Going to Market
Taking a Tasty Trip to Pennsylvania’s Big Valley
Wednesday is market day in Belleville, a small farming town in Central Pennsylvania’s Big Valley. The 1960s Western TV show Big Valley was filled with hard-charging cowboys and cattle rustlers, but this Big Valley is a bucolic, restful land with rolling hills, well-kept houses and small, neat farms. Backyard vegetable gardens appear weed-free and on wash day some residents have laundry flapping in the breeze on lines stretched between their barns and houses. If you were ever to imagine what an ideal farming area looks like, surely an image like Big Valley would pop into your head.
Zipping up through the ridges of Pennsylvania on a gorgeous day in early fall, there are not many better destinations than Big Valley, about 90 minutes from the City of Frederick. Exiting U.S. 322 and traveling the two-lane road to Belleville, we see signs for fresh eggs, goat’s milk and honey, followed by a restaurant featuring local barbecued meat. A bed and breakfast, one of several in the area, is situated at a family-owned winery along this road. Occasional yard sales beckon, along with stands filled with home-baked goods.
Traveling this gently winding road, traffic starts to slow outside the town. True, there are a lot of extra cars on Wednesdays, but the slowdown has more to do with the Amish horses and buggies also on the way to market, moving at a leisurely 5 to 8 mph.
THe farmers Bring their livestock, produce and baked goods. Almost anything can be bought and sold in this open-air Department Store.
Here, the Amish community is strong and vigorous. The locals are accustomed to slowing down for the horses, seeing women with white caps and long handmade dresses and men with beards and straw hats, something outside visitors may find unusual. The Amish, along with their related spiritual groups, the Brethren and the Mennonites, are descended from mostly Dutch and German settlers who immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1700s. They left Europe to escape persecution for their Anabaptist beliefs. In Pennsylvania, the largest Amish community by far is in the Lancaster area. Central Pennsylvania and Big Valley in particular also hold a respectable population of these “plain people.”
There’s no single governing body that oversees the Amish. Each community has local bishops that help make decisions for the group. Their basic values are the absolute authority of the Bible, and the importance of family, community, humility and separation from the modern world. Many who recognize the Amish people know that they shy away from cars and don’t use much electricity. However, the purpose for those decisions lies in their desire to maintain their communities. They believe a lot of modern paraphernalia could disrupt their lives; they will use technology to live and work or to communicate, but they will not allow these conveniences to disrupt family and community stability.
Break for Buggies
We slow for the horses and buggies, some white, black or yellow, depending on the sect of the owner, as we approach the market town center. There was a time when market day was the highlight in many farming communities and we feel fortunate to have an opportunity to experience the remaining vestiges of this tradition. Here, the farmers bring their livestock, produce and baked goods and aside from the aspects of buying and selling, it’s the day to gossip and spend time with the neighbors, usually with a cup of coffee and a MoonPie in hand.
Already there are horses and buggies parked in a long line, the horses flicking their tails at annoying flies. A large sales barn for livestock auctions dominates the back of the market. The auction begins at 6 a.m. and by the time we arrive some three hours later, it’s already over, so come early if you want to look over the local cattle, pigs or chickens. By now, most of the successful bidders are loading their livestock or having breakfast in the restaurant just above the sales barn that also features rib-sticking, meat-and-potatoes lunches.
A large paved area accommodates the many vendors. Here we can find anything from wagon loads heaped high with ears of sweet corn to buckets of apples and freshly-dug potatoes and beets. Banks of flowers display their colorful blossoms. Dried bouquets, cut flowers and potted plants spread out before us. After stopping to buy some dried flowers and fresh dill, we wander over to a large tent full of hundreds of home baked goods. Alert vendors keep up with the crowds seeking out loaves of breads, cookies, pies, sticky buns and whoopee pies. Beyond the tent are more booths with sewing crafts, quilts and macramé; stands featuring cutlery and other kitchen utensils are also here, along with clothing and knickknacks. Almost anything can be bought, sold or haggled over in this open-air department store.
But the area is about more than this one day in the middle of the week. Big Valley is close to several state parks with swimming and hiking as well as streams for fishing—former President Jimmy Carter was a fan of casting a line here.
For those wanting to experience life behind a trotting horse there’s Dayze Gone Bye Carriage Rides in nearby Allensville. Owner Tara Richtscheit says the tours through the valley include stops at Amish farmhouses for homemade potato chips and baked goods and on Saturdays there are homemade doughnuts. Visitors might see horses pulling plows in the field or just relax and enjoy nature’s beauty. The business also has an antique sleigh for winter weather and a guest house for overnight visitors. “This is nothing like Lancaster,” she says, which has become somewhat commercialized over the years.
The first Friday and Saturday in October is the valley’s annual Harvest Fest and there’s a Christmas open house in December. Perhaps the most unique celebration is Goose Day. Harkening back to medieval times, when many business transactions were conducted quarterly, coinciding with the dates for equinoxes in March and September and the solstices of June and December, Goose Day or St. Michaelmas Day as it is also called, was the time of year for magistrate appointments, quarterly rent payments and hiring new workers.
This old English tradition got to Pennsylvania as a crossover adopted by the German settlers from their English neighbors. The story goes that in the late 1700s, a farmer from the Philadelphia area had settled in Central Pennsylvania’s Snyder County and was unable to find a tenant farmer to help him with his land. On a trip east, he met up with an Englishman who had recently deserted from the Royal Navy. They struck it off and joined forces. The Englishman introduced him to the Goose Day custom of a large goose as part of the rent payment. Goose Day is still celebrated on Sept. 29 and is a big event in Big Valley. Restaurants serve roast goose dinners and there are goose calling contests, 5k runs and other events.
On this Wednesday at market we wrap up our shopping excursion with buckets of potatoes and apples and prepare to leave. Although the market is open from 6 a. m. to 6 p.m., for all intents and purposes, everything is done by 1 p.m. The vendors start to load their leftover wares, with some last-minute attempts for one more sale and market is over until the next Wednesday.