Lancaster, Pennsylvania is surprisingly beautiful. I know this because my family and I drove up this past Sunday for a 3 day stay. We bunked at the Clarion Inn Strasburg hotel, selected because we could stay there for 2 nights at only $160 plus it had a pool and a complimentary buffet breakfast (excellent for the price with tons of food options). The room was a tad musty, but we had a good experience and the grounds were positively beautiful, full of benches and a few gazebos that were surrounded by flowers and greenery. I have never seen so many butterflies and bumble bees in my life as I did in Lancaster! They were everywhere and it was heavenly. Ice cream was also easy to come by and we ate it at practically every meal (on vacation, you MUST eat ice cream). Next door to the hotel was the Fireside Tavern, a lovely place that made up for its high-ish prices with massive portions.
Lancaster feels like a beach town in the off season…only with Amish people in full beard and traditional garb driving horse drawn carts beside you on the road. It’s a bit surreal, but delightful. You could visit an Amish village, if you are so inclined, and pay to have dinner with an Amish family (we didn’t do this). The town closes early, has churches everywhere, and doesn’t sell booze in grocery stores or places like Target. If you want a drink, you must either go to a bar, restaurant, or speciality shop (we saw one that had a sign announcing that it had take-out wine slushies…and why we didn’t buy one is anyone’s guess).
We visited Dutch Wonderland, a charming, though dated, amusement park half the price of King’s Dominion, that’s geared towards young children. There’s loads for young ones to do and enough to keep older ones happy, too.
However, the reason we picked Lancaster for our vacation was because Lancaster is the location of the Hans Herr House, the oldest Mennonite meeting house in America, and a place I have been desperate to visit as my first genealogical pilgrimage. It was built in 1719 by my 9th great grandfather, Christian Herr, though named for his father, my 10th great grandfather Hans Herr, the patriarch of the family and an important person in the community, being the first Swiss Mennonite Bishop in the United States.
The Hans Herr House exceeded my expectations tenfold. I arrived a few minutes late for the first tour at 10:00 a.m. Monday morning (my dad’s side of the family, where my Herr connection is, abhors lateness and I could almost feel my ancestors tsk tsking), but was greeted by a smiling tour guide named David who said no problem, please join! This was most likely because there were only 4 others there for the tour, grandparents with their two grandkids. David was an exceptional tour guide, knowledgable and patient. He began with a map of the Herr’s immigration from Zurich, Switzerland to Germany in 1671 then to America in 1710, a journey by boat which took about 4 months. Hans Herr and his family were pacifists and part of the Anabaptist movement (later called Swiss Mennonites). They were persecuted for their beliefs in their homeland of Switzerland and forced to flee to the German Palatinate where they made their living weaving linen. In 1707, it was arranged with William Penn that they would colonize land in America, in what its now Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and in 1710 they arrived on American shores. For more information on Hans Herr’s background, please see this wonderful blog post by another Herr descendant, Eric Christensen.
David then took us to a few buildings (a Blacksmith shop, an area with old farm equipment, and a mini Herr and local Mennonite history museum) which we glanced inside briefly and then kept moving (we could and did do a self guided tour of these buildings later). We first saw the nearby Native American longhouse, located just across the road, which was insanely impressive and packed to the gills with items that Native Americans would have used, sectioned off by items pre-white settlers and post. We got to smell and feel real skunk furs, sit on their wooden beds in rows lining the walls, and gawk at their handmade weapons.
After that, we moved on to the Hans Herr house. David explained that their Germanic background was evident in the placement of the chimney in the middle of the house (English families placed theirs on the sides of the house). The house was massive for an older home and incredibly well preserved. Immediately inside, we saw the huge cooking hearth. David mentioned that it was unusual that they would have a kettle made of wood hanging so close to the area where the fire would be as they apparently did, but that they must have been quite careful as the house still stood without a trace of fire damage. I think some people lived long enough to leave descendants because of their fortitude and determination to survive. My Herr ancestors survived because they were cautious, a trait I believe I inherited.
My favorite part was being able to run my fingers over the initials that my 9th great grandfather Christian Herr carved into the wall upstairs. That was surprisingly emotional and I really felt connected to him in that moment.
This was an incredible experience for me and one I highly recommend for Hans Herr descendants or anyone with a love of history, genealogy, or beautiful historic homes. In truth, this is one of the most fantastic museums I have ever visited. It is lovingly preserved with gorgeous grounds and well put together exhibits. The sights are interesting, there is a lot to learn, and I appreciate that though some items were off limits, there was a lot we could touch and examine. Our tour guide was fantastic and I went away not wanting to leave.