A smorgasbord of to-dos in Pennsylvania

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Victor Block

My recent visit to the Hershey-Harrisburg area of Pennsylvania revealed a destination of pleasant surprises.

If you think of Hershey primarily as a mecca of chocolate, that’s only part of the story. The nearby Amish community offers a fascinating opportunity to experience a different culture. 

And Harrisburg is home to a world-class Civil War museum equal to anything the South has to offer, plus a number of other intriguing attractions.

 My wife Fyllis and I arranged our trip to the area as a three-generation family gathering. Not surprisingly, upon entering the sprawling Hershey complex, our grandchildren thought they had been transported to heaven.

At Hersheypark, they couldn’t run fast enough from ride to ride, clambering aboard as many as they could, including several of the 11 roller coasters.

More than chocolate

Other attractions in the park had more appeal to us. The Hershey Story is told in a museum packed with displays, many of them interactive, that were more interesting than I had anticipated. Fyllis was intrigued by a touch-screen that allowed her to design a candy bar wrapper and e-mail it to herself (to what end I had no idea).

I preferred following the story of how Milton Hershey, after several failed attempts to found a candy company, struck pay dirt — or, rather, chocolate — when he began coating caramels with the sweet substance in 1894. Turning out milk chocolate in bars, wafers and other shapes, and devising innovative mass production techniques to lower the cost, his company transformed what had been a luxury item for the wealthy into a treat that was affordable to all.

Every family member enjoyed the “challenge” of tasting five mini-bars with the goal of distinguishing a wine-like list of textures (from smooth to granular), scents (including woodsy and fruity) and tastes (citrus, coffee, nutty). The hardest part was fighting temptation and allowing the chocolate to melt on our tongue, as we had been instructed.

But it was an hour-long sightseeing trolley ride around the campus and little town that left the most lasting impression. Our grandchildren were delighted by the Hershey Kiss lights that line some streets, and even more so by on-board tastings of four more samples.

Their parents and grandparents paid close attention as our guide described the establishment and history of the school that continues to carry Hershey’s name.

Beginning with four orphans, whom Milton and his wife Catherine took into their home, that institution has expanded to provide free pre-kindergarten through high school education, and much more, to about 1,800 underprivileged children. Graduates who go on to college receive generous scholarship support.

Among the Amish

Introductions to a very different lifestyle await those who visit the Amish area a short drive from Hershey. About 30,000 residents make this the second largest Amish community in the country, after one in Ohio. 

Amish immigrants began arriving in Pennsylvania during the late 17th century, seeking and finding religious tolerance. They evolved into a thriving part of the local society, merging comfortably into it while maintaining their customs and culture, with its focus on religion and family.

Among practices to which they continue to cling are using a horse and buggy rather than cars for transportation, eschewing electricity in their home, and adhering to a dress code that dictates modesty and solid colors for women and girls, and dark clothing and a black or straw hat for men and boys.

It’s not difficult to identify houses occupied by Amish families, because of the absence of electric wires leading to them, wash hanging outside to dry, and traditional green shades covering the windows.

Our introduction to the Amish way of life included an outstanding multi-media presentation called “Jacob’s Choice.” It depicts the difficult decision faced by some teenagers about whether to remain in the fold or venture into the outside world and, in effect, turn their back on their strict upbringing.

We also explored a typical Amish home, where guides provided interesting additional tidbits about day-to-day living.

Even more close up and personal was our conversation with a young, bearded Amish man named Joe, who was our driver and guide during a jaunt with Abe’s Buggy Rides.

He patiently answered the questions we fired at him about everything from why cars are forbidden (Joe explained that they can carry Amish people too far from their family and community), to the reason that education is compulsory only through the eighth grade. (Joe replied, “That’s sufficient for our way of life,” which centers on farming and cottage industries.)

Civil War stories

The peaceful life of the Amish contrasts starkly with the bloody story of the Civil War that is dramatically portrayed at one of the largest and best collections in the world devoted to that conflict.

A visit to the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg is especially timely, during this year’s 150th anniversary of the start of the fighting.

Information-packed videos and realistic life-size dioramas that tell the story of the war are reason enough to plan a visit. Even more telling to me were letters from individual soldiers and similar artifacts that put a human face on the Civil War and its terrible consequences.

Also tragically moving are displays of shackles, metal collars and other implements that were used to subjugate slaves. Not far away stands a realistic depiction of a slave auction, with the words of the auctioneer describing men and women as so much property interspersed with other voices denouncing the institution of slavery as immoral.

Antique car museum

A varied list of other sightseeing options also awaits visitors to the Harrisburg-Hershey area. The Antique Automobile Club of America Museum is a car-lovers fantasyland, offering a trip back through time for anyone who qualifies for a discounted senior’s ticket.

It’s packed with beautifully restored vintage cars dating back to the 19th century, plus buses, motorcycles and motorbikes, some of which were manufactured when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. 

While a re-created 1900s auto machine shop may not look familiar, visitors may identify with a 1940s gas station as well as an authentic Valentine diner, of the type that were manufactured beginning in the 1930s.

My favorites included a shiny 1895 Benton Harbor car which had a top speed of 23 miles per hour, and a spiffy 1902 Oldsmobile, packing 4.5 horsepower, that was guided by a steering stick instead of a wheel.

I also learned, and laughed, while watching a movie narrated by Groucho Marx about automobiles and their impact on the country. It skillfully combines history and humor.

If you’re lucky when you visit the compact museum on the Pennsylvania State Police Academy grounds, you may be able to watch cadets practicing at the firing range or learning crowd control techniques on horseback.

Facilities include a large swimming pool that’s used for life-saving training, and a building on the campus that houses everything from helicopters to drug-sniffing dogs.

Amateur sleuths can check their prowess at solving a murder case, using hairs left on the victim’s clothing and other evidence to decide which of three suspects is guilty of the crime.

A very different scene is a portrayal of a cell that Al Capone inhabited for a year after being convicted of a minor crime. After he bribed prison officials, his temporary jail home was furnished with precious antiques, oriental rugs and oil paintings.

While lacking such man-made luxuries, Indian Echo Caverns is an underground Never Never Land of color, shapes and interesting history. At one time, Native American settlements were located along what now is called Swatara Creek, which runs by the caverns.

The series of caves is estimated to be 3 million years old, and is one of many such complexes carved out of limestone beneath the rolling Pennsylvania countryside.

Near the entrance, the names of several early visitors are carved into the stone. Farther along, guides lead tour groups into the Blue Room, so named for the hue of its walls, and the Rainbow Room, colored by areas of blue, green, purple and tan.

It takes sharp eyes and only a little imagination to identify a lion’s head, dragon, owl and other familiar shapes pointed out by the guide.

The subterranean exploration, combined with a variety of attractions above ground, combine to make a trip to nearby Pennsylvania both fascinating and fun.

If you go 

After searching for a hotel conveniently located to the things we wanted to see and do, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Harrisburg East. It offers very large, well-furnished rooms at rates that usually begin at $119.

Amenities include both indoor and outdoor swimming pools and a restaurant that serves an excellent Sunday brunch that attracts many locals. For information or reservations, log onto hiharrisburg.com or call 1-800-637-4817.

Lunch at the Plain and Fancy Farm Restaurant enhanced our visit to the Amish area. Typical entrees include Pennsylvania Dutch pot pie ($9.95) and fried chicken ($10.95), both served with two sides. Be sure to save room for desserts like apple dumplings ($4.25), apple crumb pie ($4.50) or traditional shoe-fly pie ($3.50). For more information, call 1-800-669-3568 or log onto plainandfancyfarm.com.

The aptly named Fire House Restaurant, one of several dining establishments along North 2nd Street in Harrisburg, occupies the former home of the Harrisburg Hope Fire Company, which was built in 1871.

The theme is underscored by walls lined with fire station paraphernalia, and dishes like spiced Tuscan “firebread” served with garlic dipping sauce ($6), FireHouse hamburger ($8), and FireHouse pasta with chicken and shrimp ($16). If you’re in the mood to splurge, Hook & Ladder shrimp skewers and a half-rack of ribs, plus two sides, costs $25. For more information, call (717) 234-6064 or log onto www.thefirehouserestaurant.com.

General information about visiting the Harrisburg-Hersey area is available at its website, www.visithersheyharrisburg.org, or by calling 1-877-727-8573.