Slow Down. Relax. Breathe. You’re in Amish Country
I have had the privilege of meeting dozens, maybe even hundreds, of Amish craftsmen over the last decade or so. As the Amish population grows, farmland does not, and out of necessity, Amish people have forayed into various “cottage industries” that they can develop on a small homestead. What may have been borne out of necessity, has in some cases become a treasured pursuit.
Forest Hill Leather Craft September 2023 Ad
The Amish way of life requires leather goods, that we “English” don’t use anymore. You can’t just walk into a Walmart to buy these things, so where do the Amish go? You guessed it. Among the Amish, there are leather craftsmen who, for generations, have made the things that their community needs.
A trusted, valuable, local business with a strong work ethic, that continues to perfect a time-honored craft within the Amish community and culture for what may truly be generations.
However, at some Amish workshops, it isn’t all about harness and tack. Such is the case at Forest Hill Leather Craft. Unlike the lesser-quality strips of hide, bonded together with adhesives, or synthetic knockoffs, that you might find at big box stores. This is a full-service leather “cottage industry” that uses only the finest leather hides, real 100% pure leather of unmatched quality. Forest Hill Leather Craft offers an array of items, such as briefcases, business planners, women’s handbags & carryalls, coasters, unique gift items, and much more. The main thrust of the business may be belts in almost unlimited lengths, (in stock ranging from 22 inches to 58 inches), and of course, these leather belts come available in numerous styles and colors.
Resident craftsman Isaac Stoltzfus opened the doors of Forest Hill Leather Craft after gaining 14 years of experience working for others. This isn’t just a grumbling job for Ike and his family. No, this is obviously a passion project for them, as they create wonderfully unique pieces that last a lifetime. Just out of curiosity, I asked Ike, “Just how big a belt can you make for a custom order?” He said he’s made them up to at least 70 inches in length, but essentially, he can make a belt with almost limitless length. Forest Hill Leather Craft belts are guaranteed to “last your lifetime” so unlike cheaply mass-produced belts at impersonal big-box retailers (which are often just veneers glued together with very little actual leather involved), an expertly hand-crafted belt from Forest Hills Leather Craft will not need to be replaced every year or two. A cheap belt becomes a bit more expensive when you think how many times it will need to be replaced when compared to a lifelong purchase like a belt from Forest Hills.
The entire family is involved in one way or another, but Ike, patriarch, and founder of the business oversees all aspects of production. Assisted by his apprenticing sons, Isaac thoroughly enjoys his work and is very happy to share the finished products with the many people who come through his doors. No matter how young his family members are, all are involved in the business, with the tiniest tots able to at least sweep the floor of the shop. Truly, the epitome of a family business. The leather shop sits in a renovated half of the barn, so while you shop, you often hear the whinnying and nickering of the horses on the other side of the barn, or maybe the crow of a rooster just outside (on my most recent visit I saw the family had a sign proclaiming all-natural, free-range brown eggs for sale.) But the shop is clean, nicely appointed, and spacious, even sporting a mirror to see how the merchandise might look on you before buying.
In early August, Ike took a three-day trip with his family, which included a tour of the leather tannery in Curwensville Pennsylvania, and a two-day leather workers Auction & Expo in Ohio. This gave Ike the opportunity to meet with suppliers of leather, hardware, and machinery, as well as present his questions and concerns. Ike closed his business for three days to go see, touch, experience, and source the best leathers and supplies available. That’s Ike’s commitment to his craft and to the quality of the product he creates. And that’s the kind of work ethic and quality that you’ll see and find when you look around the Forest Hill Leather Craft shop and feel in your hands when you inspect the wares at this off-the-beaten-path “cottage industry.” Getting there couldn’t be easier, but a word to the wise, his physical address is listed as “Bird-in-Hand” but that is indicative of a quirk of the US Postal system. His property is actually six miles north of the center of Bird-in-Hand, just a short jog north of Route 23 near the town of Leola. The easiest way to get there? Plug 225 Forest Hill Road, Bird-in-Hand, PA 17505 into your GPS. Heading there without a GPS, take Quarry Road north off Route 23 in Leola, and then make a right on Forest Hill Road. The farm is on the right (look for their sign) and is just a short distance after you pass by the Amish One-Room School.
A Question & Answer Session
At Forest Hill Leather Craft, each product is a labor of love individually crafted with integrity, creativity, and care. Ike’s leather goods begin with a pure, simple ingredient–100% superior, genuine processed hide–that he gets from Wickett & Craig, a company that has been in business since the late 1800s and is located only 3 hours away from Ike’s shop. Turning raw hide into prime-grade genuine leather is a lengthy process, but the result is desirable high-quality material that lasts a lifetime! Ike uses only solid pieces of hide so you will not find a single item in his store made of partial leather or mixed synthetic materials. Leather goods purchased from Forest Hill Leather Craft are sturdy, will last you a lifespan, and will save you a lot of money on repairs and replacements. (Ike offers repairs for any leather goods, whether purchased at Forest Hill Leather Craft or elsewhere.) That day I took home a real leather crossbody bag that made me feel like a million bucks… which will save me a million bucks!
I wanted to learn more, so I asked away…
Q: What prompted you to start this type of business in Lancaster County?
A: “I worked at a harness shop in the area for 14 years, but most of the products were made of synthetic material. I thought it would be nice to work from home selling real leather and having my own schedule. I am not in the farming industry, and I don’t need a big farm to run a business. I like Lancaster, I have lived here for 46 years, and I have 2 acres of property. The tourists are here in Lancaster so I can make a living. This is home.”
Q: What is the story behind the name? Does your business have a vision and mission?
A: “The shop sits on Forest Hill Road where we make good leather products that last a lifetime. Our values, faith, and integrity shape the business.”
Q: What is your clientele, and can you identify your busiest season(s)?
A: “We get visiting tourists, and we have our local customers. The Amish do not wear belts. Our busiest season is the summertime, and after Christmas is the slowest.”
Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered running your own business?
A: “Learning how to price products initially, especially with the changes in supply and demand. Growing the business too fast and not being able to catch up. Learning how to stack orders in order to deliver products on time. It can also be a challenge to balance home and work life.”
Q: Do you harness any type of modern technology for your business?
A: “We don’t rely much on technology, but we have several vendors who sell and ship belts. The less you use the better you are, but we do need to use a few things.”
Q: Part of your increase in visitation is due to word-of-mouth and print advertising. Walk us through your relationship with the Amish Country News (ACN) publication.
A: “We have been in business for 19 years and started advertising several years ago with a different magazine but felt ACN would be a better fit for us, and it was. The first small ad paid for itself, and it has increased our visitation. Advertising is good for tourists.
This is the seventh year we have advertised with the magazine.”
Q: What advantage(s) does a consumer have when buying from Forest Hill Leather Craft?
A: “There’s value in buying local. If you get something from overseas you may not have a warranty or be able to return it. We offer repairs on any leather products, whether purchased here at our store or elsewhere. We offer customizations on any product. You get to buy directly from the owner.”
Q: Where do you see Forest Hill Leather Craft in 5-to-20 years from now?
A: “I have thought about expanding but I don’t have any goals at the moment. For now, I will continue the business with my sons and hope that one day they will keep the business in the family”. Lessons from the leather: you put good in, you get good out; less is more; and there is much value in the simple.
Ike and his business are symbolic to the Amish countryside, whose values and humble ways of life have shaped the area that keeps bringing back millions of tourists each year for a relaxing, rejuvenating experience. Getting to meet Ike and tour his shop was a neat experience, and learning about the plain ways in business provided great insight and is a good message. He kindly hosted me for several hours as we chatted away, and he permitted me to take photos of his products and the shop. Summertime is here and it’s both a beautiful and busy time for the Amish and Lancaster County.
Be sure to add Forest Hill Leather Craft to your trip itinerary and stock up on Christmas gifts for your family. Ike offers delivery so that you can purchase your leather products from the shop’s e-commerce page, www.craftedclass.com, which includes the latest catalog. His property is actually six miles north of the center of Bird-in-Hand, just a short jog north of Route 23 near the town of Leola. Easiest way to get there? Plug 225 Forest Hill Road, Bird-in-Hand, PA 17505 into your GPS, (717)-656-8758. So, next time you are on Forest Hill Road, don’t drive too quickly or you will have missed the leather shop, and remember to slow down, relax, and breathe… you’re in an Amish Country.
— Natalie Osorio