Pennsylvania 16th District
The Pennsylvania Dutch Country, settled by Germans in the 18th century when it was Pennsylvania’s frontier, remains a distinctive part of America. These Germans were Amish and Mennonite, pietistic sects seeking religious liberty and determined to farm rich lands in the same intensive way they had in Germany. Today, many of their descendants—the Eisenhower family is the most famous example—have blended into mainstream America. But in the Dutch area around Lancaster, many “Plain People” still live in the old way, though today they are willing to use some modern devices, such as battery-powered electricity. Though larger communities exist in Ohio and Indiana, tourists can still see families of Plain People clad in black, clattering over the back roads in horse-drawn carriages, with scrupulously tended farms set amid rolling hills and barns decorated with hex signs. The scene was captured memorably in the 1983 film Witness. Beneath the surface, Amish communities are facing the strains of modernity. In recent years, Amish teens have attracted public attention for using drugs and alcohol while participating in the “rumschpringes,” a period when adolescents are freed from their community’s rigid rules and mores, before being given the choice of returning to the fold as an adult.
2008 Presidential Vote
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Modern-style crime also interrupts their peaceful lifestyle from time to time. In October 2006, five girls were killed and five others seriously wounded by a gunman at their one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines. The local Amish community quickly demolished the building and erected a new one six months later. The community remains robust, and tourism, much of it linked to interest in the Amish, brings in more than 5 million people annually. Agriculture is the other pillar of the local economy. Farmers here produce some of the highest per-acre yields on earth. Within an easy drive from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, the area has also become home to outlet malls, a fitting development given that the first Woolworth’s five-and-dime store opened in Lancaster in 1879. Lancaster County and Chester County grew by double-digit rates in the 1990s—partly from religious families, partly from newcomers moving in—making this the heart of one of Pennsylvania’s fastest-growing regions, though the pace has slowed in recent years.
The 16th Congressional District of Pennsylvania includes all of Lancaster County, plus parts of southwestern Chester County that adjoin the Maryland and Delaware borders, as well as a small slice of Berks County that reaches to Reading. Outside the regional hub of Lancaster, the 16th is mostly small-town territory, with numerous quaint and quirkily named villages, such as Bird-in-Hand, Blue Ball and Intercourse (the first two named for the posted logos of old pubs, the third for reasons that are obscure, but almost certainly not sexual in nature). Closer to Philadelphia, the district takes in suburbs, including West Chester and Kennett Square. During the 1990s, Reading and Berks County attracted a large number of Hispanics in search of jobs. The district is now the third-most Hispanic in the state, at 10%. Still, this remains a Republican district. In 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain won it 51%-48%. He lost in Chester and Berks, and led 55%-44% in Lancaster, which cast 73% of the votes.