A Weekend in Glorious Intercourse (Pennsylvania)
Perhaps the most famous Amish town in America, there is much to do, see and learn beyond taking a picture of the town sign
If you want your phone to really blow up, just post on social media that you are headed to Intercourse, Pennsylvania — perhaps the most curiously named village in America, if not the most curious writ large — to explore, learn, photograph and write a travelogue. As expected, the reactions came in fast and furious. The well-known fact that my sense of humor is not exactly, well, mature, rendered my pending adventure an irresistible slow pitch up the middle for a wide swath of friends, colleagues and family. To wit:
“HAH. At least you’ll experience some kind of intercourse this summer…” -A “friend”
“Enjoy innuendo paradise!” -My daughter
And so on. It all got really fun when a thread between a half dozen people came together all trying to best themselves with suggested tourism slogans. I’ll go ahead and leave those examples to your imagination. Suffice to say my friends are mostly a bunch of reprobates. Brilliant, though.
Fast-forward to day of road-trip departure. Six a.m., Virginia Beach, Virginia. “Stahhting route to Innnntahcourrrrse” chirped my flirty British female-voiced navigation thing as I pulled out from the garage. I let out a cackle, rubbed my bleary eyes, and took a deep breath, reasonably sure that this trip was going to be, well, a trip. Just over five hours later, as I ambled down Route 340 into Lancaster County on a path to my destination that was growing more scenic by the moment, a rush of wonder and mild shock struck. For there, ambling toward me (in a borough called Christiana, funnily enough), was the Amish Country tourist’s holy grail. A horse and buggy. “Here we go, then!” I said to myself with a chuckle.
So yeah, It all started out kind of like a dick joke. I had no clue that I was about to experience something that was nothing close to such a thing — a place filled with an infectious and inspiring spirit that would absolutely charm the pants off of me.
Let’s Go Back. All the Way Back …
If Lancaster County is the body of Amish Country in America, then Intercourse is its gently beating heart. There are a few different theories as to how the village came to be called Intercourse. My personal theory involves a late-night bet in the early 1800s between Amish elders about how to ensure that all the dumbass English — essentially Amish for “gentile,” or non-Amish — like me would come and spend tourist money for generations. I’ve managed to gather no evidence of proof of my theory.
In reality, Intercourse wasn’t Amish Country from the get-go. As lifelong resident Julie Lawson, who can be found at a magnificent old shop called The Old Woodshed Antiques in the center of town explained, “Like so many places, the Irish were here first. The Amish didn’t come until it felt safe enough to do so.” This is where we pause and thank William Penn.
The Amish and the Atmosphere
“Content, gentle people. It’s remarkable. Their daily priorities involve things like milking cows and looking after one another. They have never heard of the Kardashians and social media has never factored into their lives. Color me wildly jealous.” -A text sent to my daughter from the middle of a farm
Most of us, I suppose, know of Amish country from films like Witness (filmed here, an Intercourse claim to fame) and more recently the spate of ghastly Am-sploitation “reality” shows that these people of course didn’t ask for and do not deserve. And if not for the occasional late-night talk show wisecrack, most of us would be oblivious to the very existence of Intercourse. When I asked a local “English” person early in my trip what the Amish thought of all of the above, the person sort of rolled their eyes at me and smirked. “Ohhh … right. No television,” I said, sheepishly. As per the note to my daughter above, they have not seen these things, will not see these things, and could care less about these things. God bless ‘em.
So what is it really like? What are the Amish really like?
Upon arrival, it doesn’t take very long to realize you are not entering a strict or stern homogenous religious colony — there are many non-Amish and less conservative Amish (Mennonites, for example), who have lived and worked here for generations. But you are very definitely entering another world. The Old Order (horse-and-buggy) Amish, or “Plain People,” as they are known and who we all come to see, don’t rule the place, but they definitely lead the way in spirit. The deference shown to them around here by the “English” borders on the reverential. The respect is very mutual and the peace runs deep as a result.
I suppose the best bit of travel advice one could take to heart is that Amish Country is not a Disney attraction. It is not akin to a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, and the farms are private property, not petting zoos staged for the enjoyment of the “English.” Intercourse and its neighboring communities are real-life, real-time, functioning places. Visitors of all sorts are warmly welcomed as guests, but not coddled. The shops and attractions are very much in line with the day-to-day functioning, specialties and skills indigenous to the area. Buggy rides for hire and shoo-fly pie are about as kitschy as it gets, at least in Intercourse proper. There are no waterslides. The beauty of this place lies in its simplicity, extraordinary pastoral beauty and neighborly spirit. The best thing you can possibly do here is wander, especially off the one main drag into the farmlands.
And interact. During a delightful visit one early evening with Dan Riehl, a sixth-generation resident farmer, Old Order Amish and proprietor of the Beacon Hollow Farm Guest House, I asked him about the dos and don’ts for respectfully interacting with Plain People. “We’re just as human as anybody else, our lifestyles are just a little different. It is not nearly as strict here as many people think.”
Riehl did, however, offer up some pointers for first-timers like me:
- Candid photos discreetly taken are just fine, but don’t ask for posed photos. Some will oblige, but they really aren’t supposed to and really don’t like to (I subjected John Fisher, a genial driver for AAA Buggy Rides, to the candid above before I learned it was an iffy thing to do, but I am guessing the nature of his job has rendered him quite used to it).
- Don’t roll up to a farm, park in the driveway and knock on the door uninvited. It happens, and it is unsettling (many farms have stands set up out front where flowers, baked goods and such are offered for sale on the honor system. The Amish families love your patronage at these stands, but their existence is not an invitation to come on in!
- Buggies on the street always have the right of way. Though the horses are used to people and motor vehicles, they can sometimes get spooked. If you see a horse getting a little jumpy in front of a buggy, give them as much space as possible, and …
- Don’t touch them! Even though they are out and about, the horses get nervous around strangers. Also, they are working, and as previously noted, Intercourse is not a petting zoo.
- Don’t be afraid to say hello on the street! The Amish are glad you are here and around 50% of them rely on you for at least part of their income. They do not view non-Amish as some sort of heathen species. Most are as curious about you and your life as you are theirs (though this doesn’t mean they would want to be you!).
Where I Stayed, Ate and Hung Out
The village of Intercourse is tiny, but there’s a lot going on and much to see, eat and buy (mostly all quality local products — furniture, meats and cheeses, quilts and such). Tchotchkes and the inevitable “I ❤️ Intercourse (PA)” shirts are of course available, but not everywhere you look. This is not a place for partying — everything closes around 5 p.m. except for the fantastic little coffeeshop in the center of town that closes at (gasp!) 9. Everything is closed on Sunday because, as Gloria Mast, a genial born-and-raised local non-Amish who one can find at the Corner West Art & Lifestyle Gallery told me simply but insightfully, “The Amish are closed on Sunday and they are not receiving guests.” So best to come on a Thursday or Friday and leave Sunday, unless you enjoy not eating and seek an Amish Country ghost town experience. (There are ghosts, actually, but that’s an entirely different article.)
In addition to the places I’ve mentioned throughout, I also loved my experiences and interactions here, here and here, the latter being the only place open late night (closing at 9 p.m. in Intercourse constitutes very late night, mind you) and featuring live music, which the locals, Amish and non-Amish, come out for. On the night I was there, a young fourth-generation woman with Amish family history, Sarah Glick, was performing covers mixed with her own work in delightful fashion.
This place, Kitchen Kettle Village, is extraordinary. Featuring more than 40 high-end shops, all with a local connection, centered around a storied jam and relish manufacturing kitchen that’s been in operation for nearly 70 years. There’s also an integrated Inn where the well-appointed rooms are dispersed throughout the property. I stayed in one. It was lovely.
There is also one place in particular that had a deep impact. The countryside. Words do not do it justice.
For a place that seems a world away, Lancaster County is remarkably accessible. Intercourse itself is a very small village of only about 500 people located right along Old Philadelphia Pike (Route 340), which serves as its main drag and along which you’ll find all there really is to find (beyond the farms themselves, which spread out into an unbelievably picturesque countryside, along both sides of the Pike, which seems to go on forever).
I visited twice for this piece — as previously mentioned, I drove up from my home base of Virginia Beach for the first visit. It was about a five-hour run, much of it along the scenic and sleepy Eastern shores of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware (Route 13), which definitely helped take the sting out of it.
For my second visit days later, I came in from New York City — just under a three-hour run, mostly on I-95 and Route 276. Not as pretty, for sure, but it went by quickly. If you come in from farther away by train or plane, Intercourse is just about an hour and 20 minutes from the center of Philadelphia.
Yes, I arrived giggling inside at Intercourse, Pennsylvania. I had no idea whatsoever that I would leave enchanted, restored and a little weepy, in a good way.
I asked my new friend Dan Riehl what locals would want people to take away from a visit to Intercourse. “We want people to be inspired.” He pointed out that while the Amish were not evangelists, “We live for God. We depend on God. We would like people to go home and live a better, more peaceful life.”
And who among us can’t use a little more peace right about now?
I cannot end this without one point: LGBTQ+ people and those of other marginalized communities are welcome here. Big time. There is no judgment in Intercourse.
Dan also explained to me that “Intercourse,” back in the day, meant “fellowship.” Mystery solved, though I still chuckle at my theory.
Do make room in your life to experience what I’ve just experienced. Spend some time doing a lot of nothing, eating simple but exquisite food, and making new friends in glorious Intercourse and her neighboring communities that together make up the heart of American Amish Country. It will spark your spirit, lighten your heart, broaden your horizons and likely stay with you forever.
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