The houses at the Landis Valley Village in Lancaster, PA, span building styles of nearly 200 years. They are crafted from logs, brick, lumber and stone. Some are modest and others handsomely made with decorative trim or hinges.
But there’s a practical presence, too, with boot scrapers by the doors and garden plots out back. And in these details, a theme of Pennsylvania German heritage is revealed: Growing things was a way of life.
It makes sense then, that the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum blends the stories of farming, home life, domestic arts and religion. They are completely intertwined.
Operated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum is located in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch county, well-known for it still-fertile fields and Amish residents. The traditions here are squarely German, dating back to immigrant families in the early 1700s. “Dutch” is an English version of the word “Deutsch,” meaning German.
The village covers more than 100 acres, centered on the crossroads that were once home to the Landis family and a brick hotel built in 1856. Today, its roads are still dirt and gravel, traveled by visitors on foot and in horse-drawn wagons operated by the museum. They end in barricades or parking areas that seal off direct access from modern traffic.
Within the village are more than 20 buildings open to the public, as well as cropland, pastures and gardens. Taken together, they interpret Pennsylvania German life over a period of 200 years. While Lancaster County has grown and diversified through time, it remains one of the most important agricultural areas in the Chesapeake Bay region.
I arrived at the Landis Valley Village on an especially quiet day, before the planting season was in full swing — and before field trips and bus tours descended. A few small groups of visitors roamed the grounds, lingering at the exhibit of farm equipment, chuckling at the roadside water pump with its hefty stone trough and tugging open house doors like inquisitive voyeurs.
Otherwise, my company took the form of animals and even they were having a languid day. A caramel-colored horse squirmed on its back in a sunny field, like a dog trying to scratch its own itch. An heirloom-breed cow plodded up next to me by a split rail fence and chewed on grass. The sheep didn’t bother to get up.
Only the pigs came hustling and squealing in my direction, and they collapsed back in the mud when they realized I wasn’t there to feed them.
Busier days lay just ahead. The horses would soon be plowing the fields and pulling wagons loaded with school students. About 10,000 students tour the village each year. Farm manager Joe Schott said that kids from cities are amazed by the experience.
“They all get a ride in a horse-drawn wagon, and that is just completely foreign to them” Schott said.
Schott is a 21st century farmer, but he’s a little bit stuck in the past. Along with tending his own farm, Schott has spent a lot of time shearing sheep in places like Colonial Williamsburg, VA, and Old Sturbridge Village, MA, which preserve farm traditions from earlier times. At Landis Valley, he manages the farm operations with a horse-drawn plow, hand tools and a team of dedicated volunteers. The crops support the village’s heirloom seed program, which maintains varieties of once-common plants that have fallen out of favor with modern, mass-production farming.
The program, now in its 31st year, generates seeds for about 200 different species, mostly from plants and seeds donated by residents of the local area, where farming and gardening traditions tend to span generations. As a result, tiers of glass jars with multi-colored seeds are hand-labeled with names like Aunt Ruby’s Green Tomato, Dr. Martin’s Lima Bean and Grandma Hershey’s Sugar Pea. I was surprised to see my own surname on the shelf: the Lutz Beet.
Schott said that visitors sometimes ask why produce is left on the vine past its prime. “We don’t sell the produce,” he said. “We grow it purely for the seeds. We let it dry out just like they would have historically done it.”
The seeds are sold in the village store and through a catalogue. Home gardeners and other museums buy them, from places in the mid-Atlantic region as well as Michigan, New England and even Europe. “Some varieties came over here but were lost over there, so they bought them back,” Schott said.
Several of the buildings in the village, including the hotel and Landis family homes, are original. The Brick Farmstead depicts the 1830s home of Jacob and Elizabeth Landis. Their Mennonite family managed a farm and a blacksmith shop along the main road.
A much smaller house sits beside it on the same grounds. Today it would be the in-law apartment, but in the 1840s it was called the Grossmutter (Grandmother) House — built for Jacob and Elizabeth when they passed on the main house to their son and his new bride.
Others buildings have been moved to Landis Valley from elsewhere, such as the Erisman House, a low-ceilinged log house thought to have been built around 1820, which once stood on West Orange Street in Lancaster. A blacksmith shop from Gettysburg made the trip, too.
A special treat is the Maple Grove Schoolhouse, a classic one-room gem, complete with original desks, coat hooks and outdoor privies. The schoolhouse was relocated from a site about 3 miles away, where it served Amish children for decades.
A few buildings, like the tavern, general store and log cabin farm were carefully recreated from local examples. The log cabin farm depicts the life of settlers in the 1700s, with an outdoor oven, springhouse, and barn. The cabin has just two rooms: a kitchen and a space that served as both sitting room and bedroom. The upstairs loft was for storage and extra sleeping space. “When you were old enough not to sleep in the trundle bed, you got to go upstairs to sleep with the squash and the corn,” Schott said.
Farm life here was quite different from the more southern areas of the Chesapeake watershed, where agriculture was organized around plantations and depended on the labor of enslaved people for success.
“This was subsistence agriculture. You grew what you needed to live,” Schott said. “The family unit worked together more here. There was a work ethic and a stewardship ethic from day one.”
German farmers rotated their fields, crops and pastures regularly to avoid depleting the land. People didn’t drink much milk, but used it to make cheese and butter, which would keep longer. Root cellars would store carrots, turnips and beets, and herbs were critical both for cooking and doctoring. “Mom was the doctor, and she’d grow everything she could possibly need,” Schott said.
When I set out to visit the Landis Valley Village, I thought it would be in a rural nook on the outskirts of town.
“That’s where we used to be,” Schott said with a laugh. “Now we’re an island.”
You’ll find the village, appropriately, at a crossroads — with a traffic light, in suburbia. Across from the village, a plaza stands on one corner and a modern subdivision on the next. But on the fourth corner is a house that could be mistaken for part of the village. And from within the village itself, you can glimpse a neighboring farm where traditions of working the land still connect the past to the present.
The Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum in Lancaster, PA, is open year-round with seasonal hours and is closed on major holidays. Admission is $12 for adults; $10 for seniors; and $8 for ages 3–11. Children younger than 2 years are free.