I paid a visit to Somerset County, Pennsylvania on my “way home” from last week’s stay in Lancaster County. I have “way home” in quotes here because it required a 3-hour detour west down the PA Turnpike in a snowstorm.
But I was determined to get there. This had been a place I’d wanted to visit for a long time.
Luckily road conditions weren’t slick, and weather cleared before I arrived in the community. It left a lovely blanket of snow across the hilly landscape, as you can see in the photos.
Somerset County is not a tourist destination and is well off the beaten path. However there are a number of businesses I visited as well as one or two Amish people I’d previously spoken with on the phone.
I had been wanting to visit for some time because, for a couple of reasons, Somerset County is a rather unusual Amish settlement.
An atypical community
Somerset County is interesting for a number of reasons. For one, it’s the second-oldest of all Amish communities, founded in 1772 or thereabouts. Only Lancaster County is older.
For that matter, only three existing Amish communities date to the 1700s, all in Pennsylvania (Mifflin County–“Big Valley”–is the other).
Another unusual aspect is the community’s custom of worshiping in meetinghouses, unlike standard Old Order Amish practice of holding church at members’ homes.
Meetinghouses are no recent innovation in Somerset County. They were adopted long ago, in the late 1800s. This kind of thing happened among Amish in that time period.
It typically signaled a progressive-minded community taking a turn away from an Old Order path (see A History of the Amish by Steven Nolt, p. 142-143 for examples).
However, in the case of Somerset County, the church embraced meetinghouses while still managing to hold onto its horse-and-buggy Old Order Amish identity (note: the photo above is not an Amish meetinghouse–see further below for that).
Many of the farm houses in Somerset County have a weathered appearance. The one home I visited inside also appeared rather plain by its interior. It feels like a fairly plain community, visually, though by one account a range of technologies are permitted here.
I would have liked to have spent more time to learn more about the community firsthand, but only had a few hours on this visit. Despite the time limitations, I was able to visit a number of places, including multiple Amish-run businesses.
In total I visited seven Amish businesses – two chair shops, two variety stores, a country store, a greenhouse, and a quilt business (though not much was happening in that business, as I describe below).
Peachey’s Country Store has a large selection of baked items, including pies, cookies, dessert bars, and homemade chocolate items.
The women running the place were especially friendly and helped me head in the right direction to my next stop, as this was the first place I visited.
The pie I bought there was labeled blueberry, but turned out to be cherry. Happens to the best of us. Come to think of it, I probably should have checked if they had peach.
Zook’s Chair Shop lies in the village of Summit Mills. A rather old Amish man was finishing chairs with the help of an Amish woman when I arrived to ask directions.
They had quite a few hickory chairs. He asked if I was interested, but I told him I am covered on hickory rockers for now.
Another chair maker I visited not too far away explained the technology used here. Tools in the shop are powered by a line shaft arrangement (see here for photos of another such setup driven by a diesel engine). This is considered a plainer solution than using hydraulic or pneumatic power.
There’s a quilt seller in Summit Mills as well, but as I mentioned, it’s a pretty low-key operation, run out of an Amish woman’s home. There were only a few quilts available when I stopped in, and they didn’t seem like traditional Amish quilts.
The owner, or rather the girl who was there with her, had to poke around to find things to show me. She said she was making a quilt for a church benefit sale this summer.
I stopped in at one greenhouse (Rosy Dawn), and was given the community greenhouse map you see below. It seems a pretty popular type of business, with nine greenhouses listed (eight in Pennsylvania and one over the border in Maryland).
They also list the holiday schedule for these businesses (and one assumes for the rest of the community’s shops as well):
With map in hand I was able to find what I was really after, dry goods and variety stores. The first I visited, Hidden Valley Variety, had more food items and books. I didn’t see it advertised on the road, but there was a sign for the greenhouse at the same location.
The lady at Hidden Valley helped me find the second, Valley Brook Dry Goods. This one had a wider selection of fabrics, and also some books including the community church directory.
I also saw one of the community’s four meetinghouses, the Summit Mills meetinghouse, pictured here.
On that note, my favorite purchase in the Somerset settlement was the community birthday calendar. I joked with the shop owner that I probably don’t need to know everyone’s birthday, but that I loved the concept.
Each month includes a photo of one of the community’s schools, with the last four months featuring photos of the four meetinghouses.
From this calendar I learned that the Summit Mills meetinghouse was founded in 1881, as was the Niverton house. The community’s two other church houses are much younger, built in 1987 and 1998.
One Amishman told me that a newer district does not have a meetinghouse but currently holds services in a schoolhouse (he may have meant a different daughter settlement also in Somerset County).
Page 17 of the church directory contains an interesting explanation as to why the community adopted church houses:
In the 1880’s Somerset County had a lot of coal miners living in the area. Since they had no work on Sunday they made a nuisance of themselves at the homes where church was being held. They’d go into the orchards and throw apples around; also messing with the food in the basement. This is what prompted our forefathers to build church houses.
This explanation surprised me. I’d never think harrassment by English neighbors would be a cause for changing church practice in a dramatic way like that (I’m also not sure how that would have prevented the harrassment described).
Perhaps there were other factors involved, and this is the more convenient explanation passed down in local lore?
Further details on the oldest houses:
The Niverton and Summit Mills Old Order Amish Church Houses were both built in 1881 and are still being used plain and unpainted on the inside. The Summit church house had a piece added in 1902, otherwise they are as originally built.
According to Raber’s 2015 Alamanac, Somerset County contains seven Amish church districts, though I believe one of them (Berlin area) is considered a separate community.
Since as with other Amish, church is held on alternating Sundays in different congregations, one church house can be used for more than one congregation.
The Amish directory currently available is from 2010, so a bit dated (a new one is in the works).
Amazingly, on looking inside I discovered that someone has painstakingly hand-written additional information throughout the directory, including dozens of new births (up to 2014) and an updated ministers’ list.
A lot of work, especially considering the full stack of copies in the store.
As you see from the cover, this community has ties with the Letart, West Virginia settlement we learned about last year thanks to Tom Geist. Several families moved to Letart in the spring of 1996 to found a settlement there.
According to The Amish, the Somerset affiliation comprises 6 settlements in 3 states (as of 2011; see p. 139).
You’ll find a mix of both traditionally Pennsylvania and Midwestern Amish last names in this settlement, such as Zook, Beiler and Byler, Kinsinger, Mast, Hochstetler, Yoder, Fisher, Wengerd, Slabaugh, Beachy and Peachey.
I also saw an Amish mailbox inscribed with “Summy”, a name I don’t often see among Amish. There are around 10 Summy households in this community. Other less-common names found here are Hertzler and Brenneman.
Somerset County isn’t a tourist community, but if you’re in the area, there are a number of businesses worth visiting. Though my trip was shorter than I would have preferred, it was nice to finally visit the second-oldest Amish settlement, and I hope to do so again in warmer months.