One of the many birdhouses for purple martins.
One of the many birdhouses for purple martins. (David Lyon)
Weekend Planner

A trip back in time

Revisiting Amish country, 20 years after 'Witness'

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / July 20, 2005

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. -- The 1985 Peter Weir-Harrison Ford movie, ''Witness," thrust this bucolic area into the national spotlight. When a Philadelphia detective flees to an Amish farm to hide from corrupt members of his force, he discovers the virtues of the ''plain" lifestyle as embodied in a pretty Amish widow and her gentle son, the unlikely witness to murder.

The film's 20th anniversary is reviving memories of the community's Hollywood moment.

''You remember the ice cream scene?" said Lindsay Stoltzfus, desk clerk at the Best Western Intercourse Village Inn (Intercourse being the name of the village). She was referring to a sequence in which a bully paints the face of an Amish man with an ice cream cone, only to be flattened by Ford. ''It happened right in front of the office here." She spoke with authority though she was only 3 at the time. The scenes have become part of community lore. Moreover, the motel plays the movie in all the rooms every night at 9 p.m.

''Harrison Ford used the phone in front of Zimmerman's," Stoltzfus said, gesturing across the parking lot. The Amish still shop for groceries at Zimmerman & Sons market, and the store tells tourists to ''leave cameras in the car." (Many Amish frown on photography.)

Although horse-drawn buggies are nearly as common as cars on the main street of Intercourse, the village is no quaint soundstage. A cluster of shops makes for easy strolling. The Village Pottery displays the work of more than a dozen artisans, including traditional Pennsylvania German redware potters. The Old Country Store is renowned for its quilting fabrics and quilt books -- and for beautiful finished quilts for those who prefer instant gratification.

The free display of contemporary quilts in the People's Place Quilt Museum makes a quick lesson in Amish design. Most quilts were made after 2000, but they draw from the rich colors, geometric patterns, and feather and vine quilting motifs of traditional Amish textiles.

Maybe the best way to appreciate the premodern pace of Amish life is by riding in a family carriage. As Mr. Black Horse clip-clopped through the farmlands, we asked driver Menno Riehl what the Amish thought of ''Witness."

''I saw it at a friend's house," he said. ''We didn't mind it."

On a half-hour jaunt through the farms, he tries to give riders a less-varnished view of Amish life. ''The average farm is 65 acres with 45 Holsteins," he said as we trotted down country lanes. Big propane tanks stood by many barns, and Riehl explained that many Amish have propane stoves and refrigerators. Amish ways are predicated on an agrarian society, but the success of the Amish threatens that model.

''I was raised on a farm," Riehl said, ''but only one family can make a living on the farm. Only one kid can inherit it." Unable to farm his single acre, Riehl supports his wife and four children by driving a buggy.

Amish schools educate children through the eighth grade. As we passed a one-room schoolhouse, Riehl said ''there are 25 to 30 kids with one teacher." The schools are situated so each group of children can commute on foot, scooter, or even in-line skates.

In 1980, the Lancaster Amish numbered about 10,000.

''At about the time that 'Witness' came out, the Amish were predicted to go into decline," said Peter Seibert, president of the Heritage Center of Lancaster County, which operates the Lancaster Cultural History Museum. The forecast was mistaken. As a graph at the museum indicates, the Amish are projected to reach 30,000 by 2010.

The museum provides sharp insights into the faith-based, low-technology community surrounded by cellphone-brandishing SUV drivers. Artifacts speak eloquently for these tight-lipped people: fine woodworking, intricate needlework, ingenious mechanical toys. Schoolbooks impart moral lessons along with practical knowledge. The Buggy Driver's Manual, developed in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which includes information on traffic signs and buggy lighting, is a model of peaceful coexistence.

Through Nov. 21, the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau is offering three-hour ''WITNESS Movie Experience Tours" by motorcoach. The History Museum has mounted a special exhibition, ''Witness to Witness," for 2005. Movie-set photos dominate one room, ''but we wanted to not just look at the movie, but explain about the Amish," Seibert said.

A gallery devoted to barn-raising details construction techniques while exploring the community spirit and mutual support central to Amish life. Movie artifacts include several of co-star Kelly McGillis's widow costumes and the workbench where Ford repaired the birdhouse he had damaged with his car.

''Purple martin houses are an icon in Lancaster County," Seibert said. ''Almost every Amish farm has one because the birds devour mosquitoes."

As a tie-in with the film's anniversary, the Heritage Center launched the Purple Martin House Project, in which 33 artists decorated purple martin houses or created their own interpretations. The finished birdhouses are displayed in downtown businesses, with a concentration along arty North Queen Street. At j.a. sharp Custom Jewelers, jewelry artist Jude Sharp encrusted hers with semiprecious stones and dotted the brass and copper roof with sterling silver stars.

''I wanted to have creative freedom to do what I wanted," said Sharp, but ''I still wanted it to be functional."

Plain as the Amish themselves, simpler purple martin houses dot the countryside. First-time visitors to the area are often disconcerted by the crowded development along main routes. Along smaller roads, though, farms look much as they did a century ago. Cows ruminate in small pastures, and farmers plow to the horizon with horse- or donkey-drawn machinery. Women tend the garden or collect crow-black laundry off the clothesline in the late afternoon light. Purple martins dart in the dusk, flitting home to roost in the gloaming.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon write from Cambridge.

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