Molly asks a good question on the recent Lancaster farm stay post:

Eric, would you tell us the differences between Lancaster county & Holmes county? We have visited Holmes county, but would like to know the differences.

As the two largest and most-visited Amish communities, people often wonder which one of Holmes County and Lancaster County is best to visit, and how they are different. So here are some of my observations on some of the main differences – I came up with seven total – between the two.

It should be noted that the Holmes County community has a much more diverse Amish population (addressed below) so when I’m making comparisons here, unless noted otherwise, the default is comparing the Lancaster Amish with the main Old Order group in Holmes County.

1. Rural Holmes vs. More-developed Lancaster – First off, both communities are located in beautiful areas. We could say both are hilly, but in different ways. How would I describe it? Lancaster has more smoothly “rolling” hills while in Holmes County the terrain can get a bit more rugged with nooks crannies and holler-like terrain (though it of course varies across the hundreds of square miles of each settlement). Most roads in Lancaster County are paved, while many in Holmes County are not.

Photo: Frank

In Holmes County, you’ll notice the roads are less busy and the area feels more rural. While Lancaster County has some very rural areas (particularly in the southern part), it is more built-up and has a higher overall population, which means a lot more English people (and car traffic). You’re more apt to travel on a dirt road when visiting the Amish of Holmes County. The average visitor to Lancaster County would have to hunt to find dirt roads.

2. Visual “lifestyle” differences – Let’s look at the obvious visual differences in the way the Amish live. These are things you’ll notice within short time of arriving in one or the other place. You’ll probably first spot the buggies, which will be a gray in Lancaster County and black in Holmes County. Bicycles – and even e-bikes – are common in Holmes County, while Lancaster Amish mostly use scooters.

Another commonly-noticed thing is probably the style of kapp the women wear – the heart-shaped kapp, or prayer covering, in Lancaster vs. the “lampshade” style in Holmes County. Women’s hairstyles also differ, with Lancaster women tending to twist the hair on the sides of the head when they pin it up. In Lancaster County, men tend to have longer hair, and also worn in a different style than your average Holmes County Amishman. A discerning eye will catch some other differences as well in dress, hats, and so on.

There are differences in the Amish homes and farms as well. In Lancaster County you’ll see many stone barns and old farmhouses. Some are more than two centuries old. Overall it’s very spic-and-span with neat gardens and everything in order. In Holmes County you have the very neat places as well, but there are also many of the rustic and “authentic” looking Swartzentruber farmsteads giving the architecture and residential landscape more diversity. The classic white wood farmhouse is common in Holmes County.

The names you’ll see on businesses in Lancaster County include Stoltzfus, Lapp, King, Fisher, and Zook. Those names are especially rare or unseen among Holmes County’s Amish, where Miller, Troyer, Hershberger, Schrock, and Hostetler are among the most common. A few names appear to a degree in both places (such as Yoder).

3. Diverse Holmes vs. mostly-uniform Lancaster – The Lancaster County community is considered essentially one affiliation (not counting a small New Order group which I believe is probably gone by now, or close to it). This means they are more-or-less uniform in their church practice, though the Amish in the northern end of the settlement tend to be more progressive than those in the southern end.

In contrast, Holmes County has in the neighborhood of 11 different affiliations, with 4 main groups – the “mainline” Old Order churches, the more conservative Andy Weaver or “Dan gmay”, the even more conservative Swartzentruber community, and finally the various New Order churches. This creates a much more diverse community and much contrast within the Amish themselves. In some areas of northern Holmes County and southern Wayne County might have a very low-tech Swartzentruber farming family living next to a materially progressive Amish household where the father is a contractor who travels by vehicle daily to build homes in upper-middle-class English suburbs. You might find that in many ways, the way the most progressive Holmes County Amish live is closer to the way you live, than it is to the Swartzentruber families.

4. Holmes County is more “Amish” than Lancaster County – related to the above point, we can say Holmes County is “more Amish” than Lancaster County. If you look at just Holmes County itself, where the bulk of the settlement’s Amish live, they make up close to half the population.  In Lancaster County, the Amish are less than 10% of the county’s total population. Many more non-Amish live in Lancaster County than do in Holmes County.

The community sprawls into several neighboring counties in the case of Holmes County, and into two or three in the case of Lancaster. When I am in Holmes County, I feel like I am in an “Amish ecosystem”. The Amish dominate the area and you don’t have, say, the large suburban developments, industrial areas, or sizeable towns and cities as you do in Lancaster County, or at least not to the same degree. That said, there are certainly pockets of the county which are much more “Amish” and southern Lancaster County is less-developed.

5. Where are the Amish friendlier? – Several years back I did a post on the 5 friendliest Amish communities. I included Holmes County in that list of five. One reason (but not the only one) is for the presence of the New Order Amish, who tend to be very welcoming of outsiders. What about Lancaster County? Here’s what I wrote about that community, which I think holds up today:

Well, I didn’t put Lancaster County up there, but not because it’s not full of nice people–some of my best Amish friends (maybe I should just say “best friends” and leave out the “Amish” bit) live there.

But, I believe on account of all the tourists and being under the spotlight, the average Amish person you meet in the community is not quite as outgoing to outsiders as compared to other places. Some certainly are, especially if you meet them in a tourist context (I’m thinking buggy ride guides or waitresses).

However, Lancaster Amish are spoken about for their hospitality by other Amish. One of my Holmes County friends says they do hospitality to a level not seen in his own community–really rolling out the red carpet for visitors. I would agree, at least on the Lancaster part.

Bottom line is I think you’ll find people friendly towards outsiders, but for me it’s a bit easier to “click” with the average Amish person in Holmes County than in Lancaster.

Photo: Mike Schenk/the-daily-record.com

At the same time I would agree with my Holmes County Amish friend’s observation above – I’d say that the hospitality (something different than “friendliness”) I’ve experienced in Lancaster County is off the charts. For example – not only being welcome to stay with Amish friends there for extended periods, but also having my own friends and family welcomed to stay by those same families.

6. Lancaster County has a richer history – Lancaster County is the oldest Amish community (founded way back around vs. 1809 for Holmes County). You can notice a different type of architecture and more historic sites in the area. There are many historic covered bridges in Lancaster, over two dozen in fact (Holmes County has just one – the Stutzman’s Crossing bridge…a nice bridge, but built in 2009).

Though Holmes County’s Amish community is much more diverse, you also have a more prominent Plain Anabaptist presence beyond the Amish in Lancaster County when you include the large Old Order Mennonite population. You can see one of their black buggies parked outside a cornerball game in the photo above.

7. Which is most visitor-friendly? – If I were to look at one or the other from a visitor or tourist perspective, I’d say either place is great to visit. If I could only choose one – leaving out other factors like people I know and would visit in each place, etc. and judging just by the place itself – I’d go to Holmes County over Lancaster County.

One main reason is that it is just a bit more laid-back in terms of the area, with less traffic and a more relaxed “vibe”. Both places have ample restaurants, lodging, activities, and businesses for tourists. Even when you’re in the heart of Holmes County in Berlin, it still just feels like a small town. Holmes County definitely has tourist attractions, but Lancaster County has a bigger tourist infrastructure.

I like little towns like Mt. Hope in Holmes County, where the auction, heavily attended by Amish, is right there in the middle of town. Lancaster County probably has more beautiful Amish farms and sights in general. Towns like Strasburg and Churchtown in Lancaster County are more historic and impressive than just about any in Holmes County. But I think I just enjoy driving around Holmes County more than Lancaster County. That’s not to say Lancaster County doesn’t have a lot of positives as well. Holmes County just edges it out in my case, and I think is a bit more visitor-friendly than Lancaster County.

So those are seven differences more-or-less off the top of my head. I could probably go on with more if I thought about it longer, and you might have others that I left out. If you’re thinking of visiting one or the other, you won’t go wrong with either. And if you’ve only been to one, I recommend visiting the other as well.

More “visit” posts from each community:

Lancaster County

A First Visit To Amish Pennsylvania (23 Photos)
Lancaster County: From Snow to Thaw (44 Photos)
A Beautiful Morning in Lancaster County (16 Photos)
Mud Season in Lancaster County (15 Photos)
8 Snapshots From My Lancaster County Visit
10 Favorite Photos From My Last Visit To Lancaster County
Highlights from Lancaster County

Holmes County

A First Visit To Amish Ohio (24 Photos)
A Summer Visit To The Holmes County Amish Community (21 Photos)
A Winter Visit to the Amish of Holmes County, Ohio (39 Photos)
20 Snapshots From My Holmes County Visit
Amish Farms of Holmes County (18 Photos)
Holmes County In December (14 Photos)
Views From Around The Holmes County Amish Community (28 Photos)

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