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A History of Bird-in-Hand

The story of the town of Bird-in-Hand is as colorful as the name itself. To be correct, the town is really a village, since it has no governing body. Local legend confirms that the distinctive name comes from an old inn and stagecoach stop in the village. When Bird-in-Hand celebrated its 250th Anniversary (1734 – 1984), a commemorative booklet was put together. It outlined a brief history of the town…

The area’s first inhabitants were, of course, the Native American Indians, in this case the Shawnees and the Conestogas. Indeed, local farmers have unearthed tomahawks and arrowheads.

William Penn, an English Quaker, had founded the colony of Penn’s Woods (Pennsylvania), and settlers began arriving from Europe in the early 1700’s, moving westward from the port city of Philadelphia. James Smith was the first of the Quakers known to have settled in the area, arriving by the year 1715. Settlers acquired land through Penn’s land agents. For example, William and Dorothy McNabb were pioneer landowners and the founders of the Bird-in-Hand Hotel.

A friendly relationship existed between the Indians and the early settlers, such as the Quakers and Mennonites with their pacifist beliefs. The Indians taught them how to deaden trees, use deerskin, prepare corn as food, and use medicinal herbs. But as the white settlement grew, there was less hunting available, and many Indians became peddlers or beggars.

English Quakers and Swiss Mennonites were the early settlers, but over the years, the Germans "made the greatest lasting impact." The Quakers built a meetinghouse and two-story academy, which stands today, next to the fire company.

"When the Old Philadelphia Pike became a well-established route of transportation for those traveling west to the Alleghenies, Lancaster became known as the ‘gateway to the west.’ " The trip by stagecoach for passengers, or Conestoga wagon with freight and merchandise, lasted several days. Inns were built every few miles, each with a sign with an interesting design to identify the tavern. These pictorial signs "could be understood by all nationalities (mainly Germans and English), and many of the teamsters or wagoneers were poorly educated and could not read." These inn signs often gave the towns that grew up around them their names, such as Cross Keys (now Intercourse), Blue Ball, and White Horse.

The old legend of the naming of Bird-in-Hand concerns the time when the Old Philadelphia Pike was being laid out between Lancaster and Philadelphia. Legend says that two road surveyors were discussing whether they should stay at their present location or go to the town of Lancaster to spend the night. One of them said, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," and so they remained. By 1734, road surveyors were making McNabb’s hotel their headquarters rather than returning to Lancaster every day. The sign in front of the inn is known to have once "portrayed a man with a bird in his hand and a bush nearby, in which two birds were perched," and soon was known as the Bird-in-Hand Inn. "The last hand-painted sign featuring the bird in hand was done by Benjamin Elmer Leaman and his artwork merely portrayed a bird in a hand." Variations of this sign appear throughout the town today. Some residents might say that the bird nestled in the human hand indicates friendship, comfort, and hospitality.

In 1755, William’s only son John sold the McNabb Bird-in-Hand Inn to another innkeeper, Joseph Steer. The hotel was destroyed by fire about 1851. A three-story hotel was built to replace it by Benjamin Groff, then the owner, in 1852. It was auctioned off for $8,457 in 1853, and over the years has had several owners. In the early 1900’s, there were foxhunts from the hotel, as well as horse and cow sales.

Most recently, it was Bitzer’s Hotel before becoming the present "Village Inn of Bird-in-Hand," owned by the Bird-in-Hand Family Inn. The Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County said that the existing brick building "may be one of the few 19th century inns in the context of a small town in Lancaster County, which survives with a high degree of architectural integrity." It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Of course, with all the wagon traffic on the pike, other inns sprouted in the area, such as the Gillespie Hotel, Gibbons Inn, Red Lion Inn, and Vernor’s Inn. Milestones were placed along the road to help travelers with distances. Since Bird-in-Hand is 60 miles from Philadelphia and about 6 miles from Lancaster, the stone marker read "60 to P, 6 to L." It was chiseled deep into the stone, supposedly so that those traveling at night could feel the lettering and know their location, even without a light.

The Bird-in-Hand Mill, built by James Gibbons in 1770 at the west end of town, "is probably the oldest mill in Lancaster County that is still being used" commercially. The datestone in the wall has the misspelled word "biult," perhaps an error made by a local German.

Gibbons and Brubaker were important names in the town’s history. Quaker activists, the Gibbonses operated the primary Underground Railroad "station" for slaves escaping from the South. It is said that Hannah and Daniel 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.

The year 1834 marked the beginning of construction of the 86-mile Pennsylvania Railroad line between Philadelphia and Columbia. Bird-in-Hand, with its tanneries, feed mills, coal and lumberyards, was the most important stop on the Lancaster to Coatesville 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 ten years later.

The Railroad Hotel, built in 1835 at Beechdale Road, was one of the largest buildings in town, with 32 rooms to accommodate the workers constructing the Pennsylvania Railroad. (It was torn down in 1934.) It was the scene, in 1917, of a memorable incident. A man visited the tavern with his pet dancing bear. Both were served quite a bit of alcohol by the patrons. Eventually the bear got drunk and had to be locked in the basement!

"During the 19th century, the railroad freight station at 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, mail was "hung from a long arm and caught by a moving train."

Resident Reuben Myers told this story… "Trains often developed hot axles or wheels when they became defective or ran out of grease. When we saw a smoking axle, we stood along the tracks and held our noses. This was a signal to the engineer or brakeman to warn them of the problem."

While there is no passenger service today, "as late as 1975 the train would stop to let off the New York rabbi who killed the chickens at the Empire Kosher Poultry Company in Bird-in-Hand." An Amishman said that the train used to stop for him when he went to Lancaster to see baseball games. Even with a bridge over the tracks, there were fatalities and so an underpass was dug so that the main street would go under the train tracks. It opened in 1928. To this day, road traffic goes under the train tracks on Route 340.

Some of the interesting businesses around the village over the years have included archery targets, a Christmas tree plantation, potato chips, dried corn, ceramics, wagons and carriages. Oram David Brubaker and his wife Marianna went to California in 1903, bought 35 white Peking ducks, and the Brubaker Duck Farm began. It operated until 1961. Feathers were sold to the New York hotels for pillow stuffings. The dressed ducks were packed in ice and sent to large cities. By 1949, 120,000 ducks were produced, and in the final years 100,000 turkeys added. 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 quaking birds."

The town post office was established in 1836 as the Enterprise Post Office, as the town was then officially called, until the name change to Bird-in-Hand in 1873.

After a large fire in 1896, people discussed the need for a fire company. In the early days, hitting a circular saw alerted the men of a fire. The year 1916 saw the change from horse-drawn to motorized fire equipment. Today the Hand-in-Hand Fire Company remains a volunteer organization, famous for its delicious fund-raiser dinners.

Just east of town, the Kauffman family planted their first apple trees in 1911. Peach trees were later added. The Depression years were difficult, but today the orchards of Kauffman’s Fruit Farm are a thriving family business, with locals and visitors buying the fresh fruit and delicious apple cider.

The town of Bird-in-Hand remained relatively unknown until a musical called PLAIN & FANCY opened in New York. "Plain Betsy," a play by Marion Bucher Weaver of Columbia, inspired the Broadway musical. The cast was brought to Bird-in-Hand on January 17, 1955, prior to the official opening. The show Playbill noted that "The action takes place in and around Bird-in-Hand, a town in the Amish country of Pennsylvania." The musical opened with a large map of Lancaster County, pinpointing its unusual town names, like Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse. As the show begins, we meet two sophisticated New Yorkers who have come to Lancaster to sell a farm they have inherited. They are now lost, and in the big opening number ask the locals for directions --- "Where the heck is Bird-in-Hand?"

The musical was credited with helping to start the early boom in tourism to Lancaster County. Indeed, a few years later, the Plain & Fancy Restaurant opened just outside of town, and remains the oldest "family-style restaurant" in the area. It is also home to the Amish Experience Theater and Amish Country Tours. The Amish house there is open for tours as well.

In the village itself, the Smucker family opened a small motel and coffee shop in 1968, hoping that the growing tourism in the area would prove profitable. The larger restaurant opened in 1970. Today, the Bird-in-Hand Family Inn & Restaurant, with its new hotel addition, swimming pools, lake, and hiking trails, it is the premiere lodging and dining facility in the village. Don’t be surprised if you go to the restaurant for breakfast early one morning and find a group of Amish there celebrating a birthday!

In 1958, Abram Keener bought the old hardware store and barn from the Neuhauser family. Today, the hardware store retains its authentic atmosphere, while the barn has become the well-known "Old Village Store," a favorite of visitors. These shops are operated now by Pat (Keener’s daughter) and George Desmond. In 1997, the Desmonds opened the Americana Museum to give visitors an idea of what life was like around the turn of the century, as you literally walk down a village street lined with re-created shops of the period.

The idea of a Farmers Market began in 1975, when Christ and Dolly Lapp bought a parcel of land along Route 340 in Bird-in-Hand with the intention of bringing a new farmers market to the county. Lapp began building the Farmers Market, attached to the former Brubaker Duck Farm hatchery in 1975, and opened it to the public in the spring of 1976. Now it is a favorite stop for those seeking local foods and products.

Today, the town of Bird-in-Hand is still small, said to have a population of only about 300 people. On any given day, there may be more visitors than inhabitants. Many are city folks who have come to enjoy the country atmosphere, history, and shopping. It is said that visitors "can still expect friendly shopkeepers, homegrown Lancaster County foods, and restful lodging for weary travelers."

* * *

The "Untold Story" of a Bird in the Hand

While compiling information for the above history of the village of Bird-in-Hand, I began to wonder exactly where the expression "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" actually originated. I tried the internet, but found no explanations. One well-known site even said, "Source unknown." Of course, proverbs being what they are, I wasn’t expecting to find a name, only a good story. By pure chance, I stumbled upon a story in a magazine at an Amish friend’s house that offered an explanation. It was reprinted from a publication called "Golden Days" in 1881. This is the basic outline of the story….

We go back to England and the time of King Henry VIII. In his court, there was a celebrated jester named Will Somers. One day, Will went to visit his friend Lord Surrey. It seems that on more than one occasion, the jester had saved Surrey from the King’s displeasure by means of a "well-timed jest." And so, Lord Surrey usually warmly received jester Will when he came to visit.

On this visit, Lord Surrey was in his aviary. The jester was ushered in to enjoy the birds with Surrey. Jester Will noted his admiration for the plumage of a particular bird, a kingfisher. Surrey noted the jester’s interest and, perhaps impulsively, gave the bird as a present to Will. The jester skipped about with delight and was soon on his way with the gift, showing it off to his friends, and telling them it was a gift from Lord Surrey.

Soon after Will’s departure, a gentleman named Lord Northampton arrived at Lord Surrey’s, where he had been visiting the previous day. It seems he had now come to ask for the same bird as a gift for a lady friend. Surrey assured his distraught friend that he could get the kingfisher back from Will if he "promised him two another day."

So Lord Surrey sent a messenger off to find the jester and make him an offer of two birds if he returned the one he had. The message was delivered to Will, but this jester was no fool, even if the offer may have seemed tempting. Accordingly, Will told the messenger, "Sirrah, tell your master that I am obliged for his liberal offer of two for one, but that I prefer one bird in the hand to two in the bush."

And there you have it, until a better story comes along!

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