NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. — Lawrence County and Lancaster County are on opposite sides of Pennsylvania.
Their respective Amish communities are even further apart in their adherence to the old ways.
The Lawrence County Amish community, centered around New Wilmington, Pa., is among the strictest in the nation when it comes to maintaining the simple life. Its members are friendly but they do not embrace tourism as they do in Lancaster County. They also make very few exceptions to their prohibition of modern technology.
Their uncompromised ways make the Lawrence County Amish among the most fascinating of the sect in North America.
For Susan Hougelman, it’s a big reason why her business, Simple Life Tours, has become so successful in such a short period of time.
Hougelman started Simple Life in 2014 as a part-time endeavor, occasionally shuttling visitors around the back roads outside New Wilmington. Her business grew rapidly. In 2019, she took 2,000 people on tours of the Lawrence County Amish.
“It became a full-time business last year,” she says. “Even more than full-time.”
She has two vehicles – a 15-seat mini-bus and an SUV – to accommodate tours of all sizes. As testament to the enduring fascination with the Amish, Hougelman says her clients have come from 150 countries and all 50 states.
“We’ve had every kind of nationality and every single one, old or young, Muslim or Christian, all have respect for the Amish,” Hougelman says. “They fall in love with their lifestyle. Some end up crying because they are so touched. The Amish live such a godly lifestyle, clean and earthly and beautiful.”
The tour, she says, brings people together. Hougelman recalls a couple from the Netherlands who took the tour three years ago. “He was profoundly touched,” she says, adding she continues to receive letters from him.
The Lawrence County Amish community’s isolation and separatism protects it from modern ways.
“This area is untapped and not touristy. So we get to see the real Amish life from right outside their homes,” Hougelman says. “I tell people that Lancaster is a whole different kind of Amish. They have restaurants and businesses [for the public]. The Amish [in Lawrence County] are not allowed to even own a restaurant or work in one. You get the real thing here.”
The 2,200-member Lawrence County Amish community is the second-strictest in the United States, she says, behind only the Schwartzentruber Amish in Holmes County, Ohio. They do not use electricity; fuel-burning lamps are used for light. They also do not have bathroom plumbing, using outhouses that are attached to their homes in most cases.
Hougelman and her husband, Joe, owned the landmark Tavern on the Square restaurant in New Wilmington until she sold it two years ago. The restaurant is a popular stop for tourists who used to ask her daily where they could find the Amish.
“I lived here all my life and had never talked to the Amish, but customers would ask about them every day,” she says. “I would tell them to just drive around. But I saw a need that needed to be filled. One day I said, ‘Get in my car and I will take you around.’ ”
That was the unofficial beginning of her tourism business. Hougelman studied up on the Amish and began to make contacts.
“I have a friend who sells grass-fed beef and she had a lot of Amish clients,” she says. “She took me around to meet all the Amish businesses, which I never knew existed, and they were so nice.”
She put a script together and has selected a few Amish businesses for stops on her tours. Her guests browse the small shops and get a personal interaction.
“I stop at Amish grocery stores, a quilt shop, a furniture maker,” she says.
“I tell [my tour clients], ‘You could go to Lancaster or Holmes County to buy Amish furniture but most of it was made here in Lawrence County,” she says. “I bring people to watch them making it and they can buy it there at a wholesale price.”
Hougelman said the Lawrence County Amish don’t realize how different their lives are from the average American’s. They are industrious but have little contact with the outside world.
Guests from abroad who want to see the Amish usually find Hougelman’s Simple Life Tours on the internet and book tours six to nine months in advance.
“They come here and go to New York and Boston and Niagara Falls. We are in the middle of that,” she says. “They want the untapped place, not the touristy place.”
Simple Life Tours also gets a lot of clients from tour bus daytrips, lifelong learning programs, high schools and colleges, and anyone who wants to learn about Amish culture.
The outgoing Hougelman says Simple Life is the only Amish tour company in western Pennsylvania. As a tour guide, she shares a wealth of information that goes beyond history and data.
Hougelman has an obvious relationship with the Amish families and their children and knows them by name. She can briefly converse with them in Pennsylvania Dutch, the hybrid German-English language that only they speak.
On a tour in early June, Jan Hvizdos of Murrysville, Pa., and her friend, Beverly Maloberti of Greensburg, Pa., rode in Hougelman’s SUV for a couple of hours down the narrow byways of picturesque Lawrence County. The two friends have a long appreciation for the Amish and have visited communities in Lancaster County and Florida.
Hvizdos was pleased with the tour. “I saw an ad for it on Facebook and thought that it sounded like it’s grass-roots ,” she says.
“You visit farms and go to their stores. And it’s one on one. You can read every book in the world about the Amish but you won’t get the hands-on approach that this tour has.”
Maloberti echoed those sentiments. “Jan and I love the Amish lifestyle and [Hougelman] has shown us different aspects of their lives, like making furniture.”
After seeing firsthand the peaceful, reverent and slow-paced lifestyle of the Amish, Hvizdos repeated a phrase that Hougelman had spoken earlier: “They are in this world, but not of this world.”
One of the stops on The Simple Life tour is a shop where three Amish men were making beautiful rocking chairs by hand.
Just down the country lane is Byler’s Grocery Store, on the ground level of a large Amish family farmhouse. One of the children working there, a boy of about 13, proudly showed visitors his collection of coins visitors from around the world had given him.
One omnipresent sign of the outside world noticeably absent in Amish country are facemasks to thwart the spread of coronavirus. Nobody wears one, because the disease has not touched the isolated Amish community.
The government-ordered shutdown did force Hougelman to close her business in March. She was permitted to resume this month and the reservations are now starting to come in.
“Normally I would have given over 200 tours by this time,” she says. “I’ve had three so far. But they are definitely starting to come back. I’m hoping by fall it will be busy again.”
Pictured at top: A buggy stands outside Byler’s Grocery Store that’s inside a family’s farmhouse.