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Road Trip

Playing in the Mud in Pennsylvania Dutch Country

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

WHERE: Lancaster County, Pa.

WHY: Amish auctions, firehouse sales and breakfast with the men in red.

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HOW FAR: About 120 miles by car from Washington.

At Lancaster County's annual mud sales, be careful with that auction number or you might end up owning a cow, scythe or Amish buggy. Fortunately, all proceeds go to local fire departments, so your impulse purchases are for a good cause.

The mud sales -- so-called because they are sometimes held outside on thawing, mucky ground -- have been a tradition in Pennsylvania Dutch country since the 1960s. Back then, volunteer fire departments organized auctions of donated goods and consignment pieces for Amish folks, with a portion of the proceeds going to the firefighters. Now, many of the seasonal events draw as many as 15,000 attendees, though the majority is still Amish. "The Amish come from Ohio, Virginia and Delaware," says John Whiteside Sr., a volunteer for the Bart Township Fire Company sale, which started 44 years ago. "It's kind of like a homecoming for them."

Most of the countywide auctions start at 8:30 a.m. and peak by early afternoon. The sales feature a broad mix of goods: quilts, handmade oak birdhouses, crates of produce, antique furniture, artwork and collectibles that draw professional and casual buyers. There is also some serious Amish farm shopping, including horses, heifers and field equipment for those with front yards larger than a sidewalk square.

To partake in the rural Sotheby's scene, pick up a numbered card that's used to signal bids. Plant yourself at any of the dozen or so auctions held simultaneously under tents and outside in corrals. The auctioneers call out prices fast and almost incomprehensively, so think before you bid. Remember, once you hear " soooold," there's no backing out.

When it's time to rest your auction arm, dig into pulled pork sandwiches, chicken corn soup or ice cream flavored with fresh fruit. You don't need to outbid anyone for the eats; a handful of bills will do.

-- Ben Chapman

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