Lancaster County Pennsylvania is known as the garden spot of the nation for its pastoral farms and countryside. It is also, of course, known for the Amish, or Plain community–those who have eschewed modern conveniences and live a simple, Christian life, just like the one that existed in the years after the Civil War. Tens of thousands of tourists from across the nation converge on Lancaster County each year to stare at the horses and buggies, visit the all-you-can-eat buffets, watch butter being churned, and wonder at the simple — some might even say “silly” — ways of the Amish people. Recently discovered documents, however, reveal that the Amish have roots that are much more recent.
Earlier this year, a slew of documents from the Pennsylvania Tourism Board were found during a new solar HVAC installation at the state capitol in Harrisburg. The documents consist of meeting agendas, minutes, and declarations from various board meetings in the late 1940s. Among the documents was a 1949 plea from 15 term State House Representative from Lancaster County, Baker Royer. A transcript of the letter is below:
While most of the nation is benefiting from the post-war economic boom, our Commonwealth, and more importantly, our beloved County of Lancaster, is floundering. There is nothing in the area to draw investment or tourism…no ballrooms, no foot ball arenas, no beaches, nothing. Last evening, while enjoying a couple of gimlets and listening to Duke Ellington and some negro trumpet players on my new Magnavox console, I had an idea. What if we create/embellish a story about some of the many farmers in our area? We could pay a bunch of families to act out farming life in the area as it existed in the late 1860s or something. I think people would come to the area to see what life was like before modern luxuries like electricity, DDT, asbestos siding, and bakelite radios. We need a catchy name, but I will leave that up to your advertising people. I am travelling on the PRR to Altoona to compete in a jitterbug contest this weekend, so please send a Western Union Express-gram to my attention at The Penn-Alto Hotel if you have any questions.
Most Respectfully, Representative Royer”
That letter led to heated discussion at the January 24th, 1949 County Tourism meeting at the old Courthouse and, after a boozy evening session full of swingin’ BeBop music, Cuban cigars and Old Grand-Dad Rye, the Amish were born. According to the minutes of that meeting, the first three families consisted of the Stoltzfus, King, and Martin clans in the eastern part of the county. Those families were paid the then princely sum of $175 for the Summer 1949 tourism season. People from across the country heard about these “A-mish” and their old-fashioned ways and swarmed the area to see this anachronism in action.
In October of 1949, the tourism board declared the project a rousing success and wooed several more families to also participate during the 1950 season. Soon, you couldn’t drive from Philadelphia to Lancaster on the Lincoln Highway without being bombarded by an array of shoo-fly pie bakeries, root beer peddlers, and country buffets. By 1952, the PA Legislature officially came up with the moniker “Pennsylvania Dutch Country” for the area, which has stuck to this day.
Over time, the payments from the state ceased but the “Amish” found new ways to keep the money flowing, while still orchestrating the charade. Many now make a living over-breeding dogs, conducting buggy rides, or participating in Amish Mafia activities.
Phone calls to at least 45 Amish families in the area for comment were not immediately returned.