I KNEW it was time to shed city ways as I carefully threaded my way through Don and Ginny Ranck's cow barn in my summer sandals to watch my three-year-old bottle-feed a calf. We had arrived by car with our two small children to stay several nights at Verdant View, a working farm one mile east of Strasburg, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Our plan was to explore the area as much as possible by bike. We pulled up to the farmhouse about 5 o'clock, just in time to watch Ginny start the evening milking of the couple's 50-odd Holsteins.
Before we had even unloaded the car, much less seen our accommodations in the 1896 house, Heather, one of the Rancks' four children, invited our kids to help her feed the calves. We watched her fill several quart-size baby bottles with the fresh, warm milk and snap on huge nipples, then followed her through the barn to the calves, several of which were only a day or two old. They raised little heads at the first whiff of the milk and guzzled each bottle in about five seconds, to the delighted laughter of our children.
As we walked back through the barn and farmyard, we met the rest of the Ranck family's entourage -- two goats, two dogs, nine cats, and five kittens. In the excitement of being able to touch and pet so many animals, our children forgot to start complaining about being tired and hungry after the car trip and settled down to play with the kittens in the yard.
When the Ranck children came out with balls and wagons, we knew this visit would be a success -- the children were happy, and so were we.
Verdant View is just one of many working farms that take in guests in the area east of Lancaster during the summer. We found it through a guidebook, ``Farm, Ranch, and Country Vacations,'' by Pat Dickerman.
Our rooms on the second floor of the farmhouse were pleasant enough and airy, the furniture well worn, and the decorations simple. The bathroom was huge, with an old claw-footed tub, and all the beds were covered with beautiful quilts handmade by local Amish women.
Breakfast was included in our room rate, and promptly at 8:30 the youngest Ranck child rang the breakfast bell. Guests join the family at one long table for scrambled eggs with fresh beef slices, apple crisp with ``this morning's'' milk, and toast with home-churned butter and homemade jam. The stories and conversations around the table each morning with the Rancks and other guests turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.
Sometimes as many as 30 sit around the breakfast table, but in early April the number was more manageable -- 19. Most of the guests were families enticed by the idea of having their children take part in farm chores and learn about farm animals, in addition to being able to observe the Amish people.
The Rancks are Mennonites. These people, along with the more conservative Amish, are best known for their 18th-century life style. Both sects fled religious persecution in Europe beginning in the 1720s, coming mainly from Holland and the Rhineland area of Germany and France. They found the rolling countryside of central and eastern Pennsylvania similar to their homeland, and settled here in large numbers. Today, there are about 40,000 Amish in North America, 14,000 of whom live in Lancaster County, according to the Pennsylvania Dutch Visitors Bureau.
Seven of the nine farms bordering the Rancks' are Amish-owned, and the owners pool their resources to buy up any farm or land that comes on the market. In 1975, Don Ranck took over the family farm started by his great-grandfather.
After most of the morning had slipped away, we reminded ourselves that our plan was to bike lazily through the back roads of Amish country, not sit at the farmhouse breakfast table.
We gathered up the children and began our bike ride at the Phillips Cheese Company parking lot in the town of Intercourse, seven miles northeast of Strasburg on state Route 340. Here, incidentally, you can watch workers make Swiss, Cheddar, Gruy`ere, and other cheeses in 300-gallon copper kettles.
Most of Lancaster County's secondary roads are suited to biking. The heart of Amish country is a diamond-shaped section east and northeast of the city of Lancaster. A good road map of the area is a big help in planning your bike tour. We had in mind a 30-mile circuit between Intercourse and Bowmansville, but any variation is possible, and we chose to limit our ride to a leisurely two hours using this tour.
The biking in this area is exceptionally agreeable. There are low rolling hills, and the traffic we encountered in April was not a problem. Most of what one sees are Amish buggies moving at a slightly slower pace than our bikes. Our friendly waves were readily acknowledged by the farm families. The men were plowing fields with their horse teams, the women tidying the already immaculate yards by raking, planting, and mowing. The children were out, too, playing close to their busy, but attentive, parents.
From the cheese company, we followed Hollander Road north to New Holland, then doubled back along Shirk Road and circled west via Musser School Road. There is indeed a school on this road, a one-room Amish schoolhouse and play yard. The schoolhouse door was open, and we were treated to a sight from early America: children of all ages seated at old wooden school desks, reciting lessons and writing on tablets. Out in the schoolyard, some of the younger children were playing a version of softball, their happy shrieks sounding like any modern playground. But, with the boys in black breeches and the traditional jet-black brimmed hats and the girls in ankle-length dresses with the white ``Kapps,'' we felt we were somewhere else in history.
From there we pushed on toward the village of Mascot, noting the working mill and hex signs, and on to Intercourse, which offers a mini-mall of highly commercialized tourist gift shops and eating spots. Intercourse also has several shops featuring hand-sewn quilts. Many of the Amish farmhouses display quilts for sale, too.
From here we turned north and back to the cheese factory. Restaurants
Dining out in Lancaster County is a bargain. Many of the restaurants are large ``family'' ones specializing in eye-opening smorgasbords. Not only are these copious buffets usually of an all-you-can-eat variety, but children under 2 and sometimes 3 are free. The food is simple, but good, and most of the fresh produce and dairy products come from the neighboring farms.
The smorgasbords in Amish country are based loosely on the tradition of ``seven sweet, seven sour'' elements in a meal. This explains the pots full of apple butter, relish, beets, pickles, and the ever-present shoofly pie made of molasses and sweet dough crumbs. At a restaurant called Hershey Farm, we ate ravioli, sausage with beans, pork with sauerkraut, fried chicken, turkey croquettes, several vegetables, potatoes, and salad, even sampling some of the pies, and our bill for four came to $14.50.
Several of these ``family style'' eating establishments are scattered throughout Lancaster County. Other attractions
Lancaster County is full of things to do.
The Strasburg Railroad operates a train of 19th-century coaches pulled along by a steam locomotive between Strasburg and Paradise, or you can visit the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania and the Toy Museum, close by.
Mill Bridge Village is a restored Colonial village with a working water-powered 1738 gristmill where flourmaking is demonstrated.
Those not content with looking at Amish farms from the outside can visit the Amish Farm and House or the Amish Homestead on US Route 30 east of Lancaster city.
A visit to Lancaster's farmers' market (Central Market on Pennsylvania Square) is a treat. It's open Tuesdays and Fridays. You see the horses and buggies tied to the iron rings lining the side of the market while the Amish sell their homemade sausages, cheeses, and other things inside.
Our greatest pleasure throughout our stay, however, was returning to our base, the farm. There were always new nooks and crannies for our young children to explore. The Rancks, busy tending fields of hay and corn, cleaning barns, and milking cows, always found time to give their guests a warm welcome. Practical information
At Verdant View, our rate was $45 a night for four (two interconnecting rooms with bathroom), including breakfast.
For information on farms, write the Bureau of Travel Development, Department of Commerce, 416 Forum Building, Harrisburg, Pa. 17120; (717) 787-5453 or 800-847-4872.
Or phone the Pennsylvania Dutch Visitors Bureau, (717) 299-8901, for a list of working farms or tourist homes. ``Farm, Ranch, and Country Vacations,'' by Pat Dickerman, is available by writing Farm & Ranch Vacations Inc., 36 East 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022.