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Farm in 'Witness' open for limited peek

Tourists celebrate 20th anniversary of film in Amish country

STRASBURG, Pa. — The 82-acre farm featured in the 1985 movie thriller "Witness" is tucked into a small valley, hidden from the view of travelers on Lancaster County's back roads. But that hasn't deterred curiosity-seekers from sneaking peeks over the years.

For a limited time this year — the 20th anniversary of the film's release — tourists can get an even closer look at the site where movie romance blossomed between an Amish widow and a Philadelphia narcotics officer investigating a murder witnessed by her son.

The farm is one stop on a three-hour guided tour that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the movie. Filmed on location in Lancaster County and Philadelphia, the movie introduced Amish culture to a worldwide audience.

"If you talk about 'Witness' to anyone, whether you're in France or you're in Germany . . . they recognize the movie . . . and that's their concept of what they know about Lancaster County and the Amish community," said Wendy Nagle, president of the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Witness" also explores how John Book, portrayed by Harrison Ford, tries to assimilate with the Amish while hiding from fellow policemen involved in the murder. Kelly McGillis played the widow, Rachel Lapp.

On a recent morning, a group of 18 people boarded a bus at the visitors' center just outside Lancaster to embark on the trip. Tours are given two times a day on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Its first stop is the Lancaster Heritage Museum. The museum's "Witness to Witness" exhibit mixes movie memorabilia with facts about the Amish, who shun most modern conveniences, dress plainly, and drive horse-drawn buggies.

The tour then rolls through the countryside to the "Witness" farm where the fictional Lapp family lived near Strasburg, about 10 miles southeast of Lancaster. Afterward, it traverses other country roads back to the visitors' center and passes through the village of Intercourse, where other scenes were filmed outside a general store.

Lancaster County is the world's second-largest Amish settlement, with approximately 33,000 people.

Paramount Pictures looked at about 350 Pennsylvania farms in search of a site secluded enough for the set, according to tour guide Paul Metzler. The company was on the verge of moving the production to Portland, Ore., when it came upon a farm owned by Emma and Paul Krantz, who were not Amish.

"It was at the suggestion of supposedly an Amish neighbor, even though the Amish were not enthused about having the film made," Metzler said during the tour.

The exhibit also makes passing mention of the controversy stirred up by the movie, which critics said exploited the Amish. After meeting with community members following the filming, state officials agreed to restrict the types of movies that could be filmed in Pennsylvania depicting the sect.

Those rules wouldn't necessarily have prevented the filming of "Witness" today, but the state film office and the Amish community would have to review the script first, said film office spokeswoman Carrie Fischer.

The Krantzes' farm was sold in 2001 to an Amish couple, Ivan and Martha Beiler, who live there with their seven children. Their house is off-limits, but visitors can look inside the main floor of the barn where Rachel Lapp and John Book dance to a song playing on his car radio.

They can also tour the summer kitchen, which was connected to the farmhouse during the filming but is now a separate building. Its interior is virtually unchanged from 20 years ago, right down to grime spray-painted on the walls to give the kitchen a used look, Metzler said.

Although other crucial scenes took place inside the barn's silo, the interior views were filmed on a set built at the Posey Iron Works in downtown Lancaster. The tour passes by the iron works building, but does not stop there.

Martha Beiler, 37, was on hand to assist anyone who wanted to buy crafts or produce sold at the farm. The tour has worked out well so far, she said.

"Most of the time, the people are very respectful," Beiler said.

Among those who took the tour this day were Richard and Jennie Gamble of Rock Hill, S.C. Both have seen the movie, but didn't know about the tour until they came to the visitors' center to plan their itinerary.

"My biggest thrill was seeing the Amish," said Jennie Gamble. "Their way of life, to me, is just fascinating, that people in this day and time can still live like that."

If you go . . .

WITNESS MOVIE EXPERIENCE TOUR: Tour buses depart from the Pennsylvania Dutch Visitor Information Center off the Greenfield Road exit of U.S. Route 30; or 800-723-8824 (press 1 for the Lancaster County Reservation Center).

TOUR TIMES: 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 1.

TICKETS: $29.95 for adults; $19.95 for children 12 and under.

PARKING: Free parking is available at the visitor information center.