Written by Art Petrosemolo
When I lived in Lancaster County in the early seventies, occasionally an Amish farmer would drive down Louise Avenue in Grandview Heights selling produce. Like most tourists, we interacted or saw members of Plain families only when we were east of Lancaster city in Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand and Paradise.
When I moved to Garden Spot Village more than a year ago, I was surprised to see so many Plain families in town, at stores and along the county roads in carriages. I had absolutely no idea the community was so large.
As you know from my previous blogs, I count a number of Old Order Amish and Mennonite families now as friends as I have written stories about their culture for the weekly newspapers in Ephrata, Lititz and Elizabethtown.
I visit many of my Plain family friends weekly and enjoy sitting around the large kitchen table to talk in winter or out under the fruit trees in rockers in good weather. We, many times, are 180 degrees apart on a subject but that doesn’t stop either of us from expressing opinions and listening to the counter point of view.
My first Amish acquaintance was Mike Fisher, a skilled woodworker who owns Orchard Hill Woodcrafts in New Holland and who is the artist behind the two large live-edge tables at Garden Spot Village (one is in the Village Square lobby and the second is in The Harvest Table).
I am old enough to be Mike’s father…probably grandfather… but we hit it off immediately and became close friends. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t spend an hour in his woodshop—located just as you start down New Holland Road on Welsh Mountain—talking while he works on commercial projects or recently a project for me. More on that later.
I introduced myself to Mike in early spring 2017 when I started research on my first story for Destination Garden Spot Village. Not only had Mike done the work for Garden Spot Village, but he had done some personal work for staff and residents. He was known to many, but only by his work. The story was a pleasure to write and we worked together so I could illustrate his story with a “working photo.”
To be honest, Mike was the first member of the Plain community I spent more than a few minutes with or communicated with more than a passing thank you at Green Dragon or Root’s farmers’ markets.
Mike’s shop, next to his home, is small, and crammed with saws, sanders and other (electrical) tools of the trade. I was initially surprised. Mike was obviously Old Order Amish and it was my understanding that all Old Order members were not connected to the grid or use electricity.
Mike, 31, with a big smile, explained that many Amish men today, no longer farm fulltime… “just not enough free land,” he says, “and what comes up for sale is very, very expensive.” Mike, like many other Amish men running their own businesses now, are able to use electrical equipment, phones and other devices used by their “English” colleagues in similar endeavors. I learned later that the phrase “culturally assimilated” is common today to describe members of the Plain communities (Amish, Mennonite and conservative Anabaptist sects) who use devices or other previously unused—considered modern—conveniences as part of business ventures.
I call it “walking the thin line” with Mike and many of my Plain community friends and we both smile about it.
Many of you know that as I writer I had to find my niche when I arrived in Lancaster County last year. Writers tend to gravitate to their special areas of interest and mine had been thoroughbred horses and racing (I covered and photographed the great Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh in 2015 for months), as well as one-design sailboat racing which has taken me to regional and international regattas across the county. Not a lot of that going on around here.
My first story was about 90-year-old Elva Stauffer who owns the Cloister Restaurant in Ephrata. It got me thinking about Amish food and I remembered the legendary Lancaster County chef and restauranteur Betty Groff (a Mennonite) who hosted high-end comfort food meals in her home when I lived in Lancaster in the 1970s. It started me on a search to see who was doing that now and I truly believe I was led to and from a number of Plain families until I met Ruth Lapp in Paradise.
Ruth was in the midst of being certified to host home-cooked meals in her farmhouse and I wrote about the process and the entire, mostly underground, “in-home” cooking business for tourists. Ruth remains a close friend. I visit with her several times a month and have helped her with marketing materials. I was honored to be asked by her and her daughter to prepare the wedding invitation for her second daughter’s fall wedding.
Well, over the course of the year, it turns out my niche has developed into Plain family/community and stories about the Anabaptist tradition. I have received strong help from Garden Spot Village staffers Scott Miller, Juanita Fox and Chaplain Chet Yoder. I have done stories on Amish and Mennonite tobacco farming, safety of the Plain community carriages on the country roads, special holiday services at a historic Mennonite meeting house north of Bowmansville as well as the Moravian Christmas Lovefeast. This month I am working on stories on a Mennonite and Amish Marriage Encounter program (Who knew?) as well as profiling a renaissance, conservative orchestra/choir from New Holland called Lyrica Sacra.
So back to Mike. Mike has remained a close friend throughout this journey and I look forward to our weekly visits. His family (wife Esther is pregnant with their third child), toddlers Emily and Lucas, his mom, sister and family have become good friends. I bring Mike and Esther my homemade lasagna and bring home fresh vegetables in return. I got to taste fresh bacon from the pig I watched grow from a piglet to a 300-pound adult. It’s been a journey.
Mike and I visit Ben Shirk and his son Wesley at their sawmill in East Earl often to sit and talk shop over coffee and Achenbach’s donuts. On one visit there I saw a wood slab that had character and I asked Mike about turning it into a work table for me for my man-cave. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we didn’t tell Ben that day that we wanted it and it was gone (sold) a day later when we did.
But Mike suggested something better. He had cut down an old elm tree not 200 yards from my garage door at our home in Sycamore Springs. What he thought would be firewood had a straight trunk and Ben turned it into several slabs, a couple of which are being turned into tables for Mountain View. Well, the slabs came out of the kiln a few weeks back after final aging (they had air-dried for a year). And Mike has finished a unique table for me that included the use of a Major League Baseball (Old Hickory) bat that I received from John Alderfer (Alderfer Lumber) when I did a story last summer on baseball bats for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
I asked Mike and Dave (his brother-in-law who did the final coating and finishing) to sign the underside of the table as it is a masterpiece. It will certainly outlive me and I want the person I designate to get it in my will to appreciate the work.
Mike, Dave and I are heading to dinner and a hockey game before the end of the month so I can say thank you to them for their work but also, and more importantly, thank you for being my friends and making—like so many other members of the Plain community—my move (back) to Lancaster County such a seamless one. A big “danki” FRIENDS.