Probably no other town in Amish Country can claim its fame is owed largely to one simple thing… its name. For years people have sent letters home with the name stamped boldly on the envelope. Intercourse, PA. There are several explanations for the name, and they are woven into the brief history that follows.
In the beginning, of course, there was very little here, just settlers arriving in the New World from Europe. Back around 1730, the Old Provincial Highway (or Old Philadelphia Pike, Route 340) was laid out to connect Philadelphia with the inland town of Lancaster. Conestoga wagons, pulled by six to eight horses, hauled supplies and freight back and forth between the two cities. Providing rest for travelers and horses, taverns sprouted along the way, becoming centers for news, gossip, and business transactions. And that is how the town got started when the first building, a log tavern, was constructed in 1754. The Newport Road, a former Indian trail, came from Newport, Delaware to the south, and it is believed that because of these intersecting roads the tavern took “Cross Keys” as its name.
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That was true at least until 1814 when it was named Intercourse in a real estate scheme to establish a more sizable town. George Brungard had acquired 48 acres of land north of the roads in 1813. He attempted to lay out a townsite and divide it into sections for sale by a lottery, advertising “151 handsome building lots of $250 each to be drawn for by number.”
The newspaper advertisement stressed “the great importance of so many turnpikes and great leading roads intersecting at and near this place.” As one writer had noted, “intercourse had a common usage referring to the pleasant mutual fellowship and frequent intermingling which was more common in the informal atmosphere of the quiet country village of that day.”
And this brings us to yet another theory on the town’s name. From the east end of town, on a mile-long straightaway, horse races were conducted. Since the races began at that end of town, this was the “Enter Course,” and this name eventually became Intercourse. Indeed, a postal historian, Arthur B. Gregg claims that the town’s name was actually changed from “Entercourse” to “Intercourse,” and notes that “there was no hesitancy on the part of the United States Post office Department to accept the name ‘Intercourse’ since it meant a commercial or trading site.”
But back to our story and Brungard’s scheme. Although lotteries had been used for many years to sell various things, his real estate lottery failed, and most of the land was combined into one track. More recently, in 1971, another person tried to take advantage of the town’s name and sell one-inch square plots of property to visitors. This plan proved to be a flop as well.
In the old days, there were only five houses, counting the inn, and the town grew slowly. But by 1880, Intercourse had 54 homes and a population of 280. Communications improved with the arrival of the post office, and later the telephone.
Getting the first post office up and running was a difficult matter. The main problem was finding a building and someone willing to perform the duties of a postmaster. The first, Benjamin Fraim, performed his duties from the Cross Keys Tavern, and may have had a job working there, since “his income, based on a percentage of the postal transactions for the year ending 1829 was only $8.21.” Over the years the post office moved among stores or restaurants whose owners hoped visits by residents would increase their business.
The local stagecoach service apparently started around 1898. It was “a single horse conveyance similar to a market wagon, with a roll-up curtain and double set of seats.” The stagecoach brought items from Lancaster City for local Intercourse businesses, and even picked up milk, butter, and eggs for delivery to Lancaster restaurants and industries, including an ice cream plant. One history of Intercourse notes that when it snowed, a bobsled was used instead. “When the driver knew of passengers beforehand, their comfort was added to by many a hot brick heated the night before in the oven, and wrapped in newspaper to preserve its warmth.”
As the days of the dirt road drew to a close, so too did the stagecoach days with the Rowe Motor Truck service started by Coleman Diller in 1910. In 1923 the Penn Highway Transit Company was organized and initiated bus service to Lancaster. It is noted that “many of the Amish residents of the area were anxious to see the line started, but did not care to subscribe to stock. Instead, they liberally bought books of tickets which were really prepaid bus fares.” By 1924 enough money was raised to buy a Mack Auto Bus for $6,800. It held 25 passengers and even had solid rubber tires!
Perhaps the biggest date in Intercourse town history was November Election Day, 1892. Folks arrived at the Cross Keys Tavern, still the social center of town and the place to cast ballots. The political events were soon overshadowed by a cry of “Fire!” A barn fire, possibly started by children playing with matches, soon went out of control. Bells rang and volunteers with buckets came running, but the wind blew sparks to other buildings and the fire spread. Barns, warehouses, homes, and the town store were soon in flames. One story claims the store’s watchdog refused to leave its post and died in the fire. People tried to salvage what they could, piling things along the road. One family cut off the legs of their Grand Piano to remove it from the house. Nearly twenty years later, in 1911, the residents finally formed the Intercourse Fire Company.
There have been some interesting organizations in the town’s history. One was the Horse Thief Association of 1870. Annual membership cost 25 cents and rewards were offered. Another was the Intercourse Glider Club, formed in 1931. They bought a glider, and self-taught themselves to fly after being launched via shock-cord or pulled by a car. It is said that in exchange for storing the glider in the firehouse, they polished the engine brass.
There have always been a lot of businesses in the town in relation to its size. The two well-known stores in town were Wenger’s General Store and Zimmerman and Sons. Opened in 1833, Wenger’s was the first store in town. Ultimately, it was owned by a family named Worst, resulting in-jokes about “the Worst store in Intercourse.”
Zimmerman’s gained fame when Harrison Ford made a phone call from its porch in the movie WITNESS. In the old days, there was lots of trading, with farmers exchanging items like hides, butter, and even soap for store merchandise. April 1st was the yearly date when each party paid the other whatever the balance was in the exchanges of the year. On more than one occasion the store ended up with too much of an item, and sometimes excess soap and rags were sold to the Lancaster County Prison. Over the years, the store had the town’s first mechanical refrigeration, first radio set, and the first gasoline pump. To give you an idea of how the uses of a building changed, the current Country Crossings shop was formerly an International Harvester dealership, barbershop, income tax business, and hardware store.
Just as stores changed, so did occupations. John Bearn, for example, was a village baker, restaurant owner, postmaster, justice of the peace, and electrical inspector!
Since the town never really got to be “too large,” it has retained much of its sense of community, from the little public library in a former one-room school to the volunteer fire company. Surrounded by farms, the town has grown little and retains much of its former charm, even when thousands of visitors descend upon it during the tourist season. Many residents and visitors enjoy the atmosphere of this small town, a place where family, community, religion, and hard work are still important values. The village of Intercourse has certainly changed over the years, but it has changed slowly, and “sometimes the things that grow the slowest are the ones that endure the longest.”