You've probably never heard of Belleville, PA. If you have, by all means skip ahead a few paragraphs. I won't be offended. Really. Everyone else, let me tell you about a wide, fertile valley wedged into a broad ripple in the Allegheny Mountains.
Let me tell you about a most marvelous place, home to a contingent of Amish* farmers who made their way to this broad valley between the Stone and Jacks Mountains in the late 18th century. Let me tell you about a people who have managed to hold fast to their Old Order ways and today, seemingly cloistered from the outside world, live in a place that feels unsullied by crass commercialism and busloads of tourists that plague their more famous brethern to the southeast in Lancaster County.
Mennonite farmers (an Amish-light sect who own "worldly" 20th-century motorized devices) and a smattering of "English" (everybody else), share this valley with the Amish. The sleepy little farm town of Belleville features some houses, a Gas-n-Go, a Mennonite Heritage Center, and a broken down glue nag harnessed to a rotten old buggy. Steady old fella...
And that's pretty much the extent of it. There's not much else to see here, other than the scenery. Except on Wednesdays. Because on Wednesdays the town of Belleville becomes a hive of activity thanks to the Belleville Livestock Auction and Flea Market.
Town residents angle their pickups in hot competition for parking spots, and high-gloss buggies vye for hitching spaces.
We learned that the colors of the buggy tops give some clue as to which major group the owner belongs. Buggy tops come in white, yellow, and black. Apparently, white tops indicate that its owner is of the most traditional sect.
Then again, maybe not.
Because schisms are a constant in this land of Luddites where seemingly everyone is named Yoder (individuals are distinguished by the initials of their given names: I. E. Yoder; E.G. Yoder; and so on), issues of how to dress, how a barn should be built or painted, and who knows what else have splintered this one Amish community into more than a dozen sects.
But to the casual observer at the Belleville Livestock Auction and Flea Market, none of this family bickering is evident. The kids are mindful and respectful to their elders. The adults, though terse, are friendly enough to outsiders and even jovial among their own.
So why not join us and step into the low-slung concrete building where the Amish women sell their homemade specialties...
... while the auctioneer bids up homemade pies by the tin and garden-fresh beans by the package, starting at $1.50 each.
It is a place where even the least among them has a job to do, without complaint...
... because when the hard work is over, there is a just reward waiting for the entire family.
We loved this place. We loved the prices. We loved the scene...
... and we loved the food.
It was one of those rare places where complete outsiders like us could witness the people of another culture, unlike our own yet somehow familiar, as they conducted their normal business--be it kicking the udder on a new milker...
... or weighing the relative merits of a load of hay before it went up for auction.
It seemed to us to be a veritable heaven on earth. And it may very well be just that, especially because we had to travel at the speed of a bygone era that is somehow very much alive.
*The Amish trace their origins to the Anabaptist movement that swept Europe in the 16th century. One group of Anabaptists who sheered off to follow the teachings of Menno Simons, a Dutch elder, became the Mennonites. Disagreements in the Mennonite community flared, and another group broke away under the leadership of Jakob Ammann--the Amish.