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And the bands play on...

From summer into autumn, dance music is alive and well at Pen Mar Park.

From summer into autumn, dance music is alive and well at Pen Mar Park.

September 28, 2007|By SUSIE SAGER MASON

Stand on the scenic overlook on a sunny, summer Sunday afternoon in Pen Mar Park and gaze at one of the most beautiful views in Maryland. You'll be in the mountains of Washington County on the border of Pennsylvania, northeast of Hagerstown. The altitude is 1,400 feet and the temperature is always 10 degrees cooler than on the floor of the Cumberland Valley below.

Close your eyes and feel the summer breeze and listen to the sounds. Imagine the year is 1880. Listen to the orchestra music coming from the dance pavilion close by, and picture in your mind young ladies in long, flowing skirts dancing with young men in dark suits with long jackets and bowties. They are dancing the waltz. The mood is dreamy. Children in stiff clothes and high-button shoes are playing and laughing outside in the nearby playground.

Smell the fried chicken and visualize the homemade cakes at the tables of the people picnicking. Imagine hearing the sounds of the Western Maryland Railroad as it makes it way up the mountain, spewing thick smoke, bringing visitors from up and down the eastern seaboard, hundreds at a time.

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The visitors come for the day, the weekend, the week or longer. They are headed for the park or the beautiful inns and large hotels in the surrounding mountain area. Magnificent hotels such as the Blue Mountain House and the Buena Vista Hotel welcome their guests and offer expansive verandas with rocking chairs and beautiful scenery, as well as exceptional dining and facilities.

Horse-drawn surreys carry Pen Mar visitors up High Rock Road to High Rock where a tall, two-level wooden observation deck has been built on the side of the mountain. The people climb the many stairs and take in the spectacular 2,000-square-mile view. From where you are standing on the lookout in the park you can hear the horses' footsteps as they come and go, bringing people back and forth from High Rock.

Now open your eyes. You are back to the present. From the overlook in the park once again you see the majestic vista. The music is playing behind you in the pavilion where dancers are dancing. Children are laughing and playing on the playground nearby. The dress is casual. The aroma of picnickers' food is in the air. People are friendly. The mood is joyful. It is summer in Pen Mar Park.

The atmosphere today is reminiscent of the good ol' days in the park even though there have been many changes, many comings and goings of attractions over the last 130 years. Today the history of Penn Mar is depicted and explained in the exhibits housed in a small, rustic museum on the grounds.

The amusement park, miniature train and carousel of the first half of the 20th century are gone. Gone, too, are the magnificent hotels and inns. No longer does the Western Maryland Railroad travel up and down the mountain to bring visitors to Pen Mar.

Today, the dance pavilion and the overlook are larger, rebuilt in the same locations as the original ones. Both are handicapped accessible. There are also large picnic pavilions, picnic tables and benches scattered about, a concessions stand and a great playground for the children.

Although the two-level High Rock observation deck up the mountain road is gone, the concrete foundation remains with the same breathtaking view. It is where hang-gliders launch when the wind is right.

From the end of May through September, it's "The Dance Scene" at Pen Mar Park, where a band plays every Sunday from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. On June 10, the Bill Krantz Combo played big band and ballroom dance music to a filled pavilion of dancers, young and old, novices and pros. On a good Sunday there are 1,500 to 2,000 visitors.

Jim Powers, executive secretary of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 770, has been the contracting agent for bands that perform in the park for 16 years. He works with the Washington County Commissioners, the Washington County Parks Department and the Washington County Recreation Department. His work was described as a labor of love by one of the patrons.

Powers and his wife, Fay, try to go to the park every Sunday where Jim can be seen walking through the crowd, engaging in lively conversation. Jim and Fay were honored by the Washington County Commissioners in 2001 when they were presented with a plaque naming them "Mr. and Mrs. Pen Mar."

Jim works dedicatedly to continue the nostalgic music format of yesteryear. Musicians, from soloists to bands to full orchestras, perform.

"Everyone who's ever been here or danced here went home with a wonderful memory," he said.

"Bands that play here are ones that patrons of the park request and ask to have back each summer. We listen carefully to the feedback of the patrons and plan the programs to give them what they want.

"One of the things I enjoy a lot is when I walk around the pavilion during performances and see teenagers doing ballroom dancing."

One such young couple was Newell DeFreest, 15, and Danielle Boock, 20, of Chambersburg, Pa., who have been dancing together for six months.

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