Pen Mar Park does the time warp again
Pen Mar Park does the time warp again
by Brittany Lebling
Pen Mar Park is the perfect excuse to play hooky from work on a bright summer day. Ethereal views of the surrounding Cumberland Valley greets visitors at an altitude of 1400 feet. With its rich history, the park offers more than just a shade tree to sit under or a picnic table to eat on, it reminds residents of a previous simpler life that has been shaped and changed by the iPods and Blackberry organizers of the world.
Pen Mar first opened as a park on August 31, 1877. Western Maryland Railroad tycoon, Colonel J.M. Hood, chose the current site in 1871 with the intention of bringing tourism to the area by constructing several different family oriented attractions in the park.
At the time, the park offered a large dining hall, capable of holding 450 people. Celebrated for their 50-cent dinners, the dining hall offered a selection of meats and vegetables, plus ice cream and coffee for dessert.
To justify sitting extra close to their sweethearts, young men may have escaped to the photo studio, where they had a choice of two backgrounds-High Rock Observatory or a solid-colored curtain. At the time, photos cost 10 cents each or four for 25 cents.
A favorite for thrill seekers of the age would have been the 10-cent roller coaster, which existed as the very epicenter of squeals and laughs in the park as people rode for over half a mile.
As for the techno-savvy public, a movie theater, able to hold 200 people in wooden chairs, presented hand-cranked silent movies. In later years, a newsreel was added. Next to the theater sat a concession stand, popular with children for its 5-cent ice cream cones and 10-cent ice cream sundaes.
The carrousel and penny arcade, both built in 1908, stood in operation until 1942. The exquisitely carved carrousel came from Hamburg, Germany. It featured shiny poles and a variety of exotic animal seats--not to mention unending laughter and beaming faces from patrons. The penny arcade allowed folks to crank a handle and look at pictures through a large viewer. Some of the pictures were considered risque at the time, but would be seen as very tame by today's standards.
To pay homage to the railroad sponsorship, the park opened a miniature train that gave rides to patrons. William N. Fleigh, a locomotive engineer, presented it to the park in 1904. In 1907, it was extended to include a three-fourths of a mile ride. The train ran until 1943 and produced countless smiles.
Both the scenic overlook and the dance pavilion have been reconstructed and are beautiful wooden structures that showcase the sights and sounds of the park. The overlook is a favorite of most. It supplies ample photographic opportunities and is a wonderful place to stop with loved ones and take a sincere look at nature.
In competition with the overlook, the dance pavilion provides a large open space for park visitors to dance and socialize on Sundays between 2 and 5pm. Beginning in May, every Sunday afternoon (rain or shine), music is featured in the Big Band style of the 30s and 40s. The concerts run through the start of October, and offer an exciting and different way to spend Sundays in the summertime.
Rather than spending big bucks on gasoline for a road trip, a short drive to Pen Mar Park could satisfy anyone's need for vacation time. Even on the hottest day of summer the park's large shade trees and cool mountain breezes will easily refresh and renew its visitors. Due to the free concerts, Sundays are a very popular day at the park and it is wise to arrive early to secure a parking spot. Even on rainy days, this event is a crowd-pleaser and draws hundreds. On good weather Sundays, it normally brings between 1500 to 2000 people to the park.
Jim Powers, the secretary of the American Federation of Musicians Local 770, is now experiencing his fifteenth year as the Master of Ceremony (MC) of the concerts and the main organizer of the bands. Powers volunteers all year long to put together the concerts. Jim explains, "It's a lot of time, actually I've never figured out how much because I just enjoy it so much."
Powers and his wife Fay graciously accepted the titles Mr. and Mrs. Pen Mar bestowed on them by the Washington County Commissioners and are found every Sunday at the park. When asked about his dedication to the park, Powers responded, "Yes it is [a lot of dedication] but for [me and my wife] it's a labor of love."
Unofficial hosts of every concert, the pair floats around the pavilion, chatting with friends and kindly answering any questions that patrons might have. Jim Powers is extremely appreciative and welcoming to every single visitor in the park and emphasizes strongly that the concert exists in such high quality due to the public.
"The bands that we put there are there because the patrons over the years have asked us to bring those bands there. Almost every Sunday that we're up there someone will come up to me or my wife and say, 'Oh, I just heard this great band, can we have them in the park?' We try to bring them the very best in live professional music."
In order to offset the cost of the bands, each Sunday Powers takes up a donation for the park. All monies go directly toward the bands, and this helps keep the standard of music as high as possible.
Swing music may have been a fad in the 1990s, but the people that attend the Sunday concerts at Pen Mar are real fans that are thirsty for a revival. When asked what he thinks draws so many people to Pen Mar, Powers said, "There are a lot of places people can go if they like country western music or folk music or various and sundry other forms of music, but there are fewer and fewer places for people to go that enjoy big band ballroom dance music. This is one of the nicest places to go for the summer that I can imagine."
Marie Herman of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania has been a dedicated supporter of the Pen Mar Summer Concert Series for the past ten years: "The people are just so friendly, and you combine that with the setting and the good music--it's a must on Sunday!" Her husband, Frank Herman, agrees, "Oh yes, the setting is beautiful up on this mountain top...and it's as cool of a place as you can be and as beautiful of a place as you can be. It's a perfect way to spend a summer Sunday afternoon."
Dr. and Mrs. Homer Elseroad of Frederick, Maryland have been attending the Summer Concert Series for at least ten years as well. "We've formed a close circle of friends...we really enjoy the music and the people," says Mrs. Elseroad.
The atmosphere at Pen Mar is bipolar. Excitement and movement swings underneath the pavilion as the band plays and patrons retrace their heyday with ever-perfected dance steps, while other visitors wander slowly around the park as they take in all the benefits of fresh air and summer sun. Between these two different experiences of the park lies the perfect afternoon for young and old.
Sara Schaumburg and Keith Shifflett of Winchester, Virginia recently made the long trip up to Pen Mar to enjoy the music. "We've become such fans of big band music, and all our friends told us that we just had to make the drive and go up to Pen Mar," Sara said. "It was really worth the trip, we had a wonderful time and met some very nice people."
July is a very exciting month for the park, being that it is the month that Jim Powers himself will play on the 16th. His performance name is "Jim Powers at the Yamaha Organ", and he is a soloist whom plays a variety of big band era ballroom dance music. His dramatic entrances to the pavilion are famous, so be sure to arrive early.
On July 23, 2006, Spectrum is the featured band. They have been performing for 25 years and take requests from the audience.
July 30, 2006 offers patrons Fancy Brass. They are a four-piece band from West Lawn, Pennsylvania and are frequently requested by fans.
Pen Mar Park presents a wonderful family afternoon free of charge. It gives visitors a chance to turn off their cell phones, and forget about work and worry for a little while. There's no stress-reliever like clean air and kind faces.