“Song, song of the south.
Sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth..”
Alabama, lyrics: Song of the South
When it comes to staid, blue blood, dignified Amish communities, Lancaster County has no peers. So prim and proper, is everyone. Traditional. Clean. Distinctive in dress. You can tell if people are from Lancaster County by their clothes, no matter where you see them. Heart-shaped coverings for the ladies, wide flat-brimmed straw hats for the men, even on the coldest winter day. Distinctive too in the funny round topped, rectangular boxed buggies, hitched to fidgety lunging horses that have absolutely no business on the roads, horses that could still win races at most tracks around the country.
Unique, it is. And distinctive. And Lancaster Countians know it. They tend to view all other Amish communities with a suspicious eye, as hangers-on, wanna be’s, that don’t quite measure up.
Homes are spotless, inside and out. Yards and drives around here are cleaner than the house I grew up in. Of a Saturday evening, young children swarm around outside, sweeping vigorously with wide bristle brooms, lest the horror of some stray speck of dirt or blade of grass mar the driveway. In the fall, leaves that flutter from the trees are attacked almost before they hit the ground, and rudely piled up and burned with all the others. I’ve always viewed this cleanliness fetish with some awe. Why sweep the drive? It will only get dirty again. Wait to rake the leaves until they all fall. Makes a lot of sense to me. But I’m from the Midwest. From one of those communities that doesn’t quite measure up. What do I know?
So I observe and marvel. So prim and proper, is everyone. And that’s the way it is.
At least that’s what I thought when I moved here in the early 1990s. From Honey Brook to Morgantown to New Holland, from the Welsh Mountains to Gap and beyond, it was all the same.
But then I heard some talk, muted murmurings. About some place simply called the south end. Things were different down there. Backwards. Ultra Conservative. They go barefoot in summertime. Men, women, children. Every day. Even on Sundays, I expect.
Not that I have anything against going barefoot. I did that once, too. As a child. But not since.
The South-enders, I was told, are hicks.
I couldn’t believe it. Not in Lancaster. From what I’d seen, it was all one monolithic community, one united front.
And then one fine summer day came my first fateful brush with the South-enders. It was probably 1992 or ’93, when I was in college and working the summer months at Graber Supply. That morning I delivered some metal roofing to an Amish farm about ten miles down, in what would be considered the edge of the southern end.
I rumbled in with the flatbed delivery truck, my cargo securely strapped down on the bed. The place was neat enough. Buggies and hacks were swarming in. Apparently there was a frolic that day, to install the new barn roof.
Men rushed about, removing old rusty nails from stacks of soggy used lumber. They were chattering in PA Dutch, hooting with hard mirthless laughter. All were barefoot, their flat-crowned straw hats smashed down low over their foreheads. The women too, strolled comfortably barefoot, lugging large baskets of food to the house, and clutching small squalling children.
I got out of the truck and approached the homeowner to see where he wanted me to unload. A wiry man with a fierce black beard. He greeted me cheerfully, smiling. Fine beautiful day. Yes, yes, I agreed.
And then I did something really stupid.
I spoke to him in PA Dutch. His mother tongue. I forget what I said. Probably some offhand comment about the frolic. My words had an immediate and dramatic effect.
He froze. As did everyone around us who heard me. Work ceased, the hard laughter died, it was eerily quiet. A few rusty nails slipped from stained and dirty fingers and plunked softly to the ground. As the puzzle was computed in dense brains in the hot sun. Why was this English man, this truck driver, speaking in PA Dutch? Made no sense. Except… except, ah, it could mean only one thing. He must have been born Amish. And left them. Not a good thing. Definitely not a good thing. Grim stares bombarded me. I could feel them.
The homeowner recovered slightly, gathered a bit of composure. He stuttered and stammered. Was I raised Amish? Yep, I said. In the Midwest. Who were my parents? I told him. He looked blank. He hemmed and hawed a bit more. Was Mr. Graber, the owner of Graber Supply, also raised Amish? Yep, I said, suddenly aware that a gaping precipice was yawning at my feet. The homeowner continued.
“I wouldn’t really have to know,” he said. “But is Mr. Graber excommunicated from the Amish church?” The barefoot yokels around me leaned in eagerly, ears honed.
“Nope.” I said. Whew. Dodged that one. If word got around that Mr. Graber was an excommunicated ex-member of the Amish, there goes all his local business. But the homeowner wasn’t done.
“I guess I really wouldn’t have to know,” he said again, with a frozen smile. “But are you excommunicated from the Amish church?” The thought flashed through my mind that if I said yes, the load of metal roofing would be sent right back to the yard with me. Another driver would have to deliver it. The yokels leaned in again.
“Nope.” I answered. “I am not in the ban.” The tense air dissipated instantly, swept away by the summer breeze. The men around us resumed their work, wrenching rusty nails from old used lumber, murmuring amongst themselves. My answer seemed to satisfy the homeowner, at least long enough for me to get the metal unloaded. After collecting the check, I quickly boarded my truck and fled the place.
Lesson learned. Since that day, it has been my policy to never, never speak in PA Dutch to any Amishman I don’t know. Especially the plainer ones. Regardless of how jolly they might seem. Or how loudly they might laugh.
Since that time I’ve been content to let the southern end be the southern end. I know few if any people down there. It’s a mostly free country. If they want to live like that, more power to them. I don’t invade their territory. They leave me alone.
And then about a month ago, my good friend “David” asked me to run him down to the southern end one Saturday afternoon. Some guy he needed to see. I agreed cheer-fully enough. David and I go way back. I stop by his place often for coffee and to beg food from his goodwife. So when he has errands and it suits me, we run around with Big Blue.
We set off, David sitting up front, his twenty-something son, Mike riding in the back seat. A beautiful sunny day. David clutched a map with impossibly small print. I had no misgivings. I figured he knew where he was going.
We headed south on Rt. 222. And drove and drove. Down past Refton. Then Quarry-ville. And a small burg or two beyond. The landscape gradually changed around us. Different country. Hills. Woods. Rednecks. Little stores and businesses scattered here and there. Neat farms, at least on the main road. Keep going, David instructed. And so I did. On and on.
“Seems like we’ll get to Maryland soon,” I said. After studying the small print map, David admitted we’d gone too far. So we backtracked, looking for the road he wanted.
“Don’t you know where you’re going?” I grumbled. “Surely, a Lancaster born Amish man like you wouldn’t be lost.” David allowed that he had never been in this particular area before in his life. I was astounded.
“Never had any reason to come down here before,” he explained.
We meandered around a good bit, looking for our road. David claimed the maps weren’t accurate, that some local roads were omitted completely. I was dubious. We finally found our road and turned west on a narrow paved path that quickly narrowed even further into a one lane trail. No sign of the box number we needed. The road dead-ended. So we turned around and drove back out to the next farm, an Amish place.
It was a rambling, ramshackle place that didn’t belong in Lancaster County. Not the Lancaster County I knew. Reminded me more of the Midwest. Missouri in particular, not that I have anything against Missouri. Bare, decrepit buildings. Junk machinery parked about. An old house with a sad little hovel tagged to the rear. Probably the daudy house. I shuddered at the thought of my parents living there. Tall grass swayed in the unkempt yard.
Under an old oak tree in front of the house, the Amish farmer and his teenage son, both barefoot, lounged about, dressed in raggedy clothes and old straw hats, hands firmly planted in pants pockets. Talking so some English rednecks. A few mangy mongrels lurked about. As I parked, the rednecks and the boy walked off to the barns. The Amish farmer peered keenly at David as he emerged from Big Blue. He smiled, displaying large brown-stained teeth. David, impeccably dressed in contrast, walked up. From Big Blue, Mike and I intently watched this curious encounter between north and south.
David spoke first. We couldn’t hear, but whatever he said, that’s about all he got out. The South-ender, greatly excited by such unexpected company, instantly launched into a torrent of words. Gesticulating all the while with animated motions of his hands. David stood there and smiled kindly, occasionally getting a word in edgewise, as the farmer talked and talked.
“Must be some complicated directions,” I muttered to Mike after some minutes had passed. “If it takes this long.”
After some time, David finally extracted himself and walked back to the truck, where Mike and I had been reduced to chortling and making snide comments about the area and its inhabitants.
“Well, where’s the place?” I asked as David got in.
He looked befuddled. “I’m not sure,” he answered. “There’s ponies in the front pasture.”
“What,” I hollered. “You’re standing out there talking to that hick southerner for ten minutes and you didn’t even get directions? What in the world was he talking about?”
“He was more interested in who I was and in our mutual freundschaft,” David answered sheepishly. “And what my business is down here.”
We drove east as the barefoot farmer ambled back toward the house. Eventually the pavement ended. Probably the first gravel road I’ve ever seen in Lancaster County. Big Blue bumped along. “Sure we could be in Missouri,” I grumbled. “There’s got to be a whiskey still or two hidden in the woods around here somewhere.” About a mile later we saw ponies in the pasture in front of a house. Just as the barefoot farmer had claimed. And so we finally reached our destination.
And that was the end of that little adventure. Later David told me that according to local legend, the barefoot farmer had once in a rage siezed a pitchfork and chased a nosy zoning officer from his farm. Probably happened when they were attaching the hovel of a daudy house to the main house. But my opinion of the man escalated enormously when I heard that. Can’t fault a guy for protecting his property from local township thugs. Maybe the southern end isn’t so bad after all.Share