Sarasota is home to a unique Amish settlement

florida amishAmish in Florida?  Citrus trees and Amish people may seem an odd mix. But Plain people have had a continuous presence on Florida’s Gulf Coast since the 1920s. The Pinecraft neighborhood of Sarasota is home to an unusual Amish and Mennonite community.

fl amish sarasota

An Amish-themed mural in the Pinecraft district of Sarasota, FL

Amish in the Sunshine State

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An Amish corner of Sarasota

Sarasota is a city of over 50,000 people lying on the Gulf of Mexico.

florida amish palm

Why Amish favor Florida

The Pinecraft village is just a small segment of this city, comprised of a couple dozen roads lying on a parcel of land about a half-square mile in area.

Pinecraft was originally laid out as a tourist camp, and gradually developed into a full-fledged residential neighborhood along with an adjacent camp known as Homecroft (The History of Pinecraft 1925-1960, Noah Gingerich, p. 1).

The community itself sits on the edge of city limits, but is essentially a part of Sarasota, making Pinecraft residents America’s only truly “city” Amish.  In a sense, they’re also “beachy” Amish as well, with a number of shores lying a short bus ride or longer bike ride from the community.

Amish who live and visit Pinecraft hail from a wide variety of places, and make up one of the most atypical Amish communities in the country.

The Pinecraft neighborhood

The main thoroughfare of the Pinecraft neighborhood is known as Bahia Vista St., a four-lane road bisecting the community and serving as one of Sarasota’s main east-west arteries.

Amish at Pinecraft live in bungalows and trailers packed into the gridlike streets bearing traditional Amish and Mennonite names such as Yoder, Graber and Schrock.  The residences are typically rented by the night, for short-term visitors, or for longer spells.

pinecraft sarasota map

A map of the Pinecraft neighborhood of Sarasota, featured in the Pinecraft Pauper newspaper.

The Pinecraft neighborhood is bounded on two sides by a historically flood-prone waterway known as Phillippi Creek.  Pinecraft Park is a popular place for relaxation and a hotspot for birdwatchers (“Fifteen Nature Hotspots in the Sarasota Area”, Daniel Fisher and Captain Ahab, The Pinecraft Pauper vol. 2 ed. 2, Dec 29, 2010).

Unlike in the vast majority of other communities, Amish here hold church in a freestanding building–the Pinecraft Amish Church.  The Mennonite Tourist Church is a long-established place of worship occupying a former bakery building.  The Palm Grove Mennonite Church can be found on Beneva Road, a main avenue intersecting Bahia Vista.

The residents

The Pinecraft Amish community is unique in a number of ways.  One reason is the mix of people in this community.  Pinecraft is made up of a wide variety of Amish with roots in different settlements.  This fact becomes obvious in the different styles of clothing worn by Pinecraft Amish.

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Older Amish flock to Florida

The settlement is popular with a range of Amish demographic groups as well.  Amish retirees and older folks appreciate the sunny climate.  Vacationers from the Midwest make regular visits.  Some Amish newlyweds on honeymoon consider Pinecraft the ideal destination.  Amish youth come here for seasonal work.  There is also a significant Beachy Amish and Mennonite presence.

However, Pinecraft visits are not accepted by all Old Order Amish.  Some Amish see the Florida community as worldly.  “This is not the norm,” explained Ohio Amish businessman Atlee Raber for a 2004 news piece on the community. “Not everybody goes to Florida. You are in contact with more of the entrepreneurial part of the Amish community by being down here.” (“Amish go to Vacation in Florida”, The Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, Christopher Evans, March 14, 2004)

True to Raber’s comment, Amish from the larger and more business-oriented communities in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania make up a large proportion of Pinecraft’s plain population.

Electricity and no buggies

Part of the problem some Amish have with Florida is the lifestyle led by Amish residents and visitors to Pinecraft.  Homes here come equipped with electricity.  Amish generally permit electricity usage in such cases when living quarters are meant to be temporary.  For instance, when staying in a hotel, Amish have no qualms about using the available facilities, though the TV might stay off.

Of course, not all Amish approve of the wired-up side of Pinecraft life.  As one New Order Amish bishop admits, “It’s a unique situation”, while at the same time noting that–at least in his church–“it’s nothing that’s forbidden. People don’t have to come and ask, May I go to Florida?’ We expect them to be loyal to their faith” (“Amish go to Vacation in Florida”).

Another interesting aspect of the Pinecraft community is the type of transportation used.  Amish at Pinecraft do not use horses and carriages.  In fact, as one Pinecraft native notes,  “The only buggy in town sits in the courtyard at Yoder’s Restaurant, mostly for photo opportunities”  (see “Taste of Pinecraft: Sherry Gore interview“, Amish America blog).

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Only buggy in town.  Outside Yoder’s Amish restaurant, Sarasota, Florida.

In lieu of horse-drawn travel the Amish at Pinecraft mainly use large adult tricycles as well as bicycles, with some golf carts included in the mix.  No other Amish community makes use of such a creative assortment of transportation, as the horse-and-buggy is generally considered an inseparable aspect of Amish life.

However, given the urban setting of the Pinecraft community–and the transient nature of the community–bikes, carts and trikes make a certain sense.

An Amish post office

Another Pinecraft peculiarity: the world’s only Amish-operated post office.  When the USPS decided to close their Pinecraft outpost, Amish offered to purchase the small, squat building.  Postal service is particularly important for Amish, with the number of letters written and received by Plain people surely outpacing that of the average American.

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The Amish post office, Pinecraft, Florida

The Pinecraft post office also serves another important function.

The building’s east wall is adorned with a bulletin board that serves as a plain Craigslist of sorts.  Job postings, benefit events, and other business and general communications gets passed around the community thanks to the bulletin board.

On the post office, local author Sherry Gore adds, with a touch of humor: “What you won’t find are computers; not even a hand-held debit card machine. Postal clerk Magdalena Graber uses a small calculator. Receipts are hand-written and hand-stamped. Mark Shrock works the winter season. Expect to stay longer if you ask him a question regarding current politics. But never quote him” (see “Taste of Pinecraft: Sherry Gore interview”)

Arriving in Pinecraft

Amish, of course, do not drive.  Due to the popularity of the destination, a number of coach companies have started up business serving the Pinecraft community.  The first such line was created by entrepreneur David Swartzentruber, of Pioneer Trails.

This coach leaves from the Geauga County, Ohio Amish settlement, with stops in Holmes County and other Ohio locations.  Due to the popularity of Florida among Amish, other lines have been started, with regular coaches ferrying Plain passengers from Indiana and Pennsylvania back-and-forth over the Pinecraft circuit.

Today, at least three lines make regular trips from traditional Amish destinations to Florida.  “I would say we haul between 4,000 and 4,500 people in the wintertime,” noted Swartzentruber, adding that “It’d be about 75 percent Amish and the rest Mennonite, or English” (“Amish go to Vacation in Florida”).  Passengers pay in the range of $250 for a round-trip ticket, with discount rates for children and seniors.

Depending on where you get on, the Florida-bound passenger travels in the range of 15-18 hours to make the trip, returning–in most cases tanned and well-rested–on buses operated by the same companies.  Bus lines run primarily in the Pinecraft tourist season, from about November to April.

Vacation and relaxation

The name of the game for most Amish visitors to Florida is relaxation.  The Pinecraft community features many attractions to help Amish and others pass the time.

Shuffleboard is a popular game in the Pinecraft Amish community.  Hearty meals can be had at a range of restaurants.  Concerts are performed by musical acts such as Gospel groups or Ohio native John Schmid.  The annual Florida Haiti Auction, held in January, is one of a number of such events taking place in Amish communities around the country.

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Characteristic adult tricycle used by Amish in Florida

A section on Pinecraft activities would be incomplete without mentioning the area’s beautiful beaches, which attract many Amish and Plain visitors. The shores of  Siesta Key and Lido Key, two small islands lying just off Sarasota, are highly popular among Amish sun-seekers.

Plain beachcombers scour these shores for sand dollars and shells.  Making sand castles with children or just sitting and relaxing in the ocean breeze are popular, as is fishing.  And what about sunbathing?  Do Amish go swimming?  While you probably won’t see many Amish women in bikinis, some men are known to wear swimming trunks.  For those that can’t get past the breach of modesty, they may take to the seas in full plain attire.

For the more adventurous, other activities may tempt.  One Amish couple took to the skies–literally–on a parasailing trip.   Ohio natives Gerold and Becky Miller signed up for the excursion seeking a spot of adventure. It was an experience described by Becky as “awesome”.  Gerold apparently enjoyed the trip as well.  “Know what I did up there?” asked the Amishman.  “I kissed her” (“Amish go to Vacation in Florida”).

For those more inclined to keep their feet on the ground, a local publication catering to the Amish and Plain contingent provides much enjoyment.  The Pinecraft Pauper is a newspaper produced twice a month during the tourist season.  The Pauper features local interest stories, resident profiles, recreational tips for visitors, photos, cartoons, and a heavy dose of humor.  Read more on the Pinecraft Pauper.

Amish restaurants in Sarasota, FL

In the immediate vicinity of Pinecraft, there are at least four Amish/PA Dutch-style restaurants, meaning that per capita, Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish-style cooking is well-represented in Sarasota.

amish restaurants sarasota

Yoder’s is one of a few Amish-style restaurants in Sarasota FL

The PA Dutch style restaurants are popular among English–both natives of Sarasota and tourists–as well as Pinecraft’s Plain population.  Eateries such as Troyer’s Dutch Heritage and Yoder’s Amish Village serve as a meeting point for Amish from different communities.

Troyer’s, for example, has been described as “a popular early morning hangout for Amish men with nothing but time on their hands.”   Describing the dynamic, one observer wrote:  “The suspendered and sunburned snowbirds arrange themselves in casual geographic groupings. Holmes County, Ohio, over here. Elkhart County, Indiana, over there. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the booths along the far wall” (“Amish go to Vacation in Florida”).

Local restaurants are a place for Amish and Mennonites to kill time and chew the fat while sipping a cup of coffee or filling up on stick-to-your-ribs PA Dutch dishes.  Dutch favorites such as fried mush, butter noodles, meatloaf, fried okra, and shoofly pie populate the menus of these cheery locales.  Diners are certain not to leave hungry.

Addresses and opening hours of Amish restaurants in Sarasota

  • Troyer’s–Troyer’s Dutch Heritage Restaurant is a Pinecraft institution featuring a buffet, bakery, and banquet hall.  Troyer’s is located at 3713 Bahia Vista St., Sarasota.  Regular hours are 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon-Thurs, 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri-Sat, closed Sunday.
  • Yoder’s–Just down the street from Troyer’s, Yoder’s is another popular locale featuring hearty Amish-style cooking.  The Yoder’s restaurant is part of a complex known as “Yoder’s Amish Village”, housing a produce market, “Fresh market” with deli meats and cheeses, and a gift shop.  Yoder’s address is 3434 Bahia Vista St., Sarasota.  Business hours are from 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon-Sat, closed Sundays.
  • Mom’s/Dutch Haus–the Dutch Haus Family Restaurant, also known as Mom’s Amish Country Cooking, is found at 1247 Beneva Road, Sarasota.
  • Sugar and Spice–Sugar and Spice, which features “Amish-style” cooking, is actually located a bit outside the Pinecraft neighborhood, at 4000 Cattlemen Road, Sarasota.  Hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mon-Sat, closed Sundays.

Florida Amish origins

How did the Amish find themselves in Florida?  Pinecraft was founded as a camping area and originally bore the name Sarasota National Tourist Camp.  The area was first settled by Amishman Daniel Kurtz in the mid-to-late 1920s.  Kurtz purchased land and ended up farming celery, which was a well-suited crop for the area’s drained muck land.  Other Plain people followed, and also became involved in produce growing (The History of Pinecraft 1925-1960; pp. 27-42) .

Pinecraft gradually became popular for sun-seeking northern Plain people.  Church records for the 1939-40 Winter season list Amish visitors from Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Maryland, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, along with members of Mennonite and other faiths (The History of Pinecraft 1925-1960; pp. 147-150).  As time passed homes began to be built, with campsites becoming permanent freestanding residences and the area developing into a full-fledged suburban neighborhood.

The Amish in Florida: a breed apart

The Pinecraft Amish are a unique community for a number of reasons.  These include the community’s transient nature, with the majority of residents being seasonal visitors.  The use of electricity, as well as alternative transportation rather than buggies, also makes this group stand out.  Holding church services in a free-standing building rather than in a home–a practice that evolved at least in part due to space constraints in the small Pinecraft residences–is another deviation from the Amish norm.

For the Amish, Pinecraft is more a vacation destination than anything else.  However, the settlement does have a number of year-round residents, particularly older retirees.

Their presence through the hot summer months–while their northern brethren are busy farming, running businesses, and enjoying warm weather in their home communities–means Florida maintains a permanent year-round Amish population, though one that shrinks and grows with the coming and going of the tourist season.

For further information, see:

The History of Pinecraft 1925-1960: A Historical Album of the Amish and Mennonites in Pinecraft, Florida; Noah Gingerich.

“Amish go to Vacation in Florida”, The Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, Christopher Evans, March 14, 2004.

The Pinecraft Pauper, local plain newspaper published bi-weekly in-season.

Amish America: An interview with Sherry Gore, editor of the Pinecraft Pauper.

Florida Amish Furniture business directory.

Photo credits: Florida Amish wall mural-Richard Elzey; palm tree-Fabio-Miami; Amish couple-Saintbridge; Yoder’s Amish restaurant Sarasota (buggy and sign)-Richard Elzey; Pinecraft post office-Becky Mabry; Amish man on tricycle-Richard Elzey

 


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