Kevin Williams

Leaving buggies behind, Amish snowbirds flock to Florida for winter

Relaxed town of Pinecraft in Sarasota suburbs hosts thousands from up North seeking sun, sand and more modern ambiance

PINECRAFT, Fla. — It’s a weekday at 2 p.m. Though definitely past the peak lunch hour, there’s still a line of customers waiting to be seated at Yoder’s Restaurant. It’s an eclectic collection of patrons — overall-clad construction workers in yellow hardhats, college students in university sweatshirts and flip-flops and an Amish family from Wisconsin, easily recognizable in their bonnets, beards and plain dress. 

In other Florida resort towns, the Amish family might seem out of place. But not in Pinecraft, a small enclave on the eastern, inland edge of bustling, tourist-friendly Sarasota. The little town is an Amish tourism resort attracting thousands from the cold North and Midwest desperate for a bit of warm winter sunshine.

No one knows exactly how many Amish arrive each year. But 3,000 is a number people in Pinecraft bandy about, though that does not count those staying on nearby Siesta Key. The Pinecraft Neighborhood Association says there are perhaps 500 habitable dwellings in and around the village. Most Pinecraft Amish visitors go for just a few weeks at a time before heading back, and most stagger their trips between Christmas and Easter. There are a few — perhaps several dozen Amish — who spend the whole year in Pinecraft.

“It’s like a ghost town during the summer here, but around the end of August, beginning of September, people start coming down and checking on their houses. Then they go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas and then come down to stay for the winter. They leave right before Easter,” said Kathryn Graber, owner of the the Village Cupboard, a “bent and dent” used-goods store on the edge of the village. Graber counted 11 buses, each hauling about 50 people, arriving the Saturday after Christmas. The largest company into Pinecraft is Pioneer Trails.

The buses are usually greeted by family members, friends or just curious tourists watching the squinting, plainly dressed Amish disembark, some of them stepping into the Florida sun for the first time. Bus arrivals brings a buzz to the village. Many of the passengers are tired from the journey — almost 24 hours from Ohio’s Amish country — but the mood is still ebullient. One Pinecraft resident recalls an Amish woman getting off the bus with enough ground cherries, corn and cheese (all Northern specialties) to last the winter. The arriving Amish step into a world very different from the one they left.

Gone are the hills and horse-drawn buggies back home. Instead there are trees drooping with colorful grapefruit, towering palms, tropical flowers and that Florida sun.

Pinecraft was once virtually a secret, a sleepy corner of Sarasota that most outsiders didn’t know existed. The first Amish, lured by the promise of lucrative celery farming, arrived in the 1920s. The farms never panned out, but the Amish arrivals loved the climate, and some decided to stay. The Pinecraft of today is surrounded by noisy Sarasota and has been featured in newspapers, blogs and most recently reality TV shows riding the wave of Amish interest. All this plus a growing Amish population has added a layer of limelight to which Pinecraft has been unaccustomed.

Iconic Yoder’s has been the go-to place for Amish to gather over plates of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and its famous peanut butter pie since 1975. There are other Amish-themed restaurants in Pinecraft, such as sprawling Troyer’s across the street. But Yoder’s still feels like the same family-run eatery it has always been, though it has grown from a small diner into a combination restaurant, gift shop, produce stand and deli. If Yoder’s is the gastronomic hub of Pinecraft, then Pinecraft Park is the outdoor mecca. Shuffleboard courts are packed, sidewalks are crammed with Amish socializing, and there are snaking lines for frosty treats at the Mennonite-owned Big Olaf’s Creamery. 

“We could have eight shuffleboard courts, but they are always full. We could double the number, and that still wouldn’t be enough,” said Todd Emrich, the general manager of Yoder’s and a past president of the Pinecraft Neighbor Association.

There’s little about Pinecraft that resembles the generally rule-ridden Amish communities up North, which likely adds to the appeal for many.

“Pinecraft is a true melting pot. Different Amish sects who cannot agree on religious fine points up North all meet in Florida and worship together. And the religious differences don't seem to matter here,” said Ella Miller Toy, owner of Alma’s Quilt Shop in the heart of Pinecraft. (She is a Mennonite from Ohio.)

One can walk into Alma’s and usually find a few Amish or Mennonite women sitting around a quilting frame, practicing their age-old craft. It’s one of the few — if not the only — places a person can just walk in and see quilting in action.

Amish children in the sand at Siesta Key, Florida.

There are other aspects of Amish life in Pinecraft that are different from traditional Amish settlements besides the papering over of theological rifts that divide churches. Instead of riding horse-drawn buggies, Amish visitors rent three-wheeled adult tricycles to pedal around town. 

Pinecraft is a mishmash of shotgun homes and cottages, many of which date from the 1940s. The smallest house in town is a 9 by 12 bungalow. The tiny dwellings are often a far cry from the sprawling farms most Amish inhabit up North. But close quarters are a nice tradeoff for the weather. With Pinecraft homes so minuscule, the custom of home worship is nonexistent. This is one of only a handful of places in the country where the Amish worship in a church building, constructed to accommodate throngs of winter worshippers.

And most Amish in Pinecraft have electricity and phones in their dwellings — something that would be anathema up North. There are no cows needing an early morning milking and no eggs to collect from the henhouse in knife-sharp January winds. 

Then there’s the beach. Many Amish snowbirds are tempted by the waters of the nearby Gulf of Mexico. There is a bus line that goes directly from the Amish church to nearby Siesta Key. Elderly Amish wade into the water in their conservative attire, while Amish teenagers often leave their plain clothing behind. Boys often wear swim trunks, and some Amish girls can be especially daring in two-piece swimsuits.

“More and more, they are staying on Siesta Key. Rent in Pinecraft has increased to the point where it is as economical to rent on Siesta Key as it is in Pinecraft, and the beach is right there,” said Graber.

In that sense, the issues facing Pinecraft’s Amish settlement are similar to ones plaguing the most densely populated ones up North. The population is increasing rapidly, but the amount of available real estate stays the same. This drives up housing costs and in places like Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, prices out some people. A similar dynamic is at work in Florida. Many stay in family homes, passed down through generations, so properties up for sale are rare.

Tourism from non-Amish has risen as well, increasing competition for limited space.

‘Different Amish sects who cannot agree on religious fine points up North all meet in Florida and worship together. And the religious differences don’t seem to matter here.’

Ella Miller Toy

owner, Alma’s Quilt Shop

Pinecraft used to feature more businesses that the Amish patronized — fabric stores, cabinet shops and the like. Now that is changing. “The businesses that have been opening up recently are more tourist-friendly, replacing the small shops that the Amish used to depend on. So hopefully Sarasota will make preserving Pinecraft a priority. Otherwise, I could see it turning into a tourist trap, and that would not be good,” said Graber, who added that she remembers when the village was a sleepy place.

Emrich doesn’t think Pinecraft will grow entirely away from its past. “Because of zoning, it would be impossible for this to become a very touristy place. Growth is so controlled here," he said. 

Pinecraft is where Amish let their hair down and escape some of their most restrictive rules. It’s this laid-back atmosphere that has made Pinecraft an attractive roving ground for reality TV shows. Some episodes of National Geographic’s “Amish: Out of Order” were filmed there, along with the much more odious “Breaking Amish” Season 2.

Among the Amish, Pinecraft has its share of detractors, who view wintering in the village, amid electricity and conveniences, with suspicion. The enclave usually attracts more open-minded Amish, with the most traditional ones a rarity under the palm fronds.

Ada Miller, an Amish woman in a conservative Wayne County, Indiana, settlement, scoffed when asked if she has ever been to Pinecraft, saying it was only for the youth and the elderly.

“That place is for the newlywed and half dead,” she said with a sigh.

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