In New Wilmington, the charms of Amish Country

01/26/2013 12:00 AM

01/22/2013 5:36 PM

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.

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.

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