Got those can't-stand-the rat race, the noise, the pollution, big-city blues? Looking for an escape, a get-away-from-it-all place? Just the thing might be a weekend on a farm. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish country, many of the Mennonite farm families take in what are politely known as "paying guests," a fact my family just stumbled on.
We had gone to Lancaster for a day of sight-seeing - the markets, the railroad, the museums - and we were having such a good time we decided to stay overnight. But one motel after another told us no vacancy, and we were just about to give up and head home when we passed the Mennonite Information Center.
"Lets see if they have information about hotel rooms" my husband said, thinking he was being funny, and we went inside.
A small, sincere-looking Monk greeted us and asked if we would like to stay "with one of our farm families; we have several that would be glad to have you." He began checking a card file.
"Here's a dairy farm, this one serves dinners, here's one with horses, this one would be good for you, they have children about your uoung'uns age. Let me call them and make the arrangements." He telephoned and the family said "Send them right over"; so he drew us a map and off we went. No travel agency ever operated like that!
The farm was huge, a 94-acre dairy farm - no struggling hardscrabble farmers these Mennonites - with a long driveway, cows grazing in the yard behind a wire fence, lots of shade trees with a tire swing hanging from a branch of the tallest one, kittens and puppies everywhere, and lots of barns.
"Make yourself right at home," said the owner, Lloyd Ranck, as he showed us to our rooms. "Only got two rules:no smoking and no liquor."
The rooms were at the head of a narrow stairway> two connecting ones with a bathroom between, and were the most immaculate, no-dust-in-the-corner places I had ever seen.Bunk beds, which my children went mad over, patchwork quilts, rag rugs, antique china door knobs and a bathtub with claw feet! There was also a little light reading material: the Amish Newspaper, the novel "Plain and Fancy" and the Bible.
We went outside to look around and it was so quiet you could almost hear it.
"Just in time for milking," Mr. Ranck said, "go right through there," pointing to a door marked "ladies." That's a little farm joke; it's the door the cows walk through after being milked. "just stay to the left when the cows go by," he said, "they're very gentle."
After milking it was time to feed the calves.
"Could we do it?" we asked
"Be a big help," was the reply, so we climbed into the barn loft and spent an hour petting the calves as we fed them their corn and hay. There's nothing as sweet-smelling and silky as calves; one was only a week old.
After this we wandered into another barn where hay and corn cobs were stored. Have you ever climbed to the top of an enormous haystack, closed your eyes and jumped into freshly-cut, soft, prickly hay down below? Or slid down a six-foot pile of corn cobs? Farm people have all the fun! Of course, after six of us spent an hour jumping and sliding, we had to rake it all up again, But nobody minded.
Most of the farmers who rent rooms to a "guests" are glad to have them pitch in and do a little work, and there is always plenty to be done. There are vegetables to be picked or hoed or weeded, trucks to be loaded, fences to be mended.
"Folks can do what they want," Mr. Ranck said. "If they want to try their hand at sone farming we'll sure let them.?
The week before, Mrs. Ranck told us, "We had a young lady who was an artist set up her easel and painted while the men were plowing, and she'd send me a picture."
Breakfast the next morning was promptly at 7, and I do mean promptly! The farm bell rang and rang at 6:30, when we staggered downstairs we found that Mr. Ranck had been up doing chores since 5.
"Cows don't know it's Sunday; got to be milked every day." he said. It was quite an example.
Breakfast (at $1 a person, 25 cents for the children) consisted of pitchers of fresh orange juice and milk, homemade biscuits with newly preserved peaches and apples, and ham-and-cheese omelets made with two-hour-old eggs. The meal was served in the dining room off the parlor,and everyone - family, farmhands and guests - ate together: "Help yourself to more, there's plenty more and I do thank you for offering to help clear up."
After breakfast, the family went off to church and we had the farm to ourselves, literally. They went offand left us, complete strangers, with their house and farm and we hadn't even paid the bill yet! To a city girl who double-locks the door while getting the mail, that seemed incredible. The bill, incidentally, was $20 - for two adults, one teenager and three small children. Such nice people, the Rancks. So friendly and real, yet unworldly. Mrs. Ranck said that she had gone to a square dance once, "But that was a long time ago; we Mennonites don't really believe in dancing."
If you want to look around Lancaster a bit you'll find lots of things to do and see, museums, markets, carriage rides, factories and fantastic restaurants featuring Pennsylvania Dutch cooking. Everything is freshly made and fattening, noodles and shoofly pie and smothered chicken in gravy. Leave your diet at home.
The Mennonite Information Center is enlarged now, more tourist-oriented, but there are more farm families than ever who "welcome paying guests." We have been back severals times and plan to go again; it sure beats Holiday Inns for an unusual vacation and experience.