By Bruce Stambaugh
The anticipation was almost tense, the excitement palpable, and the energy contagious.
The crowd gathered early, as if waiting to get into a sporting event. People milled around, talking with their inside voices though they were bathed in bright, Florida sunshine while standing in a church parking lot. But they weren’t going to a worship service.
Welcome to the bus arrivals from Amish country north to temporary Amish country south, also known as Pinecraft, an unincorporated section of Sarasota, Florida. Three times a week in February and March, the snowbirds cram the little parking lot where the buses unload.
By the time the bus pulled in, the attendance had swollen to nearly a 100. The crowd plus the cars, vans, pickups and two-wheeled and three-wheeled bicycles barely left enough room for the bus. In fact, the self-appointed welcoming committee spilled over into the narrow alley, making any passage by motorized vehicle impossible.
The atmosphere was part family reunion, part auction crowd. Some came to meet and greet. Most were there to watch. Men with white beards and denim pants with suspenders and women in pastel dresses and lacy white coverings predominated the scene. A few children in straw hats and long, plain dresses held tight to a parent’s hand. This entertainment was too lame for teenagers. Many of them were already at the beach.
The bus did pull in right on time opposite the tiny, stuccoed Pinecraft post office, and the anticipation grew as the assembled crowd waited for the bus’ door to open. It was as if Elvis himself would bebop his way down the bus’ steps.
Though all the cargo was precious, no one of that fame was expected to be aboard. Rather the murmured questions were simple. Who was on the bus that I know? How long will they stay? And where?
Appropriately enough, the bus had to turn off of Miller Ave. to enter the lot. A number of Millers were among those who waited. An unknown number of Millers were on the bus.
When the bus door did open, the answers appeared as the passengers made their exit one-by-one. With waves and smiles, friends and relatives welcomed the new arrivals to their transient winter home. The passengers returned the favor as they exited carefully down the deep steps.
Some in the crowd were drawn more by curiosity than the need to help carry luggage. They just wanted to see who was on the bus. Would there be people they might know aboard? What news from home would they bring?
In this particular case, “home” is most generally Amish country. Amish and Mennonites flock to this resort home away from home to escape winter’s chilly edge in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states, too.
Many of the Indiana and Ohio snowbirds travel Pioneer Trails buses to the Sunshine state. It’s their most economical, and in many cases, only choice. Their faith does not allow them to fly or drive, so they take the bus.
David Swartzentruber, owner of the Millersburg-based bus business, said Pioneer Trials has been fulfilling the transportation need for these individuals for 26 years. During the two peak months, buses arrive Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Passengers on Pioneer Trials are primarily from the Amish populations in northern Indiana and in Holmes, Tuscarawas and Wayne counties. Buses pick up passengers and their luggage at various locations around each geographic area. Most often, buses from Indiana and Ohio meet up near Cincinnati, combine their loads and continue south. The northbound bus from Pinecraft and the southbound usually connect near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The drivers switch buses and the trips north and south continue.
Swartzentruber said other bus companies also transport people to Pinecraft, especially from Pennsylvania, where Pioneer Trails does not have a route. He said the other bus companies do not travel as frequently as does Pioneer Trails.
As expected, most passengers were Amish, and most in their retirement years. However, some young families, with two or three young children, and a few teenagers seeking fun in the sun exited the bus.
Some in the crowd, like Christ Miller from Millersburg, were surprised to see their neighbors arrive. They knew they were coming south. They just didn’t know when. In this case, Miller welcomed his neighbors Jr. and Fannie Burkholder.
Like the onlookers, the stays of the new arrivals range from one week to three months or more. No matter how short or long their time in Pinecraft, they will make the most of their stay visiting, eating out and enjoying the normally pleasant weather.
Once the last passenger had luggage in hand and connected with friends and relatives, the crowd thinned quickly. In 15 minutes, the excitement was over at least until the next scheduled bus due in from the north. When it arrives, the gregarious process will begin all over again.