Of the many unique village names that dot the Amish Country map, one of the more interesting is 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. When Bird-in-Hand celebrated its 250th Anniversary (1734 – 1984), a commemorative booklet was put together. It outlined a brief history of the town…
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William Penn, an English Quaker, had founded the colony of Penn’s Woods (Pennsylvania), and settlers began arriving from Europe in the early 1700s, moving westward from the port city of Philadelphia. English Quakers and Swiss Mennonites were the early settlers. The Quakers built a meetinghouse and two-story academy, which stands today, next to the fire company. But over the years, the Germans “made the greatest lasting impact.”
A friendly relationship existed between the early settlers and the Shawnee and Conestoga Indians, who were, of course, the area’s first inhabitants. They taught settlers 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.
“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, identified with signs held by an iron pole or attached to the side of the building.
The reason for these signs was twofold. First, they could be understood by all nationalities. Secondly, many teamsters or wagoneers were poorly educated and could not read. If they were given orders to stop at a certain inn, they could do so by recognizing the artwork on the signboard.
The old legend of the naming of Bird-in-Hand concerns the time when this pike was being laid out. 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. 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 original hotel was destroyed by fire about 1851. By the following year, a three-story hotel was built to replace it. More recently, it was known as Bitzer’s Hotel before becoming the present Village Inn of Bird-in-Hand, now on the National Register of Historic Places. The Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County noted that it “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.”
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, now known as Nolt’s Mill. The datestone in the wall has the misspelled word “biult,” perhaps an error made by a local German.
Gibbons is an important name 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 the 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. Horses were used to pull the cars. In 1836 a second track was laid and locomotives began pulling the cars.
Well into the 1900s, everything from flowers to live ducks was shipped from the village to large cities by the railroad. As late as the 1950s, mail was “hung from a long arm and caught by a moving train.”
Even with a bridge over the tracks, there were fatalities and 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 other interesting businesses around the village over the years have included a Christmas tree plantation, archery targets, potato chips, dried corn, ceramics, wagons, carriages, and raising ducks.
The town post office was established in 1836 as the Enterprise Post Office. “Enterprise” was then the official name of the town, until the final change back 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 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.
The town of Bird-in-Hand remained relatively unknown until a musical called PLAIN & FANCY opened in New York. The show Playbill noted that “The action takes place in and around Bird-in-Hand, a town in the Amish country of Pennsylvania.” The cast was brought to Bird-in-Hand on January 17, 1955, prior to the official opening.
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.”