There’s another, unspoken rule to visiting Amish country: Be respectful. Amish and English (non-Amish) neighbors have been living side by side in the farm country around New Wilmington since 1847. The Amish buy dry goods and other necessities from English stores, and the English patronize Amish tack shops, sawmills, furniture shops, vegetable stands and nurseries. The Amish way of life is best appreciated without a thorough interrogation.
Evidence of strict religious guidelines is apparent in all areas of life, from the colors the women can wear (no pink, red, orange or yellow cloth) to the number and size of the buttons on the men’s homemade trousers. A bishop governs each of the 14 church districts around the New Wilmington community and enforces the ban on electricity, cars and other modern conveniences. The rules in an Old Order Amish community are much stricter than those of other sects near larger Amish communities around Lancaster, as they closely follow the teachings of 17th-century Swiss Anabaptist Jakob Ammann. Those who disobey are subject to meidung: shunning.
Our meandering route around New Wilmington and environs passes Teena’s Quilt Shop, where Amish seamstress and business owner Teena Hostettler has sold hand-stitched quilts and rag rugs for more than 20 years. The colorful quilt stretched out on a display is a traditional design that Hostettler identifies as the double wedding-ring pattern, made by one of the local seamstresses who supply her merchandise. We buy a quilted hot-pad and a curious “hot-potato pocket,” for microwaving potatoes, for a friend’s wedding and continue onward.
After stopping to buy corn on the cob from an Amish man affectionately known in my family as “bandanna man” for his unorthodox headwear, we end up in the neighboring town of Volant, about two miles away. Formerly a popular destination for Pittsburgh day-trippers, its once-bustling main street now sports several vacant storefronts. At a stop in the Volant Mills, an 1812 gristmill that’s now a country variety store, we hear about the renovation of its grinding equipment, which may lure the tourists back.
It’s a short jaunt to another of New Wilmington’s longest-running businesses, the Apple Castle. With its fortresslike turrets and proximity to the city of New Castle, the family farm market lives up to its medieval name — although owner Lyle Johnston tells me that the name also refers to the apple being the “king of fruit.” His son, Steven, will take over shortly as the sixth-generation owner, taking charge of the 145-acre farm and its 15 acres of apples.
In the fall, you’ll find hot cider and hayrides, but the lingering summer weather on this trip makes a fishing trip to the Neshannock Creek with my dad a necessary afternoon outing. You can hire a river guide in Volant for some serious fishing, but by that point in the day, none of us is too keen for anything ambitious. Instead, we borrow gear and waders from my uncle’s custom fly-rod-making workshop, Klondike Rod Co., and head down to a favorite local spot under a covered bridge.
We don’t catch anything, but by the time we arrive back at my parents’ house, we’re ravenous. An old friend, anticipating my visit home, has left a plate of the county-famous sticky buns from the Tavern on the Square on my parents’ counter, along with a birthday card. “For ‘research’ purposes, of course,” she has written. “Happy 30th birthday!”
And they taste as good as I remember.