The Smeckers began visiting Lancaster County in the late 60s. “We came here for the horse sales in New Holland,” Ray explains. Both are animal lovers – dogs, cats, horses, sheep, birds. You name it; they have it.
After serving in the Air Force, Ray married Megan. A job with Sears put him on the fast track to the executive suite. “One day they told me I’d have to relocate to Chicago,” he continues. “No way did I want to live in Chicago.” What he really wanted to do was be a farmer. So, he tendered his resignation, cashed out his Sears stock and bought a farm in Bucks County. “People thought I was crazy,” he says. He also found a job with MAB Paints and became the company’s credit manager. Life was good.
By the 1980s, Ray was beginning to feel fenced in. “The area of Bucks County where we lived was starting to lose that small-town feel,” he says. And, commuting to his job in Broomall was taking longer with each passing year. They decided to move closer to his workplace. Ray studied the map, and a small town in Lancaster County piqued his interest. So, one weekend the Smeckers scheduled a getaway to Lancaster County. “We came off the Pennsylvania Turnpike and drove along Route 23 and came into Churchtown. It reminded me of Sleepy Hollow,” he recalls. They kept returning. The Churchtown Inn became their home away from home. Their daughter Christine and her husband, Rick, accompanied them on one trip and instantly decided to move to Lancaster. “They beat us to it,” Ray says.
While they were exploring an antiques shop, Ray asked the owner if she was aware of any land that was for sale. She explained that most of the farmland is owned by the Amish. However, she did provide the name of a knowledgeable realtor, who in turn told him to talk to a local builder. The builder shared news of an Amish farmer who might be willing to sell him a tract of land that wasn’t conducive to farming. The Smeckers bought the 1.5 acres and set to work designing a house that was inspired by Williamsburg.
After being on and off the market due to a late 80s recession, the Smeckers suddenly received an offer for their Bucks County property. “We had 30 days to move,” Ray recalls. Finding a rental property in Churchtown was all but impossible due to the menagerie of animals that would be accompanying them. The man who sold them the land heard of their plight through what Ray calls the “Amish grapevine” and offered them a vacant farmhouse on his property. “Then he found temporary homes for all our animals,” Ray reports, still shaking his head at the Amish community’s generosity.
Once their house was finished, the Amish helped them move. “It was incredible,” says Ray. “Our neighbors packed our furnishings and belongings onto a wagon and moved us in.”
Being the only English in the valley made the Smeckers somewhat uncertain of how to go about being neighborly. “I thought all they did was pray and do laundry,” Megan admits.
“So, we sat inside our house and watched the buggies drive by,” Ray recalls. Then, an idea occurred to them. Their Morgan horses could bridge the cultural gap. “We’d ride or walk our horses up and down the road,” Ray explains. Soon, buggies were stopping and their occupants were asking, “What for kind of horse is that?”
One day there was a knock at the door. A resident of the valley stopped to invite them to a block party. Ray was hesitant, speculating, “We won’t know anyone.” The visitor assured them, “That’s alright. Everyone knows you.”
Living Among the Amish
Ray and Megan sometimes think they were destined to live in Churchtown, which they describe as a “close-knit community.” They believe they relate to the Amish due to their strong religious beliefs and love of family. Ray reports that the Amish have come to their aid more times than he can count. When he was still commuting to his job in Broomall, Ray was involved in a head-on crash that left him seriously injured. “The Amish just took over,” he says, explaining they carried out his chores around the property and tended to the animals. “To this day, they won’t let us shovel snow.”
And, according to Ray, when Megan faced a serious health issue, “the Amish did everything they could to help us get through it. They are simply wonderful people.”
The Four Seasons of Lancaster County
Ray has always enjoyed photography and writing, and he parlayed those interests into a book titled The Four Seasons of Lancaster County (Masthof Press), which is available at local bookstores, shops and bed-and-breakfasts. The book is filled with photos of the Churchtown area. It’s also filled with stories of his Amish neighbors (names have been changed, of course). “It’s been well received, especially among the Amish,” Ray reports. “They’re buying them for their family and friends. They enjoy the stories, and one woman was so proud to have a picture of her peaches in it.”
As with all his literary works, Ray is donating the proceeds to a charitable cause; Autism Awareness (autism-society.org) will be the beneficiary of the book’s proceeds. Ray is hard at work on Volume 2. For more information, visit masthof.com.
Megan Smecker feels at home in Churchtown for another reason: She is a first-generation American who boasts a Welsh heritage. This area of the county was predominately settled by the Welsh, who were drawn by the rolling hills and waterways that reminded them of home. Located in Caernarvon (which translates as the “fort on the river” in Welsh) Township, this mile-long town is brimming with history. While many assume the town’s name refers to a church-filled town, it was actually derived from one in particular – the Bangor Episcopal Church, which was founded in 1722 and was one of the Church of England’s first outposts in the American Colonies. The church owned all the land that comprises modern-day Churchtown and sold parcels to newly arrived settlers to generate income.
Other historical tidbits include a tale that George Washington once tied his horse to a sycamore tree in town, which has credence as hammers for rifles were made in Churchtown during the Revolutionary War.
Churchtown prospered in the late 1700s thanks in part to the iron industry. Windsor, Poole and Spring Grove forges processed pig iron that was used to make charcoal blooms and bar iron. By the 1860s, demand for pig iron diminished, and the forges closed.
However, Churchtown adapted. Small businesses emerged that catered to the farming community and met the needs of the town’s residents. General stores opened, while shoemakers, potters, cabinetmakers, seamstresses, hat makers, etc., created cottage industries.
By the late 19th century, Americans were enjoying leisure time, with travel becoming a favorite way to get away from it all. The quaint and quiet Churchtown became a favorite destination for travelers from Philadelphia and New York. Inns and boarding houses flourished.
Churchtown was also the home of the famous sculptress Blanch Nevin, whose father, Rev. John Williamson, was a president of Franklin & Marshall College, and whose mother was the daughter of Robert Jenkins, who owned Windsor Forge and served in Congress. Blanch’s statue of Gen. John Muhlenberg can be seen in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
And, how’s this for longevity: On May 30, Churchtown hosted its 150th Memorial Day Parade!
The history of the area is championed by the Caernarvon Historical Society of Lancaster County. Established in 1975, the organization is headquartered in the Caernarvon Presbyterian Church, which was founded in 1843 and restored in the 1970s. In addition to monthly meetings and “Let’s Talk History” seminars, the Society sponsors social, educational and fundraising events throughout the year. 2148 Main St., caernarvonhistoricalsociety.org.
Getting to Know Churchtown
Many area residents are engaged in agriculture, construction and manufacturing (New Holland Agriculture). The area’s accessibility to the PA Turnpike makes commuting to the Main Line and Philadelphia relatively easy. Churchtown is also attractive to artists, entrepreneurs and those engaged in cottage industries.
As the Smeckers discovered, homes in Churchtown proper rarely go on the market. Not that they don’t change hands, but rather there’s a gentleman’s agreement that seems to drive the market. Residents let it be known that should someone want to sell his or her house, they have first dibs. “I can’t tell you how many people say if we want to sell, keep them in mind,” Ray says. In many cases, historic properties – as well as farms – stay within families. Indeed, a search of Zillow revealed no properties for sale in Churchtown proper; however, a number of properties well to the east and west of town were on the market as of late May. Ray also notes that the area has once again become a favorite of people looking to start cottage industries. They can work in rural Lancaster County, yet have easy access to markets up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Churchtown/Caernarvon/East Earl are served by the Eastern Lancaster County School District, with Garden Spot High School located in New Holland. Several private schools are located in the area.
Several years ago, Route 23 in Caernarvon Township – Chestnut Ridge Road – was named one of the state’s Scenic Byways. The ride is beautiful. The road follows along the crest of a ridge; valleys of fertile farmland border it to the east and west. The Welsh Mountains are beyond. Take any of the side roads to discover Mennonite- and Amish-owned shops and market stands. Continue into Churchtown, where you’ll see homes and other structures built from sandstone, which sets the town apart from the look of other Lancaster County destinations. You’ll see everything from cottages to mansions along the 1-mile stretch.
Plan a Getaway
Churchtown is home to two well-known inns. The Churchtown Inn Bed and Breakfast, which was at the forefront of the B&B phenomenon in Lancaster County, has been owned by Jim and Chris Farr since 2005. It makes its home in the historic Edward Davies Mansion. The Farrs, who are from the Philadelphia area, fell in love with B&Bs while touring Europe. After retiring from their jobs, the two decided to launch a shared second career and began searching for a suitable property on the East Coast. The property features beautiful public rooms, cozy suites and cottages, gardens, a four-course breakfast and special events such as murder mystery weekends, Amish dinners, and vow renewal weekends. 2100 Main St. Churchtowninn.com.
Also along Main Street you will find the Inn at Twin Linden, which is now owned by Laurie Bushnell and her daughter Kendal. For Laurie, owning an inn is a dream come true. The Twin Linden is also a part of Lancaster County’s culinary history, as former owner Donna Leahy championed the farm-to-table movement long before it became part of the culinary lingo. In addition to serving her guests farm-fresh breakfasts, Donna opened her dining room to the public for dinner. Donna, who now lives in Florida, authored several cookbooks and frequently appeared on the Today show (among others) to not only promote her cookbooks but also Lancaster County.
Laurie and Kendal continue that tradition, serving gourmet breakfast fare and opening the inn to special events such as milestone celebrations and weddings. The inn’s rooms are beautifully appointed. Window-filled dining rooms offer views of the gardens and farmland. 2092 Main St. Innattwinlinden.com.
Historic Poole Forge
This park seamlessly combines history and natural beauty, making it one of the county’s most unique destinations. Features include the iron master’s mansion, a paymaster’s house, tenant houses, lime kilns, a pavilion, a playground, gardens and a covered bridge that was built in 1859.
In 2005, the 26-acre property was taken over by Caernarvon Township. Extensive renovations have brought the mansion back to life. The covered bridge, which spans the Conestoga, is now restricted to foot traffic. Poole Forge is available for weddings, social gatherings and plays host to community events throughout the year.
Dawn Rise Eckdahl, Poole Forge’s executive director, credits dedicated volunteers for the property’s revival and success. “All I need to do is send an email or make a phone call, and volunteers are here to help,” she says. 1940 Main St. Historicpooleforge.org.
Smucker Harness Company might just qualify as the Churchtown area’s ultimate success story. Started by Amish craftsman Daniel Smucker in 1962, the company creates finely crafted leather harnesses, pads, collars, bridles and other accessories for pleasure and show horses. Now owned by Mr. Smucker’s namesake grandson, the shop is under the direction of another grandson, Moses, who was working on a project for Colonial Williamsburg on the day we visited. You’ve undoubtedly seen the company’s work on holiday commercials that feature the famous Budweiser Clydesdales. The “Smucker Bells” have proven to be popular with horse people and tourists alike. Smucker’s now sells mini-versions that can be hung on door handles. Smuckersharness.com.