Romancing the Past in Lititz
A sweet romance always seems to linger when dancing in the past. Maybe that’s why millions of tourists are drawn to Lancaster County, PA each year. There, in the gently rolling hills of the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside, visitors can experience simpler times. The county is rich in Amish, Mennonite and Moravian heritage. Its rhythm of daily life lies in the clip-clop of horse-drawn buggies, the tidy farms where muscles are flexed in chores as they shun modern conveniences, where clothes catch the wind from lines strung between house and barn, and quilting needles move in and out of colorful fabric.
The county is blessed with a maze of secondary roads that snake through the picturesque landscape, across 19th century covered bridges, and into numerous villages offering old-world charm. It’s the kind of scenery that hugs the soul and won’t let go. So you might as well slow down and enjoy the ride.
It’s no wonder that tourism is one of the county’s largest industries, second only to agriculture. Tourists have been drawn to Lancaster County, known as Pennsylvania Dutch country, since the 1930s, according to Joel Cliff, Media Relations Manager for the PA Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau. “People have always been intrigued with the simple lifestyles of the Amish and how they separate themselves from worldly influences. In 1955, we experienced a burst in tourism after the musical 'Plain and Fancy,' opened on Broadway, depicting Amish life. Then interest grew even further when the the movie ‘Witness’ was filmed here in the mid 80s,” he said.
My 14-year-old granddaughter Natalie and I spent several days in Lancaster County recently, feasting on regional specialties, such as scrapple, and taking an afternoon buggy ride with an Amish girl who immersed us in her culture. Most of our time was spent in Lititz, a small village where Natalie was going through therapy with Dr. Clayton Stitzel at the Lancaster Spinal Health Center. We stayed at Swiss Woods Bed & Breakfast, a cozy inn with wooded trails, wildlife, glorious gardens, incredible breakfasts, and the kind of warm hospitality from our hosts, Werner and Debbie Mossiman, that made it hard to leave each morning.
Werner has an absolute passion for religious history and over coffee one morning he talked about the Moravians who fled persecution in Europe in the mid 1700s, led by Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, and settled in Pennsylvania. Zinzendorf founded Lititz in 1756 as a family-oriented settlement and named it in honor of a Bohemian castle where the Moravians once found refuge. Their motto, as their lifestyle, is simple: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, freedom; and in all things, love.” For the first 100 years, Lititz was open only to members of the religious enclave. Today, many of the structures they built still grace the village, and the Moravians maintain a strong presence in Lititz where they continue their tradition in missionary outreach.
While Natalie was at the health center, I visited the Moravian Church and also spent time at some of the town’s historic landmarks, its quaint boutiques and unique museums, and checked out the diverse restaurants that serve everything from Pennsylvania Dutch meals to English pub grub and scrumptious chocolate desserts made with Fair Trade cocoa.
Most memorable are the ventures taken when Natalie could join me during her long, mid-day breaks. One afternoon we had a tasty lunch at Café Chocolate, a great “good life” destination where local, organic, and Fair Trade products are served. The homey atmosphere is energized with genuine friendliness and retro black and white tiles that remind me of a 50s diner. I ordered cocoa-mint iced tea and a toasted Cubano sandwich and Natalie chose the rich, dark chocolate milk (the best she’s ever had) and a flatbread pizza which she shared with me. If you love thin crust, this is a must! For dessert, we picked chocolate-dipped pizzelles from a luscious array of treats displayed in a glass case.
Café owner Selina Man opened the restaurant six years ago with a dream to make a difference in people’s lives, a dream ignited when the Twin Towers went down. "I had earned a PhD at Princeton and was working for a Wall Street firm on 9/11. Eight of my good friends died that day, and I decided to do something more meaningful with the business practices I felt strongly about,” she emphasized.
After a brief conversation with Selina, it’s easy to understand why she’s so deeply committed to sustainable agriculture, organic farming and the Rainforest Alliance. The cafe's logo, above, features a wee midge, which needs the rainforest to survive, hovering above an open cocao pod. Selina's interest in Fair Trade stems from personal experience. “I was born and raised in Hong Kong when it was considered a Third World country. I used to make plastic toys to earn school fees and have seen the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots. People share the same dreams all over the world; they want a better future for their children. Through Fair Trade, people are paid equitably for the products they make. However, when something is mass produced, it may be cheap, but the price always comes off the backs of those who are least able to bargain for themselves. I felt my future was in peace through fairness. So I opened the café,” she said.
Later that afternoon, Natalie and I went on one of Aaron and Jessica’s Buggy Rides, a four-mile venture in an open, horse-drawn wagon built in 1886. Our young driver, Miriam, took us down back roads, clipping along at nine miles an hour through the rural landscape and an Amish farm where darling little entrepreneurs greeted us with homemade cookies, lemonade and root beer. Like most tourists, we were intrigued with the humble Amish lifestyle, and Miriam was eager to answer questions about their core beliefs and why they shun the temptations of worldly conveniences, like electricity and telephones. “No wires should come into the home, connecting it to the outside world,” she explained, adding that it would intrude on their sense of community. One passenger, noting that cell phone usage is fairly common these days within the Amish community, asked, “What about cell phones?” Miriam broke into a delightful smile. “There are no wires,” she explained.
Each morning, I stopped for coffee at Dosie Dough, a “happening place” according to the locals who gather there for a chat on the patio in nice weather. The little café serves great coffee, pastries and bagels shortly after sunrise, but the biggest draw for me was its friendliness and the must-do-while-in-Lititz tips the locals shared. This is where I first heard about the town’s most famed resident, General John A. Sutter, the Swiss-born pioneer who founded Sacramento and is associated with California’s 1849 Gold Rush. In later years, while suffering from rheumatism, he settled in Lititz, known at the time for the healing waters of Lititz Springs, and endeared himself to the entire community.
One of the locals shared an interesting tale of controversy following the death of General Sutter. Although he was not a Moravian, the Congregation was honored to give his body a resting place in the northwest corner of their cemetery, called "God's Acre." After talking further with Ron Reedy, one of the town’s historian, I learned that the Federal Government wanted a six-foot solid wall placed around Sutter's grave, but the General's granddaughter objected. "She felt the Moravians were gracious enough to allow her grandfather to be buried there, so it was decided to construct the wall below ground with only a small portion of it exposed above the grave," Ron said.
After a daily java jolt, I walked around town, mostly along Broad and Main streets which took me back in time with their 18th century buildings and folks sitting on benches, absorbing the simplicity and fellowship of bygone days. I wandered through the Moravian Historic District which is highlighted by German-influenced architectural gems such as the Moravian Church, built in 1786/87, and the adjacent Linden Hall, the nation’s oldest boarding school for girls founded in 1746. Most memorable was walking through the arch of "God’s Acre" at the Moravian Cemetery where many of the early Moravians who developed the town are buried. Bells chimed in the distance as I strolled along paths lined with cedar trees.
Every gravestone in "God’s Acre" is the same size, and parishioners rest in peace the way they once worshiped in the Moravian church – according to age, gender and marital status. Knowing that Moravians were pacifists during the American Revolution, I was drawn to the worn stone of Matthaeus Gottfried Hehl, 1705-1787, which had a small "Liberty Bell" inscribed with "War 1776" tucked beside it. Ron said Hehl was a Bishop of the Moravian Church and pastor of the Lititz Congregation during the Revolutionary War, not a soldier. "In fact, there are no Continental Army soldiers buried in the Moravian Cemetery. No one knows why the 1776 grave markers have been placed by the various graves of individuals who lived during the Revolutionary War; it remains a mystery," he said.
However, Ron noted that General George Washington ordered the Brother's House, adjacent to the Moravian Church, to be used as a military hospital during the war to treat the Continental Army's wounded soldiers from the battlefields of Brandywine and Germantown. Many of those wounded died and were buried just east of Lititz.
Just beyond the arch of "God’s Acre," I found General Sutter’s gravesite tucked away in the honored northwest corner. Sure enough, his memorial is surrounded by a low wall and graced with a prominent headstone dedicated by the Sacramento, CA Chamber of Commerce in memory of the man who founded their state’s capital.
That night, Natalie and I dined at the General Sutter Inn, a picturesque hotel that offers formal and courtyard dining. It was a beautiful evening, so we opted to have crab cake sandwiches in the courtyard which features an original Civil War fountain and a hand-carved statue of the general.
Next visit, I’d like to try the inn’s latest addition – the Bulls Head Public House, an authentic British pub, featuring a sign that once welcomed guests to a pub in Nottingham, England -- located in Nottinghamshire where our family history took root. Daily specials, like bangers and mash, fish and chips, and sticky toffee pudding, are written on a chalkboard -- just like menus in an English pub. All choices can be washed down with cask conditioned ales or numerous international beers.
I’d also like to spend more time at the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery, one of the highlights of my visits. Walking through the bakery’s door, and hearing the creaking wood-planked floors, reminds me of the old mom and pop stores that once stood on every corner. The bakery was opened in 1861 by Julius Sturgis and is housed at its original location -- a charming 1784 stone building.
Informative 20-minute tours focus on the history of pretzels and how they became part of our American culture. We learned that pretzels were once given as a treat to children in Europe who memorized their prayers. The soft pretzel was probably introduced to the area through the Pennsylvania Dutch during the 18th century. Early on, Julius Sturgis baked only soft pretzels. Later, he discovered today’s popular hard version after a batch was left in the oven too long, and he realized the treat was pretty tasty and had a much better shelf life.
The bakery is considered America’s oldest commercial pretzel bakery and is now operated by the Sturgis family’s 5th and 6th generations. Most pretzels are produced offsite, but the soft variety continues to be made at the original location and were even baked in the old soapstone hearth until 2006.
For me, the best part of the tour was the hands-on, pretzel-twisting lesson. Everyone gathered around a table and was given a ball of dough to twist into a pretzel as the tour guide explained the meaning behind its shape. The initial u-shape symbolizes prayers going up to heaven; the next twist represents the nuptial knot, followed by the final twist that looks like a child’s hands folded over the heart in prayer. Also, it creates three holes, representing the Holy Trinity. At the end of the tour, all participants received a “Certified Pretzel Twister” certificate. Actually, the best part was coming away with several pretzel varieties and sharing them with Natalie during an evening picnic in the B&B courtyard. All had the taste of old-fashioned goodness, but our favorite was the Cinnamon Sugar Stix.
During daily walkabouts, I often strolled through Lititz Spring Park which has tree-lined walkways, a little stream, and a fountain honoring veterans. The park is known for hosting the oldest continuous Independence Day celebration in America, a tradition that began in 1818.
Just across the street is the Wilbur Chocolate Co. which was founded in 1865 and includes a factory, old-fashioned candy story, and museum. If you go, take time to watch the chocolatiers making confections through an observation window, and be sure to sample a few Wilbur Buds, their renowned chocolate morsels introduced in 1894. The museum showcases early production equipment, antique chocolate pots and more than 1000 molds and tins. A video features the history of chocolate, beginning with the cacoa bean.
Time at this Lititz landmark was short because our stay was winding down and I wanted to see a few of the historic covered bridges in the area. Pennsylvania has about 200 of these 19th century monuments that span the state’s rivers and streams, and 29 are in Lancaster County. Although these bridges were covered to protect the wood from weather, they also sheltered the privacy of sweethearts who often met there; so these sentimental relics are often referred to as “kissing bridges.”
With map in hand, I took the back roads -- twisty paved ribbons that took me through scenic farmland with red barns, grand silos, Amish children playing in the meadow, and tire swings hanging from trees -- all harkening me back to America’s past. Before long, I came upon Hunsecker’s Mill stretched across the Conestoga River, a tributary of the Susquehanna River that once provided power for mills along its banks. Today, its faded red paint reveals the rustic charm of bygone days.
Next, I wound my way around to Erb’s Mill, a picturesque bridge over Hammer Creek, a popular spot for trout fishing. There was just enough shoulder on the road here for me to park. I walked through the grassy bank for a better look at the magnificent bridge, reflecting its blushing red like the cheeks of the young girls who had probably been kissed there many years ago. Yes indeed, a sweet romance always seems to linger in the past. Take a drive through Lancaster County and see for yourself!
Note: During the Lititz visit, I wanted to drive over to Lancaster’s Central Market at Penn Square which dates back to 1730, but I simply ran out of time. However, a few weeks later I took a side trip to this “good life” destination on my way to Gettysburg, PA. The historic market, pulsating with living history, will soon be featured elsewhere on our website.