Sarasota can instantly conjure images when mentioned. Pristine beaches, wealth, the circus and a vibrant arts scene will immediately come to mind for most, and those images would be correct.
But Sarasota means a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s also home to thriving Mennonite and Amish communities, two cultures that are typically associated with farming and minimalism, not the decadent lifestyle that also come to mind when Sarasota is mentioned.
The buggy pictured above was once the only one in
town. It is currently located outside Yoder's
I was driving by Bayfront Park and Marina the other day when I saw a group of people clad in farm clothing admiring the art sculptures along Sarasota Bay. The juxtaposition was a little jarring; after all, you don’t expect to see women in calf-length dresses, aprons and bonnets and men with suspenders and wide-brim hats admiring modern art. But that’s why I like Sarasota; the diversified culture is part of its charm.
The group inspired me to visit one of the renowned restaurants known for county style cooking, Yoder’s. It was not what I had expected. The grounds of the restaurant are set up like a mini-theme park, decorated with cutouts of Amish people, horses and buggies so residents can get their picture taken among with them.
There is a market, gift shop and restaurant on the property. For those who are too busy to eat in, you can also order takeout without ever going inside. Two service windows cater to on-the-go patrons, but the facility is is kind of like a cattle call; you wait in line, tell the woman in the bonnet what you want, and then you leave. (There is an outdoor dining area if you want to eat there).
It’s hard to believe the thriving Yoders, which began as an Eat’N House for a tourist camp in the early 1900s has gained such popularity.
Two Amish women enjoy the beach.
Photo courtesy of Amish America
The Amish community of Pinecraft even has its own
post office. Photo courtesy Amish America.
Starting in the early 1920s, Mennonites and Amish visitors flocked to Florida, and Sarasota, for the chance to do something their Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania counterparts had no shot at doing: farming year round.
Known as the "plain people," they settled in what would eventually be known as the Pinecraft community, which started as a vacation destination, called the Sarasota Tourist Camp, for Amish and Mennonite (who knew the Amish took vacations).
The community welcomed hundreds of Amish and Mennonite believers each year, and soon the visitors began leaning on their midwest-based lifestyle and started growing fruits and vegetables along Philippi Creek.
Soon, many families realized the benefits of a Florida-based lifestyle. Roots began to take hold, and soon the communities and families, which would eventually include the now famous Yoder family name, began to focus on their faith, belief, and lifestyle in a sub-tropical climate.
A small business district gradually emerged on Bahia Vista. The Pinecraft Eat’N House, Pinecraft Hardware, Pinecraft IGA Grocery and the Pinecraft branch of the U.S. Post Office were operated by and served the seasonal and year-round residents of the area.
The Mennonite Tourist Church, which was once a bakery located on Bahia Vista Avenue, was purchased by the Mennonites in 1946 and had its first Sunday service featuring more than 500 people, a true sign of the growing Mennonite and Amish population.
Pinecraft IGA Grocery store was one of the first
business established within the community.
Photo courtesy Sarasota History Alive.
Other churches, including those that focused primarily on the Amish faith, like the Pinecraft Amish Church, which still sits on Hines Street in Sarasota, would be formed and each of these unique creeds would have their houses of worship in place for generations to come.
Over the years, the Amish and Mennonite communities have adapted to the area, transitioning from agriculture into a service-related industry in order to keep up with Sarasota’s tourism driven economy.
And yet, they still have remained true to the roots. Patrons can still get a nostalgic feel for the farm when they eat a hearty, homemade meal at the restaurant or purchase locally grown vegetables in the market.
These days, the sight of Mennonite and Amish families riding their bikes down Tuttle Avenue, as Ferraris and other high end cars roll past, is a daily occurrence.
Somehow, someway, the Mennonite and Amish communities have managed to thrive, and remain true to their beliefs and roots, in a place that is changing around them daily. These communities are a true rarity, not only in Florida, but also in any place where these age-old beliefs come right up against modern society.