It was during our search, six years ago, for a sturdy Amish-built chicken coop that we began to truly discover and, thus, fall for picturesque Holmes County and the surrounding area. It goes without saying that while many Amish and Mennonite residents are matchless carpenters, they are lousy when it comes to maintaining an online presence. The best way to find the coop of our dreams, we quickly realized, was to pull off the main roads, ease off the gas, and scour the landscape.
We're no longer in the market for a coop, but we haven't changed our approach when visiting the region. Sure, we still make our mandatory visit to Lehman's Hardware, but we spend equal time exploring the quiet backroads, where the pastoral terrain reveals itself anew with each crest and valley. It's easy to see why so many Swiss and German immigrants, in search of religious freedom, felt so at home in these lush, fertile valleys.
Over the years, we've gotten smarter about the way we attack our Amish Country visits. We typically avoid swinging through on Sunday, a day of church, rest and family that sees many shuttered businesses, and we always bring cash and a large cooler loaded with ice to safely stow perishable purchases. But most of all, we keep a keen eye out for buggies, especially on those blind hills.
Amish farms dominate the landscape, but we've learned to not assume that just because it's sold here that it was grown here. In season, we make stops at places like Miller's Farm Market (3460 St. Rt. 39, 330-893-2235) and Blessing Acres (6728 Twp. Rt. 362) to load up on locally grown produce like sweet peas, radishes, onions, garlic, zucchini and cucumbers. But we also are suckers for hand-lettered signs that lead, often enough, down a winding road to a humble card table outfitted with farm-fresh eggs, just-picked berries, or jars of golden honey. There will be a price sheet and receptacle for cash: The honor system is alive and well in Amish Country.
We could not care less about quilting, leather saddles and tack, or a labradoodle from a heartless puppy mill (or bunny, for that matter, unless it's fully dressed and ready for the skillet). But we do like to fill the cooler with quality meats destined for the home chest freezer. As is the case with the produce, most of the butcher shops in the area sell both local and non-local products. Doughty Farm Meats (5362 St. Rt. 557, 330-674-6257) sells whole fresh and frozen chicken from nearby Gerber Poultry as well as pastured chicken from smaller Amish farms. This small shop also sells locally raised and processed heritage breed pork and beef. You can skip the middleman and buy direct at the Gerber Poultry retail store (5889 Kidron Rd., 330-857-1841, gerbers.com), where that same hormone- and antibiotic-free Amish-raised chicken is sold fresh, fried and rotisserie style.
While places like Mrs. Yoder's Kitchen, Der Dutchman Restaurant and Amish Door attract huge crowds in search of gut-busting buffets flush with homespun comfort foods like fried chicken, meatloaf, Salisbury steak and all the fixins, we prefer the more tranquil Chalet in the Valley (5060 St. Rt. 557, 330-893-2550, babyswiss.com). Run by the Guggisberg Cheese family, this cute and only moderately kitschy Swiss/Austrian restaurant dishes up crispy veal and pork schnitzel, bratwurst and sauerkraut platters, and gently bubbling pots of fondue, all warmly served by dirndl-clad servers. Made with Baby Swiss, Gruyere and a hint of sherry, the fondue is rich, silky and delicious. Across the street is the Guggisberg Cheese facility, where you can purchase cheese from the source.
We've always sidestepped Hershberger's Farm and Bakery (5452 St. Rt. 557, 330-674-6096) because the popular attraction seemed geared to families with children. Kids most certainly lose their marbles over the animals, but there's plenty here for adults to enjoy as well. Buy a cone of grain for $1 and send it, via mechanical conveyor belt, to awaiting goats 20 feet up on the roof. After feeding carrot chips to the pigs, sheep, goats and Big Ben, a 3,000-pound Belgian draft horse, head inside for homemade baked goods, ice cream, jams and preserves.
You can pick out the Amish and Mennonite homes by the presence of clotheslines and the absence of power lines connecting them to the main distribution lines. Since 1955, Lehman's Hardware (4779 Kidron Rd., 800-438-5346, lehmans.com) has been supplying many of the homes in the area with the non-electrical tools and supplies need to maintain that uncomplicated lifestyle. The rambling facility is nirvana for tinkerers, gardeners, home cooks and those who enjoy doing things the old-fashioned way. From oil lamps and soap-making supplies to wood stoves and beekeeping supplies, Lehman's has antiquated covered.