LANCASTER – Before this landscape bustled with Amish farms and cozy colonial towns, Conestoga Indians lived among the tall trees. Wolves and lynx crept through the shrubbery. Stillness and wilderness prevailed.
Witness to the spectacle 300 years ago was a sweet-countenanced old Mennonite escapee from religious persecution in Europe, Hans Herr.
In 1719, Bishop Herr’s family replaced its starter cabin with a stone house.
Fortunately for history lovers, day trippers and vacationers, the county’s oldest surviving home has been preserved in a kind of mini-Williamsburg staffed by expert guides. The 11-acre museum complex also includes farm animals, farmhouses from 1835 and 1895, several barns and outbuildings, an outdoor bake oven, a smokehouse, vintage farm equipment and a replica 1785 blacksmith shop.
Built by Hans’ son, Christian, the Hans Herr House was restored by a private foundation in the 1970s after long use as a barn. Famed artist Andrew Wyeth painted and helped popularize the homestead, which he noted had been “molded by the earth and the weather.”
Docents continue to interpret the site, which reopened for the season April 1, in fresh ways. Added to the program in 2013 was a Native American longhouse that rises from the fields like a modernist cocoon.
Luckily for me, all this is minutes away, at 1849 Hans Herr Drive, Willow Street. I periodically drop in to see what’s new at the county’s oldest Pennsylvania-German settlement.
Lancaster City’s hum fades as you enter the museum grounds on a road flanked by heirloom apple trees. (Early pioneers DUG cider. And they literally dug lots of turnips for food – but not potatoes, which they thought were poisonous.)
Just west of the visitor center, the Herr House hugs the earth like a Swiss fort. The rock walls and small shuttered windows turn away the elements.
Inside, fire blazes in the yawning hearth and a stone stove radiates heat. White plaster walls, plank floors, modest furnishings and the monastic bedroom upstairs all reflect the austerity of the Herrs – members of a refugee Mennonite sect granted 10,000 acres by William Penn.
“It’s very cool” to walk into that aura, said museum Director Becky Gochnauer, adding that the house once hosted religious gatherings and frequently is visited by Herr descendants. “It’s the oldest Mennonite Meeting House in the United States.”
The bishop was about 70 when he fled Germany – a pioneer late bloomer. The pacifist band he led over the trails to this spot in 1710 also was an anomaly along the hard-bitten frontier.
But the group’s doctrine of tolerance buoyed their relations with Indians, Gochnauer said.
According to Herr legend, Christian and wife Anna woke one morning to find Indians sleeping on the kitchen floor. Some accounts describe the bear grease the visitors wore against the cold as pungent. Nevertheless, Gochnauer said, “They would have been considered brothers.”
She said the local native people would have raised corn and squash in forest clearings long before white contact. (Daniel Boone myth to the contrary, the paleo-woods around Lancaster never were trackless.) Indians who could have afforded them may have adopted Euro-style log homes by the early 1700s.
But Gochnauer said the Herrs could have seen traditional communal longhouses in neighboring “places the Europeans hadn’t gotten to yet.”
Constructed two years ago out of peeled logs and poles and synthetic bark, the 62-foot-long Lancaster Longhouse helps the museum tell its Pennsylvania-German heritage and farming stories in broader context.
So do special events, such as the Snitz Fest (traditional Pennsylvania-German foods and crafts), Music in the Orchard and blacksmithing workshops.
I watched several seasons ago as smithy Frank Gillespie launched a workshop by striking flint against steel. Coal smoke soon billowed and iron glowed. A coat hook made that day still glints on my sill, timeless and ornate.
“That’s the 18th-century way of doing it,” Gillespie said.
The Hans Herr House is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Self-guided tours of the grounds are permitted. Guided tours of the house and the longhouse are 45 minutes each and cost $8 for adults and $4 for kids 7-12. Children 6 and younger get in free.
House tours begin at 9 and 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. Longhouse programs start at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.
For information, call 717-464-4438 or visit www.hansherr.org.