Where Plain Families take Center Stage

November 24, 2017

Written by Art Petrosemolo

Since I arrived back in Lancaster County in December and started writing feature stories for the Lititz, Ephrata and Elizabethtown newspapers, I have found myself, many times, deep into the culture of plain families and really learning their unique traditions from my mistakes along the way.

Although many of us think we know all we need to know about the plain community from tourist handouts, movies and television reality shows, it is a lot more than dark clothing, horse and buggy transportation and no electricity. This centuries-old Anabaptist heritage runs deep and you soon learn you only have scratched the surface.

In early spring I started to research a story called Share the Road (that ran mid-summer in the Ephrata Review and the Lititz Record. I cringed every time I drove north or south on North Railroad Avenue and watched Amish and Mennonite buggies navigate the narrow two-lane road with 18 wheelers carrying everything from milk and grain to chickens.

To start, I needed to know the number of buggies in Lancaster County. You’d think that would be something the old Lancaster tourist bureau, now Discover Lancaster, would know. They did not have a clue but fortunately sent me to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist studies at Elizabethtown College. Over the phone I met Steve Nolt, the senior scholar at the Center. He helped me obtain the information I needed, which helped me focus my thoughts on road safety with some hard facts. I was truly grateful.

A little later in the spring I started my research for a story on Amish families who host dinners in their homes for groups looking for an authentic plain family experience. Steve jumped in right away to answer questions. And soon thereafter, I started my most difficult task: researching a story on new options for plain family mothers-to-be to give birth. I had tons of questions about Amish health care, health insurance, midwives, hospital and birthing center options. Steve could not answer them all, but was my point person as I reached out to sources throughout the county. I could not have done the story without him. Recently Steve has been a great resource as I look into plain family Christmas holiday traditions.

So, in mid-summer with the Elizabethtown Advocate having been purchased by Lancaster Newspapers and part of the weeklies group I am writing for regularly, I suggested to the editors that I write about the Young Center.

I called my former Franklin and Marshall colleague and supervisor Bruce Holran, who also spent time as Elizabethtown’s public relations director and was actually part of the opening of the Young Center. I invited him to join with me when I visited with Steve Nolt and Young Center director Jeff Bach.

The Young Center is undergoing extensive refurbishing and has been for the past several months. The building will open in 2018 with a new wing and updated office, classroom and exhibit space. Bruce and I spoke with Nolt and Bach in their temporary quarters on College Avenue near the main campus.

I learned that the Center opened through the generosity of former trustee Dr. Galen Young and his wife Jessie. They wanted to have an academic center to study the background of the Anabaptist (Amish, Mennonites and Church of the Brethren) and the Pietist (Lutheran) movements. The Center serves as an academic resource nationally, hosting visiting research scholars and sponsors seminars, conferences and exhibits for the academic community and guests. Its academic staff, Bach and Nolt, teach undergraduate courses at the college and continue to write on the heritage of these groups.

The Center’s first director, Don Kraybill, is one of the leading authorities on the Amish and Mennonite communities and his books on plain family traditions are must reading for those who want and need to learn more about these movements.

The Center’s new wing will be the focal point of the refurbished building when it reopens. Just off the main lobby, it will contain revolving exhibits of memorabilia, books, clothing and artifacts that explain the unique aspects of the Anabaptist movement over the past 300 years.

Both Nolt and Bach also are excited about bringing the center’s monthly lecture series back to a refurbished Meetinghouse on the site and to welcoming old friends and new to learn about the Anabaptist culture.

For me, Steve and Jeff are part of my new collegial team that will continue to give me support as I write more about the Amish and Mennonite communities.

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