‘What happens in Pinecraft stays in Pinecraft’.
You don’t expect to hear this about members of a religion which eschews electricity and bans driving. But in Florida, a state loved by the rich, the retirees, and the snowbirds, an unusual flock is living and holidaying there, and it’s there I hear the phrase.
Staying on the edge of Sarasota, alongside a nature reserve and golf course, I find I’m also beside an Amish and Mennonite neighbourhood: Pinecraft. ‘Plain people’ as they call themselves, have been on Florida’s Gulf Coast since the 1920s and, over recent years, their friends and relatives have become snowbirds. It’s those snowbirds, escaping the northern winters, who use the phrase about Pinecraft – words usually attached to sports teams or friends off on a wild weekend, not conservative Christian folk.
The streets have traditional Amish and Mennonite names such as Yoder, Graber and Schrock and the local population have their roots in different Midwestern settlements, each with slightly different styles of clothing, religious beliefs, and customs.
One thing that stays the same are quilts which are something of a cultural icon. They are beautiful as well as functional and seem to create togetherness for the Amish women who stitch and talk as they make them. I visit Alma Sue’s Quilts and talked with a woman working at a huge quilting frame. Her needle kept going in and out of the material as she talked: telling me she’s eighty-four, quilts daily from ten until four, was originally from Indiana, and has been making quilts since she was a child. When I comment about her long day she said the woman she shares a house with, picks her up at four, takes her home and ‘she tells me to put my feet up’. She continued, ‘she is older than me and cooks all our meals, so I’m very lucky.’
No doubt her house is small – most of the Amish bungalows appear to be about fifty or sixty square metres while the neighbourhood seems to be about one square kilometre. The closest I got to visit a home was when my host bought material at the Sewing Nook, a little shop at the back of a home. The woman said her business was mostly only open during the ‘season’ and she was really busy then – we’d followed the directions at her letterbox to ‘knock on the front door’ and she’d open the shop. She tells us the snowbird visitors like her variety of material which ‘is different’ to choices they have in the mid-west.
Horses and buggies, thought of as essentially Amish transport, don’t travel these Floridian streets; here they use three-wheeled bikes, pedal-powered buggies. I saw church members in traditional, plain clothing, the men with long beards and the women with their hair covered with caps, all pedalling their substitute buggies along the road and footpaths. Letterboxes often have biblical messages or homilies on them and many yards have bird boxes, although I didn’t see any doves, or other birds, in residence.
Walking to the Pinecraft Post Office, we pass their popular shuffleboard courts, complete with stands for watching the players from, and arrive at the world’s only Amish-operated post office. Some years ago, when it was under threat of closure, and valuing letters, the Amish purchased the small building and postal contract. With no computers or debit card machine the office woman uses a calculator, and receipts are hand-written and stamped. Outside, a well-used notice board advertises jobs and community events and I overhear a couple of ‘English’ (as the Amish call us others) say how much they valued having the post office close by.
Big Olaf’s provides us a huge ice cream, then after walking past a diorama of traditional Amish country and the only horse and buggy in town, I visit Yoder’s Fresh Market to browse the shelves with its great variety of foods, including many interesting homemade pickles.
I’m taken out for dinner, five minutes’ walk away, at one of the Amish restaurants in the area. These Pennsylvania-Dutch style restaurants are popular among Sarasota’s 50,000 locals, Amish snowbird tourists, as well as the local Plain population. This is a Sarasota ‘must-do’ for your bucket-list – take an empty stomach for favourites such as fried mush, butter noodles, meatloaf, fried okra, and shoofly pie – their mashed potato was the creamiest I’ve ever eaten, and the oven-fried buttermilk chicken, divine.
This area was first settled by an Amish man, who tried, unsuccessfully, to farm celery. He was followed by other Amish who also grew produce and, as homes multiplied, Pinecraft developed into this fully-fledged neighbourhood. The Pinecraft tourist season runs from November to April and sees the Amish population swell with older snowbirds, youth there for seasonal work, and newlyweds on their honeymoon, who all stay in their own holiday home, a rented house, or at one of the trailer-parks.
Although not there during ‘the season’ the Amish folk added an unexpected and interesting dimension to my travels – an Amish area in the midst of a lovely city, in what can be a hedonistic holiday state, and a reminder there’s more than beaches and amusement parks in Florida. See more photos here and a short interview about my experiences in Florida on Radio NZ National