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Lancaster County Tour
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Lancaster County Tour
  Marietta Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton

Lancaster County: Garden Center of America

Of all the farmlands I have seen in my treks across North America, none has left such a lasting impression as the bountiful gardens of Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. I blissfully drove along the uncluttered country roads, shaded with elm trees and covered bridges, utterly mellowed by the absence of high-rises no matter in which direction I faced.

Even properties using power equipment had a relaxing and mellowing effect. Aging towns like Ephrata and Intercourse and Lititz and Strasburg interrupted the sweeping greens and golds of the season with captivating brick architecture from another era, like time capsules in a historical museum. Late summer blossoms bloomed in window boxes, cascaded from hanging baskets and bordered entrances -- not that the colonial villages needed these decorations to stand out.

It was September, and like every morning (except Sundays), from April to November, Leola Produce Auction's parking lot was crammed with farmers and their produce. A procession of pickups, flat beds and horse-drawn trailers waited in line for a turn past the auction block, their containers heaped with pumpkins, sweet watermelons and yellow corn. One at a time, the farmers paused before the auctioneer. Buyers from near and far briefly inspected the bounty and the auctioneer rattled off their bids smoothly and professionally. The attentive audience was made up of mostly men -- mainstream farmers practically dressed in denim, plaid shirts and peaked caps and Amish and Mennonites farmers sombrely dressed in dark or white shirts, black suspenders and straw hats. Teenage girls wearing bonnets and cotton frocks, and smooth-faced boys, replicas of their bearded fathers, watched from a distance. Curious visitors stood out in their short shorts and tee-shirts.

The abundance of fruit and vegetables was overwhelming--on an exceptionally productive day, up to 100,000 ears of corn can go in one door and out the other. Shiny apples, smooth-skinned potatoes and the plumpest and reddest tomatoes I have ever seen filled the crates lining the concrete floor of the large open warehouse. September is the season for gourds and hundreds of these twisted and bumpy vegetables occupied rows upon rows of cardboard boxes. Traditionally used for ladles, bowls, and birdhouses, one variety resembled long-necked green ducks, another variety looked like hand-painted miniature pumpkins.

Lancaster County farmers have been tilling their land since the early 1700's. Although the farmland has been shrinking in the last few years, they continue to produce some of the nation's finest and most diverse produce. Vegetables and fruits and tobacco and grains flourish in a landscape of beautiful rolling fields rich in nutrients and blessed with just the right amount of sunshine and moisture. The grains feed an army of animals. In his book "Lancaster County", author Ed Klimuska writes: (Quote) Lancaster County has 45 million broilers, 10 million laying hens, 95,000 dairy cows, 250,000 beef cattle, 6,000 sheep and 335.000 hogs. In total, Lancaster County's farms have more than 55 million animals, more livestock than any other county in the United States. (End of Quote.)

Remarkably, the only horse-power working a third of the more than 4600 farms in Lancaster County, is of the two and four-legged kind--man and his horse. These farms are operated by a religious sect that believes that a simple life is a better life. Most even shun electricity, perhaps believing some things really are better left in the dark. Their lifestyle has changed little in the last 300 years. Voices of children can still be heard from the windows of one-room schoolhouses, a lone farm wife still hangs the day's laundry on a rope attached to posts in the back yard, transportation is still a horse and buggy, and inside weathered barns, their wide doors gaping, the warm air still dries tobacco leaves on racks. Occasionally a tour bus rolls by, with all eyes of the passengers scanning the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of a field hand tossing hay into a wagon with a pitchfork.

With such a bountiful crop, roadside stands beckon with fresh fruits and vegetables and home-based markets offer delicious home-made breads and jellies. We stopped at Beaver Farm Market. Mrs Brubaker, a young wife and mother, makes all the breads, jams, compotes and jellies herself. Besides taking care of her family, she even makes time to bake the county's famous shoofly pie, a desert with a crunchy crumb top and a sweet sugary bottom that reminds me of pecan pie filling without the pecans.

Food is plentiful and delectable and restaurants proudly promote plain and fancy farm fare, like fried chicken, smoked ham, mashed potatoes and chicken pot pie, and, fresh from the oven jumbo pretzels, a speciality of the county. Some restaurants are in buildings that compete with the menu. For example, the 18th and 19th century art on the walls of the 1933 Log Cabin restaurant, belongs in a museum. But then, this restaurant looks like a museum. It has seven separate dining rooms, each with its own distinct decor. I have never seen a log cabin quite like this log cabin before.

I found Landis Valley Museum interesting, too. It sits on 100 acres and represents a village in the early 1800's. The grounds encompass a country store, a blacksmith shop, a schoolhouse, the home of Jacob and Elizabeth Landis, and the Heirloom Seed Project office.

The Heirloom Seed Project preserves nearly 200 varieties of seed and sells them to the public. But not in abundant numbers --some packets contain only four or five seeds. Heirloom seeds are not like the seeds you buy at the garden shop at home. Heirloom seeds are from plants that extend back to the early 1800's. Most of the seeds are cultivated in gardens belonging to volunteers. Some come from plants grown in the garden plot next to the Landis home. I stood under an ancient paw paw tree near the carrots and leeks and beets and tomatoes where Elizabeth once stood. A stone path led to the house. The setting was simple, still, serene and satisfying.

A few real but non-working farmhouses are open to the public, but I did not have to go inside to get a sense of life on a farm. It was the picket fence around the farmhouse . . . the whirring windmill, the child sitting by bushels of cherry- red apples, the farmer kicking up dust with his plow . . . I will never turn a shovel again without remembering.

Footnote:

Heirloom seeds are best grown in Pennsylvania soil, however, if you would like to grow some yourself, you can order the seeds from their catalog. (717-569-0410)

There are many campgrounds in Lancaster County, including some, like Beacon Camping (717-768-8775), right on the edge of farmland. However, if you don't have the time to travel such a distance in your recreational vehicle, don't let that keep you from this fascinating place. RV Life readers just south of the Canadian border can take advantage of the low Canadian dollar ( approximately .68 cents US) by boarding Air Canada (1-800-776-3000 ) in Vancouver, flying to Philadelphia and then hiring a limousine to take them to Lancaster County. I found the Limo rates very reasonable: Landis Luxury Coaches (1-800-325-9004). Only $30 each for two sharing.

I highly recommend the book "Lancaster County by Ed Klimuska" published by Voyageur Press. Inc. If I haven't convinced you to visit Lancaster County, Ed Klimuska surely will.

Write to Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau, 501 Greenfield Rd., Lancaster , PA, Lancaster County or call 717-299-8901 for more information.


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