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WHY GO: There are quite a few ways to approach Lancaster County PA. Experience the city of Lancaster PA itself as an arts magnet. Get lost among the “Simple Folk” in the surrounding farmlands of Lancaster PA Amish Country. Or step back in time to study the seeds of Amish and Mennonite life in the region.
The oldest Mennonite Meeting House – dating from 1719 – still stands. So do buildings built by a strange messianic, monastic sect, as well as a pre-Industrial brewery tucked away on a one-block “downtown.”
All of these and more are open to the public in this Historic Getaway that digs deep beneath the earth to uncover the roots of Lancaster County. And, it brings us to the present through “time” travel.
Things To Do In Lancaster County PA
VISIT: Hans Herr House and Eastern Woodland Longhouse
Built in 1719, the Hans Herr House is the oldest building in Lancaster County. It’s also considered the longest standing Mennonite Meeting House in the USA. And it wasn’t even built by Hans Herr (who may or may not have even left Germany), but by his son Christian Herr.
A prime example of Medieval Germanic architecture, with asymmetrical windows and a central fireplace, this was a mansion in the early 1700’s when other families lived in log cabins.
What makes this historic site in the middle of PA Dutch farmland so compelling, though, is what has been preserved. For example, the year 1719 is chiseled in stone over the front door. The home also tells the story of Mennonite life throughout the centuries.
Costumed interpreters expound on everything inside and outside the structure.
One room is set up as starkly as it would have been when neighbors assembled to pray. Upstairs, in the bedroom, guides remark on a rare, intact “Immigrant’s Trunk” made of wood and iron. The prudent Mennonites usually burned the wood for heat, and smelted the iron into farm-tools, but in this case did not.
The original staircase from the 2nd to third floor seems as if it will crumble any minute. That it hasn’t is a testament to the preservation of this under-appreciated site.
Native American Longhouse
The Native American Longhouse, measuring an impressive 62 ft. long 20 ft wide, was erected here to offer visitors a glimpse of this land’s history prior to and during the early years of European settlement.
In the late 1600’s and 1700’s, European contact with the indigenous tribes was generally hostile. However, journal entries written by the Herr family note that on cold mornings, they would often find Native Americans sleeping on their kitchen floor. Thus indicating a merciful, if not friendly, connection.
Sit inside the Longhouse and you’ll learn why this Matriarchal, clan-based society lived many generations to a building. And the strange reason they kept dogs and black snakes.
The whole 11-acre complex, which encompasses a blacksmith shop, smokehouse, museums and thriving fruit tree grove provides a fascinating look at pioneer life. April –Nov. Mon-Sat. 9am-4pm. One house $8, two houses $15. Check website for tour times.
VISIT/TOUR: Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata
Take a 45-minute guided tour of one of the most peculiar monastic compounds ever to crop up in this center of religious tolerance.
Conrad Beissel was a restless, but charismatic soul. He strove, some would say, to just be left alone in the Pennsylvania woods. But isolation doesn’t jive well with charisma.
So, in 1737, Beissel cobbled together a type of Tomorrow-Christ-Will-Return-Messianic religion with Saturday Sabbath, Vegetarianism, and Celibacy as central tenets. He then built the largest structures west of Philadelphia to house his followers. In 1750 the community, with its own Latin Academy and large printing press, reached its peak of 300 members.
Your entertaining and engaging guide (mine was Nick Seigert), dressed as a “Brother” in a flowing white robe, takes you through a typical day and night in 1750. Most of the daylight and nighttime hours were devoted to prayer, some light spinning and calligraphy work, one meal of fruit and nuts, and an intense two hour “Jesus is coming like a thief in the night” midnight service.
In the still-standing Woman’s Dorm and Meeting House, visitors are invited to lay on an 18” wide board with solid wood block pillow to experience the severe conditions that the Brothers and Sisters would have to endure.
No big surprise that many left quickly, and that a celibate group without long-term plans (Christ would arrive any minute to take them home, after all), would die out pretty quickly following Beissel’s death in 1768. But it makes for a very thought-provoking and compelling tour. Mon-Sat. 9-5, Sun Noon – 5pm, $10 adults, $6 kids.
VISIT: National Watch and Clock Museum, Columbia
Punch your souvenir ticket into a Time Clock then walk through a time portal. From Stonehenge and Sundials to ultra-modern digitals, this museum is one cool way to “pass” time.
In an agrarian society, lapsed time (how long it took to get something done) was more important than scheduled time, which eventually became necessary during the Industrial Revolution and advent of the railroad.
You’ll learn about “escapement” – how energy is released via weights and pendulums, the concept of Asian sliding scale time (depending on season), and see a slew of clocks, pocket-watches, and far-out “novel” timepieces.
One highlight of the museum is an 11 foot tall “Monumental Clock.” Advertised as “The Eight Wonder of the World,” it made its way around the country in the 1870’s and ‘80s.
Operated via weights and bellows, the Monumental Clock features religious and Revolutionary War characters that emerge from small slamming doors at precise times. You can see a full run of all of its features on the hour.
Should you visit on Mondays between 11am-2pm, be sure to “Make and Take” your own clock (ie., flip-flop or CD Clock) for just $6. $8 adults, $4 kids, open year round Tues-Sat 10am. From Dec – March, closes at 4pm, April-Nov, closes at 5pm with additional Sunday hours from 12-4.
Restaurants in Lancaster County PA
EAT: The Log Cabin, Ephrata
Opened in the 30’s as a restaurant, this cabin in the woods, so remote it served as a speakeasy back in the day, takes some getting to. Most likely because of that, The Log Cabin – actually two of them co-joined – has earned icon status in these parts. The mood is upscale and quirky – with a 1700’s log-cabin’y vibe and piped in music spanning Mozart to Batman.
The food is fantastic and eclectic, the service excellent. Not overly fawning, but there when you need it. Fresh herbs and vegetables come from the chef’s garden right on site. Entrees range from the $18 Cabin Burger, with candied apple smoked bacon, to Coffee Rubbed 8oz. 21-day aged Rib Eye ($48). I delightfully devoured my Salmon Oscar ($28) – a perfectly cooked wedge of fish on potato galette, topped with asparagus and crabmeat. Mouthwatering.
DRINK/EAT/STAY: Bube’s Brewery Mt. Joy
Pronounced “booby’s,” this awesome find in a barely there downtown takes up a full back-street block. Encompassing a small brew-works, a Biergarten, the Bottling Works Tavern, and fine-dining Catacombs, Bube’s has been discovered by travelers from all over the world.
Walk into a room built in the 1880’s, a decade when hundreds of German immigrants, like Adolf Coors, opened the kind of breweries they left back home.
You won’t find any other place in the country with such remnants of medieval beer-making technology. Experience the way lager was made before the Steam Engine and Industrial Revolution changed the method entirely.
“This building, constructed over a cave that was required as a cooling cellar, could stand in for one built in 1489,” says owner Sam Allen. In fact, Bube’s is the only pre-industrial brewery in the USA still brewing. The fresh brewed stuff here is inordinately fresh. Taps run right from tanks in the back to the bar.
Dinner in the Catacombs
If you come for dinner in the Catacombs, you’ll get a ten-minute tour of the whole place on your way down.
Down below in the cool, humid cellar, exceptionally friendly and attentive waitstaff serve up well prepared dishes. Try the Trenchman’s Plate – 6oz angus filet mignon, crab cake and side dishes, in dark, candlelit arched stone rooms of the Catacombs Restaurant.
Where to Stay in Outer Lancaster County PA
STAY: Hurst House B&B
At the Hurst House B&B, in Ephrata PA (Lancaster County), a couple of swans float contentedly in a landscaped pond, swallows dart in and out of Victorian eaves, the patched greens of farmland extend as far as the eye can see. Have I stumbled into a Fairy Tale?? Well, close.
The Hurst House, high on a hill in Ephrata, was built and is owned by Rich Hurst and his wife, Bert. With a penchant for the sprawling Cape May Victorians, and the romanticism they impart, Bert had Rich construct this confection of a home twenty years ago. They’ve been operating it as a 5-room B&B ever since.
First Impressions of the Hurst House B&B
This area of Lancaster County is the exemplar of PA Dutch farmland. So much so, the Hurst House is actually located on a byway called Farmersville Rd. Passing several Amish buggies, silos, cows, and miles of planted corn and soy, I imagined I’d be spending my night in a nice but rustic farmhouse. When I got to the proper address, I thought the home smack on the road was the Inn. (And wasn’t too impressed). But then I noticed that the driveway snaked up a hill. Reaching the crest, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
A large structure, rimmed with planted flowers and tended gardens, with multiple rooflines, turrets, verandas and porches, flaunts the stylistic whimsy of the Victorian age. The Hursts took the décor of the era and ran with it. Inside and out.
The interior is a museum of Victoriana. There are dolls and doilies galore, deep earth tones, dimpled upholstery, Oriental rugs, ornate window treatments and formal dining sets. Family pictures line the walls.
Rich and Bert are rightfully proud of their establishment. Bert is the quiet one to her husband’s gregariousness. Married 57 years, they are one of the sweetest couples I’ve ever met as a travel writer.
The Grounds of Hurst House
After I was sufficiently impressed by the front of the house, Bert and Rich, along with their companionable dog, Nigel, were eager to take me around to the back. I soon saw why.
Terraced brick patios surrounded by rock gardens descend downhill. A couple feature koi ponds swarming with hungry fish that Bert fed as we walked down the stairs. But that’s not all.
Down the hill was a man-made one-acre pond – with swans, a “swan house,” and a gazebo, picture-perfect for nuptials. I accompanied Rich to the pond to help feed the birds, who quietly paddled up to us as he threw the food. It is no surprise that people from all over the country book this place for weddings.
Guest Rooms at Hurst House
Rooms are quaint, with antique brass or 4 poster beds, quilt bedding, and adorable frilly bathrooms with pedestal sink.
Ask for a room overlooking the pond, and if you’re lucky the misty sunrise will be as spectacular as it was when I was there.
A hearty farm breakfast begins with a prayer. Holding our hands, Rich and Bert thank God for the meal set before us. Though I’m not of the Christian faith, I was actually comfortable doing so. (This is just an FYI for those who are iffy about religious practice of any kind). There’s bacon, eggs, English Muffins, and Bert’s famous homemade granola – freshly made that morning. It’s so fantastic, I had several helpings.
Hurst House Amenities
The Hurst House basement is actually a ground floor walkout to the back yard terraced patios. Inside, the room is large enough to hold a party of 100, with 100 chairs, and round and rectangular tables on hand so you don’t have to rent.
There’s a ping-pong table, a small workout room, bathrooms, and a full kitchen for food prep (for those catering their own party). In addition, a small elevator services all three floors, making this Victorian B&B handicapped accessible. Rooms are $170 – $185 and include wi-fi, full farm breakfast, parking, and priceless breathtaking setting.
STAY: Red Caboose Motel, Ronks
OK, this is not the Ritz. But who cares when sunset views include vintage steam trains chugging within a few feet of the front porch on their way through verdant farmland?
All 40 train cars (38 Cabooses, 1 mail car, 1 baggage car), and the Shady Rest Hotel with 4 suites, that collectively serve as this unique lodging, have been upgraded with flat-screen TV’s, new carpet and fresh coats of paint.
Most train cars sleep six people. Eat in a Pullman Dining Car, climb an old silo now used as a Viewing Tower, and otherwise soak in the landscape from the front porch. From here, you can walk to the PA Railway Museum, the National Toy Train Museum and the Strasburg Railroad for a complete “Trainspotting” weekend. Rates $95-$150.