Just off the bustling highway that cuts through the rolling farmland and small villages of Lancaster County stretches a road that in many ways depicts the disparate faces of this region.

On one side of the street sits the Mennonite Information Center - offering Amish tours, historical exhibits and tales of the Biblical Tabernacle.

Across the road is the Tanger Outlet Center, where throngs of shoppers from cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia flock to find deals on designer duds from Calvin Klein and Donna Karan in new buildings styled to resemble an old barn and silos.

The slower pace of life that once dominated here has given way in recent years to the call of development that has sprouted in the form of housing and retailers as Lancaster County's population has steadily increased by about 70,000 since 1990.

Along U.S. 30, or the Lincoln Highway, which juts from east to west across this county of about 470,000 people, big-box retailers and shops operated by the Amish selling woodwork and quilts abound. In many ways, it resembles Anne Arundel County's Ritchie Highway, with its neon signs, chain stores and restaurants - minus the Amish touch.

The Dutch Wonderland amusement park, several miniature golf courses and the Strasburg Railroad, which bills itself as America's oldest short-line steam train, round out the offerings for vacationing families.

Other businesses have tried to blend the county's historical and agricultural traditions with their own modern-day fare.

A bagel shop, for instance, sits in a building resembling a barn. And signs for a popular tourist eatery - Jakey's Amish Barbeque - beckons customers to its diner-like restaurant with a drawing of a bearded farmer wearing a hat and holding a pitchfork.

But just off the highway, the pace of life slows. Real barns and silos dot hilly fields of crops and cow pastures. Real horse-drawn buggies share the roadways with sport utility vehicles. And the dusky smell of the land seems to radiate from the hillsides.

Some of the county's approximately 25,000 Amish have moved away to Wisconsin in recent years as prime farmland has disappeared, said Stephen E. Scott, a research assistant at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, who has written several books on Amish culture.

In spite of the dwindling farmland and the technology that has slowly encroached on their way of life, many of the Amish in Lancaster have survived economically by operating small groceries and quilt shops .

"Just recently an Amish person bought a farm, 120 and something acres for a million and a half dollars," Scott said. "Can you really expect to pay that back? Some Amish just want to stay into farming no matter what. But small businesses are becoming more and more common."

A local Target store between Lancaster, the county seat, and Strasburg, for example, sits on land once farmed by an Amish family. Its 201-year-old farmhouse, tucked in the nook of the shopping center, now serves as the Amish Farm and House museum - with a horse-and-buggy parking area marked off beside the vehicle parking spots for Target shoppers.

"It's a balance sometimes," said Daniel Lutz, who has spent 24 of his 26 years in Lancaster County. "Around this area there are a lot of Mennonite and Amish communities, and a lot of farmers markets. But there's also all the outlet places and everyone comes for the discounted prices, especially on clothes."

He expressed frustration at the steady march of commercialization into his community - the big businesses that he said are pinching out family farms for houses, apartments and shopping centers.

The Amish museum, for instance, "is not run by Amish anymore," describing such businesses as inauthentic.

Lutz works for a store called Amish Stuff, Etc., which sells shoofly pie, quilts, and Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs, alongside sweat shirts, shot glasses and magnets, all bearing the pictures and symbols of the old-style life here.

Dick Shellenberger, chairman of the Lancaster County Commissioners, who also serves on the county's Agriculture Preserve Board, said lawmakers have devised a growth-management plan to "protect some of the richest non-irrigated soil here."

"We want to preserve agriculture as a way of life," Shellenberger said. "Not only for the Amish. People enjoy farming as a way of life. It's a wonderful place to raise a family."

Robert Charamut, 69, a retired vice president of an insurance company in Hartford, Conn., who was here yesterday on vacation, said he and his wife make the six-hour drive to Lancaster County every two or three years.

"It's a slower way of life," he said. "The food is tremendous and there's outlets and unique stores. We'll be buying some Amish furniture before we go home."

Like others interviewed yesterday, Charamut said he was surprised by news of the school shooting.

"You think of the Amish as being a very peaceful people and not the type of place that would see this inner-city type of event," he said. "I can't believe that happened."

An older couple who identified themselves as conservative Mennonites and declined to give their names, expressed similar shock.

"I just wasn't expecting it in the Amish community," said the wife, a gift shop owner. "This may sound weird, but we were relieved that it wasn't someone out of the community coming in to do this. It makes you realize that there are disturbed people here as well."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com