As Town Adapts to New Ways, Much Is the Same
NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. — There’s one word that comes up time and time again when New Wilmington residents talk about their borough.
“It’s a very nice community. Very small. Everyone knows each other. It’s quaint and the Amish add a nice ambience to the community,” says Michelle Egan, owner of Mugsies Coffee House in downtown.
Adds Terri Patterson, a native of New Wilmington and owner of Flowers on Vine, “I love it here. Everybody knows everybody. It’s quaint. We help people out. It’s just warm here.”
And while she didn’t explicitly use the word “quaint,” the owner of The Silk Road Fair Trade Market, Wendy Farmerie, makes it clear that the atmosphere about town is part of what drew her back.
“It’s one of those places where you talk to a stranger in the street and just converse and no one thinks anything of it,” she says. “It took me moving away to realize that. … It’s a totally different planet.”
In a town with an estimated population just north of 2,200 – plus the student body of Westminster College adding 1,250 when school is in session – not much has changed in two centuries. The population has orbited around the 2,000 mark since the 1950s and Amish have lived in the area since the 1840s.
“It’s an Amish-oriented town. That’s why people come here. To see the lifestyle and the products that they build,” says Mark Burns. “Businesses come and businesses go. As far as the Amish, they’ve been here a long, long time. So nothing’s changed there.”
Burns owns Amish Oak Showcase Furniture north of town. He adds that while the Amish are one of the primary reasons tourists come through New Wilmington, his store 2031 Mercer-New Wilmington Road, sees few out-of-the-region visitors.
Most of his sales are within a 150-mile radius, as far out as Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Erie. And it’s the traits and workmanship associated with the Old Order Amish that drive sales.
“The American people have fallen away from imports. They’re looking for quality, which is what brings us into the picture,” Burns says. “The gentleman who makes kitchen tables makes kitchen tables. The chair manufacturers build chairs. We have about 35 vendors that we buy through like that.”
Many visitors come through New Wilmington for a look at the Amish who live in the surrounding Wilmington Township.
For The Cheese House, just off the intersection of state routes 18 and 208, there’s a healthy mix of locals and tourists, observes Dakota Marti.
“I know of a lot of people from Alaska who come here, a lot from overseas. They come to see the Amish in the area and then stop by here,” says Marti, whose father started the store in the 1970s. “And they get to know us after a couple trips and they try to make trips back. I always hear – from people all over the world – that this is one of the stops they try to make.”
Marti developed The Cheese House’s website a few years ago, which opened a new avenue for sales. During the holidays last year, the store filled 300 gift basket orders through the website, he says.
At The Silk Road, Farmerie has had visitors from Seattle – a few people stopped in driving home from the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last summer – and as far as Asia.
Everything in her store, 115 N. Market St., is fair trade, she notes, from coffee to jewelry to toys to clothing.
“New Wilmington is kind of a mecca for missionaries and people who are socially aware,” says Farmerie, a native. “There is a community of people who are aware of how people live in foreign nations. It seemed like a good fit.”
Westminster College also plays a big role in the town’s economy, Marti adds, when parents drop their kids off during move-in weekend or pick them up at the end of the school year. Both parents and students are frequent visitors.
Downtown, Mugsies owner Egan has made an effort to draw locals to her café, 139 S. Market St. When she bought the coffee shop a decade ago, many of the patrons were college students, which hurt business when they went home during breaks.
A few storefronts away, at Flowers on Vine, 108 E. Vine St., Patterson is only a block from the college and has received ample support from students since opening in 2005.
“A lot of the sororities and fraternities do things that I supply flowers for and there are formals and homecoming,” she says. “And a lot of the girls just like to come in to look at jewelry or scarves or whatever we have.”
Downtown is much the same as when she grew up here, she notes.
“Most of the buildings are the same, but they’ve just changed ownership. … There used to be a candy store on the opposite corner,” she says with a laugh. “When I grew up, that’s what we frequented. And a Ben Franklin store where [Fractured Grape Winery] is.”
For Marti, one change stands out in particular: “There was a hardware store in town I remember,” he says with a smile. “A couple businesses came and went. But, other than that, nothing’s really changed. It’s still the same old town I grew up with and love.”
Nevertheless, the town has modernized. At the northern end of downtown, a small, trendy shopping center has opened and is home to a sandwich and ramen shop, The Dirty Pickle, an artisan glassware store in Green Bug Glass, the Wright Place Salon and décor store Vintage Vogue.
Patterson says the outlying businesses have helped to make New Wilmington a destination for shoppers, rather than house only what’s a necessity to the borough itself.
While New Wilmington is a small town and the roads that lead out of downtown quickly become rural roads, it isn’t isolated by any means. From the central business district, it’s 10 minutes to Interstate 376 or I-80.
“We’re an hour away from Pittsburgh, so any ethnic food you want is right there. The museums are right there,” Farmerie says. “Everything is right there, but we still have country living.”
And country living is ultimately why people in New Wilmington like their borough, whether they moved to the area from bigger cities (Egan and Burns), returned home after years away (Farmerie) or never left (Patterson).
“New Wilmington is a great place to own a business, to raise a family. If you like the small-town atmosphere,” Egan says, “this is the place you want to be.”
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.