Pennsylvania – Amish, Philly, and more

So far this year, my favorite area to visit has been Pennsylvania Amish country and its environs. As mentioned previously, I feel a certain kinship with the Amish sect as a result of my Plain upbringing. So, settling in for two weeks in their area felt very comfortable.

Our very first stop was the sweet town of Hershey. We stopped at the Hershey Chocolate World complex and took the historical trolley tour. I’m always interested in learning how successful people became successful. To me, Milton Hershey was particularly interesting not only because he became successful from nothing, but because he failed several times before becoming successful. By the time he started the business that would eventually spin off into the big Hershey chocolate company we know today, he was a three-time failure that no one would lend money to except his aunt (who mortgaged her house to give him start up capital). Hershey believed in helping workers in all aspects of their life, so built a model town, selling houses to his employees at cost. Times have changed, of course, but it must have been a remarkable place to work back then. Hershey and his wife couldn’t have children, so they founded a school for orphan boys, to provide them a home, an education and a trade. The school still exists today, although it is for needy boys AND girls, not just orphans. After losing his beloved wife, Hershey essentially gave his wealth to the Hershey Foundation, that continues to fund the school and other associated good works today. Just remarkable.

Back in Amish country, I happily took advantage of a free bus tour, provided by the campground. Our driver was a delightful Mennonite lady who was born of Amish parents (they became Mennonite when she was a child) and who also taught in an Amish school for a number of years. She proved to be an excellent tour guide as we drove the bucolic countryside, making a couple of shop-stops along the way.

I already knew quite a lot about the Amish culture and lifestyle, but a couple of things surprised me. For example, I didn’t know how much tobacco was still grown in the area. A labor-intensive endeavor to grow, pick and dry the tobacco leaves, it is nevertheless a significant cash crop for the area. Along with the usual cows, horses, sheep and goats, I was also surprised to view camels (for milk) and deer (farmed for venison). I had no idea the Amish were cultivating such exotic products. We traveled through several square miles of territory in which there was no electrical service – period. It had never been needed so electrical lines were never run there. And it is unlikely that any will ever be needed since the Amish tend to hold onto their farmland. Nearly 95% of children that are born Amish stay in the lifestyle, so the sect is constantly growing and seeking new land and new occupations. Just fascinating! We indulged in traditional Amish cooking and treats – pie, cake, cookies, kettle corn, and fresh pretzels! Yum!

We even took in a stage show — the first one for us in this COVID time. The show was at the Bird-in-Hand Theater, entitled “The Gut Life”. The theater limited attendance to half capacity (or less) and spaced the seats for each party so that everyone was suitably socially distanced. Masks were required, guests were dismissed after the show by rows, and there was no actor “meet and greet”. The show itself was a two person play. The premise was that this was an Amish married couple that had invited you (the audience) into their living room. They reminisced about their life, sharing about the Amish way of life. It was funny and entertaining and the music was well done. I do love live theater and it was so refreshing to be able to attend a show after all this time!

We also took a couple of day trips into nearby Philadelphia, to explore one of the oldest cities in America. Many landmarks, such as Independence Hall, are COVID-closed, but we could view them from the outside. We peered through glass at the Liberty Bell. We wandered around, drooling, at the Reading Terminal Market. We indulged in an authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwich. We were able to tour the Museum of the American Revolution, a well-laid out display that very logically explained the factors leading up to the War, and the sequence of events. It was the second best war museum I’ve seen (in my opinion), second only to the World War II museum in New Orleans.

Philadelphia is a grand old town, but it is looking tired and dirty. Homeless people are blatantly evident, and an entire tent city has been established in a park near the museum district. Attempts by officials to deal with these issues simply aren’t working. We felt safe enough during the day, but I’m not sure I’d want to wander around after dark. It’s a shame, really. By late afternoon, we headed back out to the clean and safe countryside.

Continuing with the historic theme, we visited the historic sites of Valley Forge and Gettysburg. Gettysburg was simply massive, with an enormous number of monuments. The visitor center movie, cyclorama and museum provided a historical perspective of the site before we took ourselves on the self-guided auto tour. The scene now is so peaceful, it’s difficult to imagine such a bloody battle taking place there. War is such a waste.

Our two weeks here just flew by! But all too soon, it was time to move on.

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