Garden Spot

Garden Spot: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the Old Order Amish, and the Selling of Rural America

by David Walbert | Oxford University Press, 2002

book coverLancaster County, Pennsylvania, has been known since the eighteenth century as the Garden Spot of America. Today it is synonymous in American popular culture with Amish country, a place of peace, prosperity, and traditional values that has somehow survived unscathed the upheavals of the twentieth century. Yet Lancaster is also a rapidly growing and diverse population center with progressive farmers and booming industry. Garden Spot is about the ways Lancaster Countians have struggled to define their present and future in a time when their home — and rurality in general — is increasingly identified with the past. Underneath their struggles lies a pair of vital questions: Is there a future for rural America? And if there is to be a rural future, how can ruralites take charge of it?

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More about Garden Spot

Within the borders of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, lies some of the richest farmland in the Western Hemisphere. Barely fifty miles from Philadelphia, the county has been a model of agricultural prosperity and stability for nearly three hundred years, and its farmers—particularly its Pennsylvania German farmers—have since the time of the American Revolution been widely considered some of the most capable in the nation. That agriculture has remained the focus of Lancaster’s economy into the late twentieth century is a testament not only to the land and those who farm it, but also to the tenacity of the idea of Lancaster, held by residents and outlanders alike, as the “Garden Spot of America.”

Since World War II, Lancaster County has been beset by a series of challenges to its rural identity. Tourists, drawn by the unique culture of the Amish and by the beauty of the rural landscape, have flooded the county each summer since the early 1950s, and the industry of motels, restaurants, gift shops, museums, and outlet malls that has grown up to accommodate visitors has threatened to overwhelm the bucolic landscape that originally attracted them.

In the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of these tourists came to stay, and residents again accommodated them, building houses, retirement homes, and shopping centers on ground that had once been productive farmland. Farmers, meanwhile, have faced rising property taxes and land values that make development attractive and farming increasingly impractical. The past ten years have seen a groundswell of concern for the county’s rural character and its residents’ way of life, and planning commissions, preservation trusts, and community groups have tackled the problem with great energy, much debate, and mixed success.

Some of the problems facing Lancaster County are common to many rural places. During the so-called “rural renaissance” of the 1970s, urban and suburban Americans moved back in droves to small towns near larger metropolitan areas. Technological and economic changes in farming since the 1940s have put mounting pressure on small family farmers, and millions have been forced off the land.

But Lancaster’s problems are made unique by its role in popular American culture as a quintessentially rural place. Long-time residents, newcomers, and visitors all cherish Lancaster’s identity as the Garden Spot. The presence of the Amish is essential to that identity, but is also immensely complicating, for while the Plain People are doubly vital to Lancaster’s economy—as both the most rooted of the county’s farmers and the primary attraction of the hundred-million dollar tourist industry—they are also a thorn in the side of ruralites who want to portray the county as a progressive, modern place where people can live and do business. Lancaster’s prosperity depends not only on the reality of an agricultural economy, but also on the image of rurality. Because image and reality are often incompatible, planning for the future can be extremely difficult.

Although the problems facing rural communities like Lancaster have serious economic causes, I argue that their root is primary cultural. In the twentieth century, the city has replaced the country as the focus of American culture, and ruralites wanting growth and progress have looked to urban models. As American society has moved further from its agrarian roots, ruralness has come to be associated with the past, with a simpler time of peace and plenty when harmony prevailed.

This idea of the city-as-future and the country-as-past has aggravated the troubles of rural America since the Second World War. When urbanites see a rural community as an attractive lost Arcadia, their money can serve as a wedge for their ideas and force ruralites to accommodate their desire for peace, quiet, and recreation. Farmers and other rural residents needing to make a living are often forced to the opposite extreme, advocating progress at any cost; while ruralites who want to preserve farmland and other open space from development may be seen by their neighbors as catering to urban fantasies or as “living in the past.”

Americans’ failure to envision a model for rural progress—a present and a future that preserve the essential character of a rural place—has allowed the city to turn the country into a kind of economic and cultural colony.

Garden Spot is a study of portrayals of Lancaster County as a rural place, by urbanites and ruralites, residents and outlanders alike, and of the practical impact that those portrayals have had on the county and its residents over the past several decades.

I begin with a brief overview of the county’s development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, focusing on the growth of the idea of the “Garden Spot.” In the twentieth century, I explore such topics as rural education and school consolidation; tourism and portrayals of the Amish; portrayals of family farmers and their real-life struggles; popular descriptions of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking; issues of growth and development; and efforts, particularly in recent decades, to preserve the county’s rural character. Each of these issues provides a window into the feelings of Lancastrians about their home and those of outsiders about Lancaster as a quintessentially rural place.

More broadly, however, this is a book about the role of rural America in popular American culture. At the heart of the study is the question of what is rural? How many people can live in a rural place without urbanizing it? Does the rural character of a place depend on a peaceful and bucolic landscape and on “quality of life,” or on an agricultural economy of productive farms? Is the presence of open space fundamental, or is the nature of the community more important? Is “progress” possible without urbanization, or is true rurality incompatible with modernity, by definition a thing of the past?

These questions have, of course, no easy or definitive answers, but they must be addressed and openly debated by ruralites if there is to be any independent future for rural America. It is my hope that this book will provide a springboard for that debate.