Lancaster County: Gray Buggy or Black Buggy?
Lancaster County is (I believe) the only place* where you’ll see both gray-topped and black-topped buggies in the same community.
Black is easily the most common color for Amish buggies overall.
But the Amish in this best-known of all Plain communities actually drive the gray version.
Lancaster County Amish buggies
So who is holding the reins of the black top carriages in Lancaster County?
Those would be Old Order Mennonites (aka “Team” Mennonites), who also have a sizable population in the county, in its northern end.
Old Order Mennonite buggy, Lancaster County
These Anabaptist cousins are similar in many ways to the Amish – such as in their choice to dress plain, their Pennsylvania Dutch language, and limits on technology.
Historian of the Amish Steve Nolt addresses this topic in the same Lancaster Online feature where he discussed Amish scooters.
So why do the Amish use gray and the Mennonites black?
Originally, the differences came down to what types of waterproof materials were available during initial buggy construction, according to Dr. Steve Nolt.
The most common color for waterproof fabric was bright yellow, so for many years, that was the default color of buggies, said Nolt.
In the early 1900s, buggy builders had more options for waterproof fabrics. Eventually, the Old Order Mennonites would decide on black, and the Amish would use gray, said Nolt.
“I don’t think we know with certainty why one group chose a black waterproof material and the other chose gray,” said Nolt. “Once established, each became a tradition.”
In other parts of the country, this may differ; Nolt said that in Mifflin County, one Amish group still uses the yellow fabric. Another group in the county uses white.
So as with a lot of things Amish, we don’t have a definitive answer why.
Perhaps there is no profound or even noteworthy reason behind the color choices. It just worked out that way.
*Update: I wrote that qualified opening line thinking I might hear from someone with info about another community or two where this is the case.
I was happy to hear from Steve Nolt, who writes to remind me of the situation in St. Mary’s County, Maryland – along with one, perhaps two other locations where black and gray buggies are seen on the roads together:
There are a couple other places where both black and gray buggies co-exist. Saint Mary’s County, Maryland is the one I think of first. There have been Lancaster Amish (gray buggies) there since 1940 and there are also Stauffer/Pike Old Order Mennonites (black buggies) there, too. The other place I think of is Buffalo Valley, Pa (Snyder/Union Counties) where Lancaster Amish and Lancaster OOMs live side-by-side.
One might mention Franklin County, PA, with Amish and OOMs from Lancaster County, but I’m not sure I would count Franklin County since the church communities, while being in the same county, are kind of geographically distinct.
Steve also shares the following additional info on the yellow buggy material. I’ve always found it fascinating that there are Amish who use this bright yellow material – and at one point in history yellow tops were seen outside of the Byler Amish churches:
Also, our historical data point for yellow buggies is Phoebe Earle Gibbons, a noted Lancaster County Quaker writer of the 19th century, whose 1869 book describes Lancaster Amish buggies as having tops of yellow oilcloth. The same yellow waterproof material was used to make 19th century raincoats, and created the stereotype of the ocean fisherman or lighthouse keeper in a yellow overcoat. Whatever the chemical composition, the waterproofing substance was a substance that could be added to fabric and still leave the fabric totally flexible. It’s final form left the resulting fabric yellow. My understanding is that the point was not to make fabric yellow; rather, the first chemical composition of the waterproofing agent simply left a yellow color. In time, by the early 20th century, scientists had devised other chemical formulas for waterproofing material that involved other colors.
A thanks to Steve for the helpful update here.
You’re exactly right. Mennonites have black. That’s just the way it’s been from what I remember.
Most of he amish if in Park county indiana use gray tops, most of the original
(1995?)settlers were Lancaster County Pennsylvania transplants I believe.
That’s right, those people would originate from Lancaster County. The Wayne County community on the other side of the state is a similar story. The Parke County settlement was founded in 1991, Wayne County in 1994.
Parke County Indiana
When we visit Parke County, we have also noticed that the women wear the same heart-shaped kapp that Lancaster County women wear. We first encountered them about 20 years ago and one woman we talked to was astounded that we had noticed.
I also want to give a shout-out to Meadow Valley Farms. Samuel Stoltzfus, who owns the farm, makes some really good raw milk cheese. The vast majority of his herd is Jersey cows that give really rich milk and makes good, rich cheese. I always make it a habit of going there whenever we are in the area. Samuel and his wife are very friendly. You can google the address for them. They are just northeast of Rockville.
One time, coming east from a funeral at Barnesville OH, we detoured to travel through “Big Valley” (Kishacoquillas Valley). It was on an early Sunday afternoon. Buggies with bright yellow tops began appearing, and soon the occupants were waving to us, in our drab-colored car! We began waving back and enjoyed the experience. Byler Amish?
That’s correct, Byler Amish would use the yellow tops. I believe it’s the smallest of the three main Amish groups in Big Valley – which includes Nebraska Amish (white top) and Renno Amish (black). I bet that was quite a surprise, especially if you’d never seen the yellow tops before.
Here in southern Illinois, the Old Order Amish I drive for all have black tops. There are 4 communities near me, all Old Order, and all are black topped
Same In Wisconsin
There is a small Lancaster group with the gray buggies near Unity, Wisconsin as well Old Order Mennonites with the black tops scattered throughout the same area.
Nice to know about that one too John. Something told me there’d be more.
I am very interested in the Amish as my father dealt with Ohio and Penn and other state Amish in buying and selling horses. He is gone now but I would like to get to know and deal with them like my dad.
The one thing I need now is to find someone who could renovate my amish horse buggy. Will someone please contact me.
Jerry Gibson Email: email@example.com