shyly pranced around the driveway, like he was walking on tiptoe. "All the kids are just going to love him," Mark said, referring to both his eight grandkids and the children who visit Airy Hill as guests. Judging by how the two adult men in our group—one a construction worker, the other an engineer—literally cooed at the sight of him, Bob seemed poised to become another Lancaster newcomer who draws quite the crowd.
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