Living on the Lancaster Plain for many generations, the Plain People have bought as much tillable land as their economy would afford. However, since their families are quite large, there is just not enough land available to accommodate all their offspring in farming. Consequently, the large farms of the Plain People have been subdivided among the children, and today an average-size farm in Lancaster County consists less than 50 acres. With land continuing to bring outrageous sums of money in Lancaster County ever increasing over the past few decades, the Plain Dutch have been forced to seek farming land elsewhere or get out of farming completely. The Amish (different from Mennonites) have migrated westward and into Canada in search of cheaper land but surprisingly not here in Berks County.
Conversely, in our backyard, almost 160 Mennonite Plain Dutch families call the Kutztown area home today, an increase of 40% in the last twenty years with meetinghouses being filled simultaneously in Kutztown and Fleetwood on Sundays, instead of alternating weeks at the two locations as in years past. All of the East Penn Valley Mennonites are Wenger Mennonites from the Groffdale Conference, a title that can be traced to the first leader of the Old Order Mennonites, Joseph Wenger. In Lancaster County, there were eight Wenger meetinghouses each called by their location: Groffdale, Martindale, Churchtown, Weaverland, Bowsmanville, Conestoga, Muddy Creek, and New Holland. Only Ontario, Canada has as many meetinghouse groups as Lancaster County, and Mennonite Church meetings are held every Sunday. Remember, Amish alternate members’ home to worship not meetinghouses as Mennonites.
Both tourists and area Pennsylvania Dutchmen coming to Kutztown though are surprised to see how many “Horse and buggy Dutch” Mennonites living here and are astonished because they can hardly believe these Dutchmen have kept their 19th Century ways. The historically-minded local Dutch are surprised because this was the first time since the founding of Penn’s colony that the Plain People have moved into this Worldly Dutch epicenter. Whether either call them the misnomer, “Kutztown Amish,” or Amish; more accurately, they are the East Penn Valley Mennonites, and the tourist that travels to Kutztown should be in for a surprise while delighting in local cuisine. As of writing, no Amish family lives in Berks County, not even any rumblings, just Plain Dutch Swiss Mennonites and German Brethren, as far as the Plain sects.
Previous to this Mennonite colony (1949), the greatest disappointment experienced by a tourist was the fact when they came to see Pennsylvania’s Plain Dutch, mostly in Lancaster County, they could not find Pennsylvania’s world-famous hex-sign barns. Thousands of tourists that travel to the Plain Dutch capital of Lancaster are astonished to find that there are no hex-sign painted barns in just about all of Lancaster County, except perhaps a random one repainted by an historic-minded farmer. But, of course, there should not be any for these people are the “Plain” people, and the beautiful hex signs are traditionally painted on the barns of the Worldly Dutch people in Berks, Montgomery, and Lehigh County most notably, among most of the other seven PA Dutch Counties, minus Lancaster.
However, standing on the slopes of the East Penn Valley are many large bank (Schweitzer) barns still with smartly balanced painted hex signs. Gone may be some of the whitewashed board fences and narrow dirt roads, but sharp black buggies and carriages are pulled by prancing horses and fill our modernized roadways (to the dismay of Deka traffic). Some of the Plain Dutch at Kutztown (rarely) have accepted these worldly colored barn decorations but a historically-minded Mennonite or two has even repainted them (see barn adjacent to Renninger’s farmers’ market and the old 1801 Oscar Bieber farm on the road leading to Bowers. There is indeed an intriguing horizon in folk-culture here over the last 67 years since their arrival here in Kutztown in 1949 and a magnificent acculturation between the two worlds of the Pennsylvania Dutch!