Mr. Chatterbox - May 2011

By Robert Plunket Photography by Kathryn Brass May 1, 2011

To an Amish person or a Mennonite, Sarasota must be one of the most exciting places in the world. Every winter thousands of Mennonites journey down from Pennsylvania and Indiana for a month or so in the sun, in a community that caters to their every vacation whim—the beach, family time and lots and lots of pie.

Our Amish-Mennonite part of town is called Pinecraft, and it’s centered around the intersection of Bahia Vista and Beneva. It’s been there 80 years or so and is going stronger than ever. If you’re planning an Amish vacation, here’s what to expect.

You’ll stay with relatives or you’ll rent. No motels. And the houses are so tiny and plain that they become fascinating pieces of architecture. Embellishment is not encouraged—that would be an indication of the sin of pride. But “neat and clean” is crucial, and the result is a grouping of homes that is unique. They’re like folk art—handmade, oddly proportioned, all jumbled together. For the best examples, explore the southern part of Pinecraft.

You won’t drive. You get your Mennonite cousins to drive you or you take your tricycle. As anyone who frequents Beneva Road knows, all winter there is a stream of old ladies in bonnets pedaling to and from Publix. The bus is a possibility for longer trips—like Sears at the mall.

Activities are limited. There isn’t a lot to do in Pinecraft. Normal vacation amenities don’t exist. I don’t think there’s a swimming pool in the entire neighborhood. Everything is centered around home and family. The teenagers and young families take the bus to Lido Beach (back in the old days North Lido was half topless, half Amish), and you can see their bikes, scores of them, chained to the trees at the bus stop at Bahia Vista and Tuttle.

The old people tend to stay home and do chores. There is a great deal of bustle and cleaning and walking places. The neighborhood’s only real hangout is the park at the southwest end of Fry. Here the kids play basketball and the old men play shuffleboard, which is the Amish equivalent of golf.

At night things are quiet—but not that quiet. There’s a lively hymn-singing scene, and you’ll see signs posted on lawns saying “Singing Tonight – 7 p.m.” And I have actually seen Amish teenagers loitering in front of the post office as late as 9:30.

You’ll gain 10 pounds. Perhaps the closest similarity to a regular vacation is the food. You will actually be heading to a dining destination. The most famous restaurant in Sarasota is in Pinecraft—Yoder’s. It is also the most popular. Even in the doldrums of summer you have to time your visits so as not to arrive at peak dining hours. Some people find the home cooking a little bland, but there are some sensational things on the menu—the fried chicken, the corn fritters, all the cream pies. And foodies from all over town are starting to frequent the new Yoder’s Fresh Market for produce and baked goods.

If Yoder’s is too crowded, try Troyer’s Dutch Heritage. But remember—restaurants in Pinecraft are closed on Sundays. This is ironic, because the one time you really want a big home-cooked meal, you can’t get one. Someday, some evil Mennonite will open one and really clean up.

Sightseeing and shopping. In addition to the cute little houses and the people-watching, you’ll want to check out the numerous birdhouses. Several gift shops offer what I find a disappointing array of refrigerator magnets and such. Miller’s Dutch Haus has Amish furniture for sale, including some very nice Adirondack chairs. And Alma Sue’s Quilt Shop is worth popping into.

Like most Sarasotans, many Amish and Mennonites come for a winter vacation and like it so much they decide to relocate permanently. Pinecraft is expanding into the surrounding neighborhoods. And since the average Amish family consists of seven children (they typically double in size in 18 years), the local population of the Plain Sects is on the rise.

So is their business presence. They are no longer mostly agricultural; these days they have branched out into all sorts of small businesses: construction, retail and manufacturing (particularly furniture—some 10 percent of the furniture in the U.S. comes from Amish companies).

I used to feel a little sorry for them, assuming they lived some sort of hand-to-mouth existence. I no longer do. Ninety-five percent of Amish businesses succeed, some—like Yoder’s—wildly so. What they do with all that money remains a mystery, though. I do know that they always pay cash, splurge on elaborate Winnebagos and high-end tools, and they also patronize the town’s chiropractors.

And they’re very generous—one of the town’s top fund-raising events is their annual auction to benefit Haitian charities. Last year they raised more than $400,000.

The Amish are not perfect, though. Perhaps their biggest fault is that many of them don’t understand about cars. They cross against the light, in the middle of the street, and they drive those trikes right into traffic without looking. Every year there is some tragedy or other. So please remember—when you visit Pinecraft, drive slowly. The pie will wait.

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