Away in a Manger

By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007

In the end, I didn't have to sleep in the hay, and a pounding rain precluded any shot of seeing stars in a bright sky. But cattle were lowing, and if I'd wanted them to, the resident goats, Mocha and Cappuccino, would have stayed by my side till morning was nigh.

I'm still surprised, and a bit hurt, that they didn't follow me home. Or at least try.

The chubby little goats were the de facto welcoming committee -- Jez, the Rottweiler puppy, seemed to be the official greeter -- at the Old Summer House, a bed-and-breakfast on a 156-acre dairy farm in Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

No, not that Pennsylvania Dutch Country . . . the good one. The one with the rolling hills and tidy farmhouses and narrow lanes. The one with laundry strung on lines that sashay in the wind and where Amish children chase one another outside one-room schoolhouses. The one where you're more likely to be gently butted by a pair of scrappy garbage disposals on legs than to be overrun by tourists in Christmas sweaters sampling jellies.

For the latter, you have to drive about 20 minutes, where you'll also find buggy rides, all-you-can-eat smorgasbords, farm museums, the ultra-tacky National Christmas Center and T-shirt stores selling cheap cotton emblazoned with stuff like "Intercourse is everything I thought it would be." (For the uninitiated, Intercourse is a town in the heart of Lancaster County; for the uninhibited, you can find that pullover at the Tee Parlour at Kitchen Kettle Village on Route 340.)

My wife and I went with the cow slobber, suspicious hens and endless fields of the Stoner family farm in East Earl, about 18 miles northeast of Lancaster and less than two hours north of the Capital Beltway. After we drove down the long gravel road leading to her place, Karen Stoner met us on the front porch of her ridiculously quaint red farmhouse and introduced us to her brood.

"I see you've met Jez. And them," she said as Mocha and Cappuccino ambled up to the porch steps hip to hip. "They're just like a couple of dogs, only hungrier." In the summer, the duo stay in a pen to preserve Karen's now-dormant flower and vegetable gardens, whose remains have clearly been nibbled -- repeatedly -- by the pair.

The Stoners raise about 100 Holsteins on the property, and we were eager to catch part of the milking process. But it was late afternoon, and when we spotted Karen's husband, Dennis, coming from the main barn, we knew we were too late.

"You just missed it," he told us. "But the good news is, we do it twice a day. You're welcome to join us at 4:30." That's a.m. I immediately received a telepathic message from my spouse along the lines of "Forget it."

Instead of watching the Stoners' eight milking machines at work, we settled into our room. Rooms, actually: Visitors at the Old Summer House occupy a two-floor spread with a private entrance that's attached to the main house. In other words, no other guests. On the first floor, there's a kitchen, a living room/dining area and a huge 19th-century brick oven that's now primarily a repository for magazines and wet sneakers. It was gently decorated for the holidays (wooden snowmen, a few wintry wall hangings and faux pine arranged in vases).

Along with the unit's sole bathroom, the bedroom occupies the vaulted second floor. A fairy-tale cast-iron bed was covered in a quilt and framed by a looping grapevine intertwined with white Christmas lights that reached to the ceiling.

We read a little, watched some TV, cooked some dinner. Shortly before heading up to bed, we took turns cuddling a friendly black kitten that paid us a visit from one of the barns.

As rain drummed the Old Summer House's metal roof, we fell into a deep slumber. So deep, in fact, that we were still nestled all snug in our bed at 8 a.m. when Karen dropped off breakfast on the kitchen table (juice, grapes with melon, cherry-nut bread and coffee cake with chocolate chips that would have worked just as well as dessert).

Having been told we had the run of the place, we ran with it. For two hours, we fed the farm's calves, strolled along marshy paths leading into dormant fields and frolicked with Jez. A gaggle of hens -- I'm almost certain they were gossiping about us -- flocked to the edge of their pen as we walked to the dairy barn. There, 17-year-old Drew, one of the Stoners' four children, gave us a tutorial on dairy farming and made it seem romantic even as he continued to shovel up after the Holsteins, who seemed as interested as we were.

"You have to remember that cows are just like people. Some are friendlier than others," he said, leading us to one bright-eyed bovine begging for attention. "Pet away."

No need to offer twice. Dribble pooled on the arm of my wife's coat, and she didn't seem to care. Still, the scent from a pine wreath we bought from an Amish market offered welcome relief on the ride home, as cow stink isn't so idyllic after you leave a farm and scrape its remnants off your shoes.

One of our final glimpses of Mocha and Cappuccino came as we packed to leave. They were chomping on grass outside the Old Summer House, oblivious to the tiny glass Nativity set propped above their heads on a windowsill.

The Old Summer House (1294 Weaverland Rd., East Earl, Pa., 717-445-8422, sleeps six; the rate is $98 a night for two, $10 for each additional adult, $5 for each additional child. There's a play area for children, complete with an adorable playhouse right outside the door. No smoking, pets or alcohol permitted. The Stoners will provide directions when you make a reservation.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company