As seen in The News-Herald

By Paris Wolfe

On a sunny 75-degree Tuesday in February, Clara Yoder, her adult daughter and the daughter’s four fidgety pre-teens sit together on white-plank benches in front of Big Olaf Creamery in Sarasota, Florida. A Pioneer Trails bus has just dropped Yoder’s family in the Amish/Mennonite snowbird village known as Pinecraft.

That’s right, an Amish/Mennonite snowbird village. It’s hard to imagine the simple folk from quiet communities such as Middlefield, Ohio, doing winter break in Florida. But they do. Some visit for a week, and some stay the entire winter season — just like folks from other religions and cultures.

The Yoders have traveled 20 or so hours from their home in Sugar Creek, Ohio, to the sunny coastal city near the Gulf of Mexico. They bunch together, hot and tired, arms folded protectively across chests, waiting for the house where they will spend three weeks enjoying sunshine and friends in the transient community. (The women, like most folks I talk to for this article, ask to not be photographed.)

The Yoder women are wearing plain dresses in pastel lavender and bright purple, colors that more conservative Amish might consider daring. In Pinecraft, it’s quite common to see a broad spectrum of styles — from solemn navy to a bright-orange-print frocks, for example.

The small Pinecraft neighborhood is a melting pot of the traditionalist Christian folks — Amish and Mennonite — inspired by Huldrych Zwingli in the 16th century. Their communities are spread throughout the United States, and individual districts (or churches) have evolved traditions separately, thus the differences in “dress code” among other cultural norms.

They all, though, have Pinecraft in common.

The village started in the early 1900s, when a few young men were doing Rumspringa, according to former Mennonite Kendra Cross, who narrates a trolley tour of the area. Rumspringa is literally a period of “running around.” During the phase, an Amish teenager can try out elements of mainstream culture such as driving, fashion and drinking alcohol without consequences from their elders.

The story goes that the young men bought a car, gathered camping, fishing and hunting gear and took a road trip to the west coast of Florida. They fell in love with the area and told others. Families followed for vacation when farming was slow in the winter. Some even took up winter farming, growing celery in the drained swampland nearby.

Pinecraft is, reputedly, the only Amish/Mennonite enclave of its kind. While some folks — such as David Bontrager, who moved from northern Indiana 10 years ago — live there full-time, about 90 percent of the population passes through to escape northern winters, says Cross. Bontrager, like others in the community, sells products from home. His contribution to the micro-economy is cheese from Holmes County, Ohio.

Because Pinecraft originally was platted as a summer village, building lots are only 40 by 40 feet. Many original cottages — small, aging block structures with simple landscaping — remain on these footprints; a few have been replaced by newly built colonials complete with vinyl siding.

Streets are wide enough for one and half cars, a non-issue as beliefs prevent most Amish and some Mennonites from driving vehicles. While horses are the transportation mode in the North, they’re against city zoning here, so visitors rent bicycles and adult tricycles from local vendors such as John Schrock. Schrock, who is from an Amish community in Goshen, Indiana, operates the bike-rental company for his wife’s grandmother. The vintage-looking bikes have low center bars, making them easy to ride while wearing a skirt.

It’s common to see men and women riding bikes on the sidewalks outside the village to the local Target, Publix or other nearby retailers. Like other tourists, these snowbirds visit beaches, restaurants and popular attractions. It’s just as common to see Pinecraft restaurants — Yoder’s and Der Dutchman — filled with English. “English” refers to non-Amish. Der Dutchman has six locations; five are in Ohio’s Amish communities.

To learn more about Pinecraft, join Discover Sarasota Tours for a 90-minute trolley tour. During the 20-minute commute to the village, Cross talks about the beliefs and practices of the tightly knit culture. After driving by houses and businesses, visitors enjoy a pie tasting at Der Dutchman and browse the large gift shop upstairs. Cross provides more information and answers questions on the return trip through the city.