There’s no sign out front, so my mom and I trust our instincts — and the smell of fresh sawdust — to guide us as we pull off the dirt road and approach the weathered workshop. We’re in search of an authentic Amish-made rocking chair, and judging from the woodworking tools and gently curved rocker bottoms propped against the doorway, we’re in luck.
The noise from the belt-driven bench sander drowns out the sounds of our approach, so it takes a minute before a young Amish man looks up from where he’s sanding the armrest of a nearly completed rocker. His brother, barefoot and probably about 8 or 9 years old, looks up too, giving us a shy grin from beneath the fringe of hair cropped straight across his forehead and flaring out over his ears.
“My father is down at the phone booth, but I can run and get him if you like,” the older brother says in response to our questions about the chairs. He speaks with the slow, modulated accent peculiar to speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch. We tell him not to bother, but before he goes back to work, I ask him how many chairs he has made that day. “Only two,” he replies. “But the others can make four,” he adds, gesturing over his shoulder to two young men shaping the chairs’ rockers on the bench sander. “I’m not that fast yet.”
The quiet modesty of the young furniture maker is typical of the many fine Amish woodworkers living around the western Pennsylvania town of New Wilmington. Craftsmen and seamstresses advertise their wares with simple hand-lettered signs painted on scraps of wood — Furniture. Quilts. Jams & Jellies. Harness Maker — leaving you to discover the true quality of what’s for sale at the end of the dirt drive. It’s also the antithesis of the rest-area peddlers set up on Interstate 95, loudly advertising their “Real, Amish-Made Furniture!,” which I’ve always assumed must be fake.
The small town of New Wilmington has a similarly authentic feel. Founded in 1797 and kept rural by the 1,500 Old Order Amish families whose farms surround it, it has two claims to fame: the sticky buns at the Tavern on the Square, a house-turned-restaurant that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Westminster College, whose 1,100 students boost the town’s population to 2,500.
Granted, its charms are subtle; I spent the first 18 years of my life here and couldn’t wait to leave its quiet cobbled streets behind to see the rest of the world. Since my departure 11 years ago, we’ve gained another stoplight in town (that makes two) and a coffee shop, but little else has changed. Farmers’ Almanac-style gossip is still exchanged over coffee at the only diner in town; you can always get a T-bone steak and some friendly heckling from the butcher at Gilliland’s Market — and you still can’t buy a drink anywhere within the town limits.
That’s fine by me, though, because the best of Lawrence County lies outside New Wilmington proper. Knowing where to find the finest Amish-made wares requires a little luck and some local knowledge, but for the best discoveries, you have to be willing to explore. On a driving tour, we pass a cluster of signs on two white shingles, advertising the sale of fruits and vegetables, that sum up the rules: “No Sunday Sales” and “Baked Goods Every Saturday.” Translation: Closed on the Sabbath, and whatever else you do, start your weekend with Sarah’s homemade doughnuts.