It is not uncommon for visitors to Lancaster County to remark that they feel nostalgic. There is indeed something about this verdant region of impeccable small farms, old-fashioned markets, and gray-topped buggies clip-clopping along country lanes that invites that sort of response.
Not that this southeastern Pennsylvania county in the heart of the famous ''Dutch'' country doesn't have its share of late 20th-century problems. Cars and tour buses share highway space with the horses and buggies. Fast-food outlets and a fair number of tourist traps dot the landscape along with the old stone farmhouses and barns. And, most paradoxically of all, this county in which hundreds of households shun the use of electricity is where the notorious nuclear accident at Three Mile Island occurred.
But despite the inevitable onslaught of ''progress,'' Lancaster County remains a place where the Swiss, German, and English roots of many of its residents are remarkably intact. Many of the original settlers to the area were Mennonites and Amish who left central Europe in the 18th century to find religious freedom in the New World. Along with their faith they brought the farming methods, food preferences, language, and other cultural patterns that are still very much in evidence throughout the area today.
Of all the German Anabaptist groups that made their way to Pennsylvania, it is the Old Order Amish who have most steadfastly clung to their centuries-old traditions. About 13,000 of the Amish, most of them farmers, reside in the eastern section of Lancaster County. Forbidding the ownership of automobiles, telephones, electrical appliances, and other modern inventions they feel would link them too closely with the outside world, the Amish work their farms and conduct their business primarily by using horse power of the four-legged kind.
It is the sight of the bearded Amishmen tilling their fields with horse-drawn plows and running their errands in square-shaped buggies that is undeniably the chief delight of visiting Lancaster County. Several country byways surrounding the small towns of Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand, particularly Route 772, Groffdale Road, and the aptly named Scenic Road, offer both lovely scenery and the chance to encounter a way of life that exudes the grace and gentler pace of an earlier age.
The Amish farms along the routes are easy to identify, principally because of their windmills or water wheels which generate much of the energy they use. A typical Amish farmhouse is often actually three houses joined together as a new house is commonly attached to the original one when space for a new bride and groom is needed. Interspersed among the tidy farms are occasional wood or brick structures that serve as Amish schoolhouses. Amish children attend school only until they are 14, studying a curriculum that includes farming techniques and German as well as English.
Despite the fact that the Amish shun the use of modern farm equipment and electrical power, theirs are among the most prosperous farms in the county. The overflow of vegetables that their farms often yield affords one of the best opportunities for meeting the Amish, who are normally quite shy about conversing with strangers. It is perfectably acceptable, however, for visitors to stop by the little roadside stands where an Amish housewife or her children will be selling vegetables or loaves of home-baked bread. Sometimes, when passing by a farm, you will see colorful Amish patchwork quilts draped over a porch railing, a sign that needlework is for sale within.
The other way that most visitors encounter the Amish is on the highway, usually when their cars nose up to a buggy ambling along at 15 miles an hour. Sometimes the Amish driver will pull to the side, but often, particularly if the driver sports a gray beard and a stiff black hat, he will stay right where he is , silently admonishing you to adjust your speed to his. Another place you will see an occasional horse and buggy is where you would least expect to - in the parking lot of a modern shopping center neatly occupying a space amid the rows of cars, station wagons, and pickup trucks.
There are ample opportunities in Lancaster County for learning about the Amish view of the outside world and why they have clung to their age-old traditions. One of the best ways to begin is to visit an information center called the People's Place located on the main street in Intercourse. Shown at frequently scheduled times from Monday through Saturday is a beautifully photographed documentary entitled ''Who are the Amish?'' Upstairs is a small museum with exhibits on Amish buggies, clothing, folk art, and other items.
The People's Place is run by members of the Mennonite faith, a group which tends to be less traditional than the Amish with whom they share common geographical and religious roots.
The early Amish settlers built many of the sturdy stone and wood-framed structures that still stand throughout the gently rolling countryside. A good way to get an idea of what one is like is to tour one of the several farmhouse museums that provide an informative look at the sober and industrious Amish way of life.
One of these is the Amish Farm and House, an 1805 farmstead set on 25 acres just six miles east of the town of Lancaster. While an Amish family has not lived in the house for some years, visitors are greeted by carefully trained guides who give an enjoyable tour of the 10-room house and grounds.
Why the Amish are often referred to as the ''plain people'' is immediately apparent as one enters the gray stone farmhouse with its white clapboard addition. No curtains, only dark green shades, adorn the multi-paned windows. The walls, with their pegged racks for hanging clothes and hats, are painted in no-nonsense shades of blue, green, white or brown. The old-fashioned clothes hanging on the racks are in similar shades, patterned fabrics being no more acceptable to the Amish than flowered wallpaper.
Visitors first assemble in the parlor, a blue room furnished with church pews , an reflection of the Amish practice of holding church in their own homes. As the guide explains, it is usual for an Amish household to hold a church service for the surrounding congregation at least one Sunday a year. Above the mantle in the parlor is a neatly stitched needlework list of the children in an Amish family and their birthdates. Most such lists would record seven or eight names - the average number of children in an Amish home.
The kitchen at the Amish House, with its kerosene lamp suspended over the long table in the center, is a far cry from most modern American kitchens with their array of electrical appliances and gadgets. But, as the most lived-in room of an Amish house, the kitchen is nevertheless an efficient one. Among the furnishings are a big black cast-iron stove used for both cooking and heating, a treadle sewing machine, and a rack placed on top of the stove, where apples would have been dried to ensure a year-round supply of pies.
Upstairs are the bedrooms, the beds of which are covered with examples of the highly prized Amish quilts. They are patchwork quilts of various designs, identifiable by their squares of perfectly plain fabric. Hanging by one of the beds is an assortment of the delicate white organdy prayer caps worn by the Amish women and girls.
Not all of the museum houses in Lancaster County reflect the religious simplicity of its Germanic settlers. One stop that a visit to the area should include is White Chimneys, a wilderness inn that grew into a lovely small mansion. But while White Chimneys, located in the village of Gap, is considerably more elegantly designed and furnished than the Amish and Mennonite dwellings, its respect for past traditions is no less evident.
The first thing visitors notice about White Chimneys is that it looks more like a lived-in house than a museum of period rooms. The reason is that it is a lived-in house, one that has been inhabited by the Slaymaker family for over 200 years. When the first Slaymaker to live at White Chimneys moved in in 1779, the house was already almost 60 years old. A Welsh Quaker named Francis Jones had built it as an inn to serve the travelers along the Great Conestoga and Newport Roads. The inn Jones built was of limestone walls with a thatched roof, the first floor consisting of one room where visitors ate meals cooked on the great stone hearth.
When the prosperous Slaymakers moved in they added, over many decades, elegant Federal and Greek Revival rooms with fluted columns and parquet floors. Family portraits, furniture spanning several periods, and even the original wooden window blinds are other imprints that successive generations left behind.
Another contrast to the Pennsylvania Dutch flavor of the region is, surprisingly enough, the town of Lancaster itself. A lovely, small city that has preserved much of its 18th-century heritage, Lancaster reflects its English origins as much as other parts of the region do their Swiss and German ones.
During the early years of the nation, Lancaster was an important center for political affairs, serving as capital of Pennsylvania for 13 years - and even as capital of the United States for one day, Sept. 27, 1777, when the Continental Congress had to flee Philadelphia. One of the best ways to explore the city's impressive past is to take one of the guided walking tours that leave from the Historic Lancaster Walking Tour headquarters on King Street.
Along the tree-lined streets and brick alleyways of downtown Lancaster are choice examples of architecture such as the Georgian-style Old City Hall and the Victorian Fulton Opera House. Just as interesting are the quaint little story-and-a-half houses that residents built to escape the higher taxes imposed on two-story houses in the 18th century.
If you are in Lancaster on a Tuesday or a Friday, you can stop in at the Central Market and browse through stalls overflowing with superb locally grown vegetables, the region's famous sausages, jars of pickled vegetables, baked goods, and other delicious items. Among the many stands is one where Amish girls sell homemade potato chips and noodles. At another, Amish and Mennonite farmers sell an array of dried fruits. Lancaster's Central Market is just one of the farmers' markets operating in the area; others are located in surrounding towns such as Bird-in-Hand, Ephrata, and Leola.
What makes Central Market special, as a plaque near the brick building explains, is that it dates from 1730 and is the oldest continually operating market in the US. But given the way traditions tend to linger on in Lancaster County, that doesn't come as much of a surprise. Practical information:
If you are planning a visit to Lancaster County this fall, you may want to include one of the local fairs, where the Amish, Mennonites, and other farm families in the area enter their produce, canned goods, and handicrafts. Two good choices are the Ephrata Fair, located on the main street of the village of Ephrata from Sept. 20-25, and the Slanco fair in Quarryville from Sept. 15-17.
While there are no Amish farms that take in visitors, there are several dairy farms run by Mennonite families which do provide overnight accommodations for guests. One of these is Verdant View near Strasbourg, which provides bed and breakfast and such treats as homemade bologna and fresh milk from the farm. Owners Ginny and Don Ranck can be reached at RD1, Box 28, Paradise, Pa. 17562, ( 717) 687-7353. Another is Landis Farm Guest Home, which provides guests with a two-bedroom cottage on the grounds of the dairy farm. The Landises can be reached at RD7, Box 144, Manheim, Pa., 17545 (717) 898-7028.
The city of Lancaster is located 64 miles east of Philadelphia and 160 miles southwest of New York City. The place to contact for maps and brochures on the many regional attraction is the Pennsylvania Dutch Visitors Bureau, 1799 Hempstead Road., Lancaster, Pa., 17601, (717) 299-8903.