Our Town’s History
The story of Bird-in-Hand began long before the Bird-in-Hand Village Inn was built in 1734. The area’s first inhabitants were Native Americans—Shawnee and Conestoga tribes, to be specific. Their legacy of arrowheads and tomahawk heads have been unearthed by local farmers.
European immigrants were led to Penn’s Woods (Penn-Sylvan) by William Penn, an English Quaker, in 1682. He called his colony a “Holy Experiment,” offering his fellow travelers—many persecuted in their European homelands—a refuge to worship here as they chose. Swiss Mennonites were the first to permanently settle in Lancaster County in 1710. James Smith was the first Quaker to arrive in 1715.top
The Bird-in-Hand Name
The history of the Village of Bird-in-Hand is as colorful as its name. Local legend traces its distinctive name to the old inn and Conestoga wagon stop, now the restored and preserved Bird-in-Hand Village Inn & Suites.
As settlers continued to move inland, commerce expanded. Surveyors were dispatched from Philadelphia to lay out a “King’s Highway,” a direct route to connect Lancaster with the Colonial port city of Philadelphia. It’s told that two such surveyors found themselves near day’s end outside a rest stop owned by William and Dorothy McNabb, whose 200 acres of land encompassed the bulk of what is now Bird-in-Hand. Discussing whether to stay there or go into Lancaster to spend the night, one surveyor suggested that “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. And so they remained, and the inn where they stayed soon became known as “The Bird-in-Hand” with the inn’s sign depicting a man with a bird in his hand and two birds perched in a bush nearby.top
Native American and Immigrant Accord
A relatively friendly relationship existed between the Native Americans and early settlers, with both Quakers (“Friends”) and Mennonites sharing the same pacifist beliefs. The Shawnee and Conestoga taught them how to survive on the frontier, prepare corn as food and use medicinal herbs. An April 19, 1741 record in Philadelphia shared this story. “We hear from Lancaster County that the great snow, which in general was more than three feet deep, caused the back inhabitants to suffer much for the want of bread, and that many families of the new settlers had little else to subsist upon but the carcasses of deer they found dead or dying in the swamps or urns about their houses. The Indians fear a scarcity of deer and turkey.”
This stress between the two cultures only exacerbated. The immigrant settlement grew, and hunting grounds became scarcer. Early accounts told that many Native Americans in the Bird-in-Hand area were forced to make brooms and willow baskets for barter for food and whiskey or move west to more open space.top
The Friends of Bird-in-Hand
There were many Quakers living in the Bird-in-Hand area in provincial days. In 1749 they relocated their nearby Leacock log meetinghouse to land then owned by William McNabb’s son John and re-erected it along the Old Philadelphia Pike with a new graveyard. They upgraded to a brick meetinghouse in 1790, replacing it in 1888 after a fire with the building that still stands. They later constructed a two-story academy adjacent to the meetinghouse. This meetinghouse was the site of monthly meetings from 1749 to 1854, when it lost its circuit status and became the site for only “particular” meetings.top
The Pennsylvania Deutsch (“Dutch”)
English Quakers and Swiss Mennonites were Bird-in-Hand’s early settlers, but over the years it was the Germans who “made the greatest lasting impact.” The first German immigrants actually belonged to several denominations: German Lutheran, German Reformed, German Baptist and Amish. They were also strongly influenced by the Wesleyan (Methodist) movement in the late 1700’s.
The Pennsylvania Dutch came from southern Germany and Switzerland but were called “Dutch” with the anglicizing of “Deutsch,” the German word for German. They arrived in the port of Philadelphia in 1737. These were the Garbers, the Schantzs (Johns), Holles, Erbs and Kurtzes. About a decade later they were joined by the “Old Conestoga” settlement: the Rupps, Hoffers, Meyers, Schenks and Schmuckers. By the end of the 18th century many Amish families joined other German-speaking denominations in the area. At the start of the 19th century Bishop Christian Stoltzfus came to the area with a message of strong church doctrine and discipline and—along with members of the King, Beiler, Fisher and Lapp families—laid the cohesive groundwork for today’s Amish community.top
The Underground Railroad
The “train” ran through Bird-in-Hand as early as the late 1700’s. Its first “conductor” was James Gibbons, a Quaker who founded the oldest operating commercial mill on the west side of Bird-in-Hand in 1770. His son Daniel and his wife Hannah Wierman Gibbons carried on the family’s antislavery efforts on their Beechdale Farm. Quaker activists, the Gibbons operated the primary Underground Railroad “station” for slaves escaping from the South out of a brick house—since demolished— they built near Mill Creek in 1815.
It is said that Daniel and Hannah Gibbons and their son, Dr. Joseph Gibbons, helped about 1,000 slaves. “A single tap on the window at night indicated to everyone in the family that a fugitive was there. The escapees were taken to the barn and in the morning brought to the house separately,” where each was given a new identity.
Many others in the Bird-in-Hand community, including its Mennonite and Amish members, played a role in the Underground Railroad. It’s told that 100 slaves came into the area during the Battle of Gettysburg and found refuge on the Amish farms of Jacob Stoltzfus and Samuel Beiler. Amish deacon Christian Beiler also boarded slaves in a room under his barn, and Christian Frantz, an area Mennonite, was known to have played an important role in the Underground Railroad.top
The year 1834 marked the beginning of construction of the 86-mile Pennsylvania Railroad line between Philadelphia and the borough of Columbia, along the Susquehanna River. Bird-in-Hand, then boasting tanneries, feed mills, coal and lumberyards, was the most important stop on the Coatesville to Lancaster section. “Different contractors each built two miles of track. The first track had no wooden ties, but rather huge stone blocks were laid about 20 feet apart, and a wooden beam was laid between them. A piece of light iron track was then spiked to the beam. One could take a stagecoach, change the wheels, and put it on the tracks and pick up passengers.” Horses were used to pull the cars. In 1836 a second track was laid, and locomotives began pulling the cars. Horses were banned 10 years later.
During the 19th century, the railroad freight station in Bird-in-Hand became the largest in this section of Lancaster County. The building is “the finest Victorian warehouse type building in East Lampeter Township.” In the early 1900’s everything from flowers to live ducks were shipped to large cities by the railroad. As late as the 1950’s, passing trains caught mail hung from a long arm alongside the track.top
A Patchwork of Industry
Over the years Bird-in-Hand has been home to such commerce as the manufacture of archery targets, potato chips, dried corn, ceramics, wagons and carriages, even a Christmas tree plantation. Oram David Brubaker and his wife Marianna went to California in 1903, bought 35 white Peking ducks, and operated the Brubaker Duck Farm until 1961. Feathers were sold to the New York hotels for pillow stuffers. The farm in the 1930’s was something of a tourist attraction, as “people drove to the farm from all over to see the great white ocean of quacking birds.”top
Entering the National Stage
As early as 1938, Bird-in-Hand and the Smucker Family came into the spotlight when National Geographic Magazine introduced its readers to a young mother, Anna Smucker—known today as Grandma Smucker—in her Pennsylvania Dutch kitchen. Bird-in-Hand hit the big stage when the musical “Plain & Fancy” opened on Broadway in 1956. The musical was credited with helping to start the early boom in tourism in Lancaster County.
In the village itself, the Smucker family opened a 30-room motel and coffee shop in 1968 to serve visitors to the area. Its Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant has since expanded three times, now seating 300 diners and 150 banquet group members. Likewise, their Bird-in-Hand Family Inn grew three times, today featuring 125 rooms, an outdoor pool, two indoor pools and a hot tub, lighted tennis and basketball courts, a petting zoo and walking paths.
In 1958, Abram Keener acquired the old hardware store and barn to retain its authentic atmosphere and transform the barn into the Old Village Store. In 1997, George Desmond and his wife Pat Keener Desmond opened the Americana Museum to shed light on life around the turn of the century, as you literally walk down a village street lined with re-created shops of the period. Across the street Christ and Dolly Lapp opened a farmers market of local foods and produce in 1976 along the Old Philadelphia Pike.
Today, with a population of only 300, the village of Bird-in-Hand on any given day welcomes more visitors than inhabitants. Its Colonial highway, now the Old Philadelphia Pike (Route 340), has been designated by AAA as a cultural scenic byway. And its legendary Bird-in-Hand Village Inn, has earned recognition on the National Register of Historic Places. Yet true to its roots, Bird-in-Hand remains a refuge and rest stop for travelers on the road of life.top
Sources: Bird-in-Hand 1734-1984, a commemorative book celebrating the Village’s 250th Anniversary; Amish Country News, Brad Igou, editor