With the golden glow of autumn foliage as a backdrop, two girls riding atop a lumbering horse-drawn farm wagon emerge from the apple-laden trees of a bustling orchard. They’re dressed in simple, homespun dresses and their image could easily pass for a postcard from Amish country, but we’re in Califon, NJ...
If you were a visitor to Melick’s Farm Market & Orchards in Califon, NJ this past harvest season, you may have been treated to a horse-drawn wagon ride to pick-your-own peaches and apples by Bonnie Terry and her two assistants, Catherine Melick Bryan and Sofia Walz. Dressed in homemade frocks and cowboy boots, the two girls look like they may have stepped out of the pages of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. But in actuality, they are just two typical American 13-year olds (“Yes, I have an iphone,” said Catherine) who came up with an idea to recreate a little bit of Lancaster, Pennsylvania at Catherine’s family farm market, Melicks Town Farm, after receiving a special gift during a visit to Amish Country.
Catherine and Sofia are students of award-winning riding instructor and animal trainer, Bonnie Terry, of Just One More Farm (as in there’s always room for “just one more” animal) in Long Valley, which has a delightful array of furry and feathered creatures that would make Dr. Doolittle envious. Avowed best friends, Catherine and Sofia met during one of Bonnie’s Summer Farm Life programs, where campers get the chance to participate in an authentic, hands-on farm life learning experience with a focus on nature, animal husbandry, and all aspects of horse care and riding.
“Ms. Bonnie’s taught me so much. She’s taught me everything I know about animals,” said Catherine.
“Yes, everything we need to know. Anything that you can possibly think of,” Sofia added.
During the past two summers, the girls began accompanying Bonnie on daytrips to Amish Country, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she has her horses reshoed.
“The Amish are really nice,” said Sofia.
“It’s amazing going out there,” Catherine agreed. “You see so much and it’s so beautiful.”
“It’s the funniest thing,” Sofia added, “when you go to the supermarket there is a shed there instead of a car park where you park your horse and wagon. You tie them up. They’re (the team of horses) tied up everywhere you go.”
The girls eventually made friends with some of the Amish kids there and during one visit they were invited to go swimming at the local swimming hole. Since bathing suits are considered immodest, the girls were given hand-sewn dresses to wear and keep - a simple gift that made a lasting impression.
“It wasn’t proper to wear bathing suits so they gave us Amish dresses to use in the creek to swim. And they let us take them home,” said Catherine. “And that’s how we came up with the idea.”
That idea was to bring a little down-on-the-farm Amish country flair to the Melicks Farm Market by wearing their new frocks when they assisted Bonnie with horse-drawn wagon rides.
“It feels like we’re Amish,” said Sofia, adding with a giggle that “you kind of feel more natural, I guess. More than when you’re wearing actual riding clothes. You feel more historic.”
We caught up with Catherine and Sofia at the Bryan’s homestead in Lebanon Township (which many old-timers may remember as the site of the old Sliker airport). We came to meet and take some photos of another gift that Catherine received from Amish country and shares with her friend Sofia, a white draft mule named Cecily. A surprise gift from her mom and dad that she received after falling in love with Cecily during one of her trips to Pennsylvania.
“She’ll pull the cart, I can ride her Western. She neck reins. She’s really good. She’ll walk, trot, and canter,” said Catherine. “They’re very smart animals,” she added. She’ll do almost anything I ask her.”
With acres of pasture and rolling hills to roam and two giant Jersey steers and a small flock of hand-raised turkeys to hang out with, Cecily is right at home on the Bryan farmstead, where she is well cared for by Bonnie’s enthusiastic, young protégés.
“It’s nice for them to have a reason to be outside,” said Catherine’s mom, Rebecca. “It gives them a great sense of accomplishment to learn something that is challenging. To take care of something. There is a lot involved, too. Catherine takes care of Cecily, feeds, grooms, cleans her stall.”
But learning responsibility, horsemanship and animal stewardship, and making friends from across cultures, aren’t the only lessons being learned.
“They also learn that a beautiful sky, warm day, and grass under their feet is heaven,” said Bonnie Terry.
By Lee Wolfe ● Photography by Lauren Kearns