Interview is a series of discussions with renowned Pennsylvanians - artists, athletes, authors, historians, musicians, politicians, scholars, television celebrities and others - that have appeared occasionally as features in Pennsylvania Heritage.

Set in the picturesque Conewago Hills of central Pennsyl­vania, the village of Mount Gretna is a treasure of natu­ral beauty and quaint architecture.

In 1882-1883, millionaire Robert H. Coleman built the Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad through these rolling hills to connect his vast ironmaking enterprises in Colebrook and Corn­wall to the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Lebanon. At the same time it was decided that a picnic park called “Mount Gretna” should be established at the foot of Governor Dick Mountain (reputed to have been so named for a slave who worked as a charcoal burner at Cornwall Furnace). In 1885 Cole­man constructed a dam on Conewago creek, creating Conewago Lake. That year the 28th Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard established a camp at Mount Gretna, a camp which was maintained for fifty years until it moved to Fort Indiantown Gap.

In 1892 the Camp Meeting of the United Brethren Church and a Chautauqua were established at Mount Gretna. This year marks the centennial of their creation and, in many ways, the birth of Mount Gretna as a community. Chartered in Lebanon County, the Chautauqua had as its goal “the advancement of literary and scientific attainment among the people, and the promotion of popular culture in the interest of Christianity.” Further expansion of Mount Gretna included the construction of the Conewago Hotel overlooking the lake in 1909, followed by Kauffman’s Hotel in Mount Gretna Heights in 1917, and Kauf­fman’s short-Lived amusement park, Laurel Park, established in the 1920s.

More than anything else, the founding of the Camp Meeting and Chautauqua, accompanied by the construction of the lake, hotels, cottages, and amusement parks, established Mount Gretna as a bonafide summer colony. Even today, the beauty of the heavily wooded area continues to attract visitors and new residents. Mount Gretna is well known for its cool, pine-shaded cottages, with their inviting, Adirondacks-style porches and verandahs. The community also claims a well deserved reputa­tion as a center for theater, art exhibitions, chamber music, and jazz. Its popular – and historic – ice cream parlor, the Jigger Shop, is well known – and beloved – by generations of summer colo­nists and visitors alike.

Although it is known for its rustic summer cottages, Mount Gretna has increasingly attracted a number of year round resi­dents, drawn by a charm and tranquility that one would have suspected was lost to time years ago. One of Mount Gretna’s best known residents – and unofficial town historian – Jack Bitner is a third generation resident of Mount Gretna. Bitner recently sat for an interview in his home in Mount Gretna, which is a veritable museum of local artifacts and historic objects. Among his prized treasures are carousel animals from the Mount Gretna carousel and photographs of the village throughout the years.

 

What was the major impetus for the establishment of Mount Gretna?

Well the sequence of events was this. Robert H. Coleman was the godfather of Mount Gretna in the fullest sense; he was re­sponsible for everything that occurred here in the early years. He built the railroad through [the Conewago Hills] to connect his holdings and activities in Cornwall and Lebanon to the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. When they passed through this part of the hills, they were all struck by the beauty of the area, and it was immediately suggested that there had to be a station stop here – this would be an ideal place for a park! So [Coleman] built a park in 1884, and in 1885 added the lake, simply as an attraction to the area. He established a large picnic grounds, hiking areas, and the trail to Governor Dick. It was a lovely area.

That’s the way things existed in 1885. That same year the Adjutant General of the National Guard came here to investigate it as a possible camp site. Well, he wanted it right away. Coleman – at no cost to the National Guard – cleared one hun­dred and twenty acres away, which is still called the Soldier’s Field. It was a parade ground. That’s where all the reviews and parades were held – reviews for governors and prominent peo­ple. They even had a president here one time. I think it was Harrison.

Were most of the cottages that were built during that time asso­ciated with the Camp Meeting and the Chautauqua?

As a matter of fact, the wave of cottage building started in 1892, when both the Chautauqua and the Camp Meeting started here. The intent was that the Camp Meeting would be just that: there would be tents. But by the time they held the first camp meeting in July of 1892, there were one hundred and two little cabins and little cottages built over there. Those have evolved into the cottages that we see today. They were built on twenty by twenty four foot lots, so they’re a little cramped. They grew to occupy their entire area, or two lots as the case may be. There were a couple of dozen built the first year. By 1900 most of the cottages were here. The cottages were built for about six hundred dollars each; even then that was affordable to a lot of people.

So originally most of the cottages were related to the Chautau­qua and the Camp Meeting?

Yes, they were initially, but the people who came here em­braced Mount Gretna as a resort from the very beginning. The majority of them crone to stay the summer. The grounds were noted for coolness, because of all the trees, and the pure water. We still draw our water from wells, right here on the grounds.

What year did you start coming to Mount Gretna?

In 1917, but I don’t remember it. My memories go back to the early twenties. We would come by train in the earliest days, or we would hire someone to bring us down. I remember a Model T pickup truck; we hired this man to bring us down here with all our bedding and luggage.

Did you come down for the summer or just for weekends?

We came down for the whole summer. My dad worked for the Bethlehem Steel Company in Steelton, and he would commute on weekends. He came by train, of course, but it wasn’t long before we had a car.

How long has your family had a place at Mount Gretna?

Well, my grandfather was one of the original United Brethren ministers here at the Camp Meeting in the early part of the century.

What are your first memories of Mount Gretna?

My first memories are roaming through the woods. We used to go to Governor Dick almost every day … [sometimes we would] stay overnight. We just roamed. We ran wild. We spent every afternoon at the swimming pool at the park or at the lake. It varied from decade to decade-one place became a favorite one time and then it would switch.

On a typical day, what other kinds of things might you do?

We might go over to Governor Dick, roam around the woods, come back for a baloney and tomato sandwich, a glass of milk, and some cookies, then rush off for the lake – and be late coming home for dinner. We’d have something to eat, then in the eve­ning we’d roam around the old part of the camp ground. If there was a band concert, a wrestling or boxing match we’d go to that.

What are your memories of Mount Gretna when you first started coming here? Obviously, it was quite different than it is today.

Yes and no. Physically [it was] not much different. The inter­esting thing is that today the cottages are in a much better state of preservation and repair than they were then, because those were not affluent times when I was a kid. It was the Depression. Not that we were severely affected, but things were not very affluent then. The cottages were all here – many of them in their primitive form – and it was a place of great activity in the sum­mer. You can’t imagine how active things were here then. It was always a summer resort, and the religious focus came into play at the bible conference in the first ten days of August. The formal program of Chautauqua courses and classes and demonstrations ended around the time of World War I, so l don’t remember those. Then there was the National Guard encampment. Perhaps three thousand soldiers were here at any time during the summer – they came from all over the state in two week incre­ments. The encampment covered the entire area of Mount Gretna on the north side of the road [Rt. 117] and out to Colebrook.

You went to the National Guard camp frequently as a child?

Oh yes, we enjoyed it. They provided much of the entertain­ment for the community in those days. There was a lot of mili­tary activity. Kids were free to roam through the whole encampment area. We were not afraid of going anywhere. We could go into soldier’s tents and they demonstrated how their guns came apart for us and all that.

The parades and reviews were always a big attraction. There were band concerts somewhere in camp every night. Every morning the band marched, early in the morning on the grounds, around the rectangular field. When the band was marching toward the cottages you could hear it very promi­nently. Then it would fade as they marched in the other direc­tion. We woke up to that morning and we loved it! They staged boxing matches and track meets, events of all kinds.

It’s interesting that there was no line between the community and the camp.

No, no division at all. The camp was just on the other side of the road, and the relationship between the residents of the civil­ian community at Gretna and the encampment was always quite cordial. I don’t remember any friction of any significance. Ro­mantic skirmishes, or course-there were a lot of those, with various kinds of outcomes, as you might well imagine.

I suppose it wasn’t difficult to convince the daughters of a cer­tain age to come up here for the summer.

No, the men were an attraction, naturally, and the young ladies were quite interested. They were welcomed in the camp, and strolled among the tents, and were entertained at dinner and lunch over there, and at the parades. It was a charming era.

What other activities were available to you?

There were two amusement parks here throughout the twen­ties and early thirties. The old original park that was started by the Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad in 1884, a year after the rail­road came through here. It had a carousel and other amusement rides, and picnic areas – a very attractive place. The new park built by Abraham Kauffman in the twenties not only had a car­ousel, [but it had] a roller coaster, larger than the one at Hershey, and a million gallon concrete swimming pool. That was one of the larger ones in the country at that time.

Where was Kauffman’s Park located?

It was east of Mount Gretna. If you know where to look you can see it as you leave Mount Gretna on [route] 117, because the concrete swimming pool is still there today. I was over there in the spring and there is not a chip or crack to be seen anywhere in that entire concrete pool. It’s filled with water and silt and has trees growing in it, but it’s still there!

When did they close the amusement parks?

Well, Kauffman’s Park failed the first big summer he had it open and had the pool and the roller coaster. He ran a lot of special events. He had a very bad, rainy summer and he went bankrupt that first year. The bank took over – that was in the middle twenties – and ran it for about ten more years, but it was gradually going downhill all the time. The railroad park, the original park, struggled on until World War II, but in the later years they had nothing there but hillbilly bands, bingo games, that sort of thing-that was about it. The park era had ended in America by that time. They were practically all defunct.

Was Mount Gretna as busy then as it is now?

Oh, busier! We had the plays. There were just so many peo­ple here. The Hotel Conewago was still here, the Inn was still here on the Chautauqua grounds, and just on the other side of the Camp Meeting grounds was Kauffman’s Hotel. It catered to vacationers, but I think the bulk of them were friends and rela­tives of the soldiers in camp, or people corning to the various activities.

There were a myriad of activities. There was the [amusement] park, and the farmers’ encampment which was held every year [beginning in 1890], a forerunner of today’s Farm Show in Harrisburg. That building still exists over there in the park today. It was built in 1890. It’s the oldest building in Mount Gretna. It’s a huge wooden building about two hundred feet square. For the last fifty years or more it’s been a [roller] skating rink, and it’s still open, even in the winter.

So things began to change as you got older?

I graduated from high school in 1935 – I was eighteen at the time – and that was it as far as spending the whole summer there. Never again. I enlisted in the Army Air Corps for three years with the intention of going into flight training, but I couldn’t take it because my eyes weren’t good enough. I would only get here on leave, or weekends – I was at Langley Field.

Did you notice a big change in Mount Gretna after World War II?

I wasn’t aware of it at the time. It never seemed to change. Sure, the [amusement] park was closed, but that didn’t make a lot of difference. The beach was still there; it consumed more and more of our time. We were there every afternoon. We taught the kids to swim and all that. The encampment was gone before World War II, [so] we didn’t miss that. The hotel had been torn down in 1940 while I was in college.

Was that the Conewago Hotel on the lake?

Yes, the big hotel. Between my sophomore and junior years in 1940 I worked on the crew that tore it down. I didn’t think any­thing of it. I got thirty cents an hour! I made enough money to buy some clothes to go back to school.

I went to Pitt for four years and received a degree in aeronau­tical engineering. I met my wife there. I got out of Pitt just in time to go back into the Air Force with a commission – right after Pearl Harbor. It was during those years that I just got back here once each summer. It was during the war, you didn’t get any vacation. But after that l found a position with the Martin Air­craft Company in Baltimore, and we settled there for thirty-four years; it’s only an hour and a half [away]. We sold the old cottage on the Camp grounds and bought one over here on the Chautau­qua near the tennis courts in the middle fifties. That was our summer home.

I’ve noticed that many of the cottages have names.

Yes, in the old days they all did – many have the same name today. Wherever they have – by sheer chance – survived, the people now cherish them. It’s more prevalent on the Camp Meeting grounds. One reason for that is the cottages were all lined up right on the streets – you saw the cottage as you walked by and the name was hanging here: Sherwood, Lyndhurst, Four E’s, all kind of clever names.

Does your cottage have a name?

Never had a name. I thought it would be a little presumptuous.

What were some of the more unusual names?

Now you’ve got me …. Bide-a-Wee was a typical name. Spionkop – the cottage is gone now – I understand it means “Look­out Hill” in Dutch, or some language. There was a vast array of names – Bramblebush – anything you could imagine. They all had some relevance. One of the cleverest – friends of ours recently named their cottage Summerthur. In the old days, they all had a name, you could almost say without exception. A good many of them still do. My grandfather’s cottage was called Lindenhurst; there must have been a linden tree around somewhere. The cottage we bought over by the tennis courts later was originally named Auf Wiedersehen, but at the time of World War II it was quickly renamed Au Revoir. We have pictures of that cottage with both names on it.

How long have you owned this house?

Eleven years.

Who built it?

It was built by a man named Adolph Herman, from New York. He was a wealthy Jewish industrialist. He had handker­chief factories all over America, maybe all over the world. They had one in Lebanon. I think he built this place in 1903 for the purpose of entertaining his clients, friends, and employees in this area. It has an extremely large Living room, same with the dining room; it was meant for entertaining. It was the first house in Mount Gretna, by many years, that was plastered inside. It’s built just like a winter house, although he never used it as such. This is the grandest of the old places. During the art show [a popular summer event] I put my carousel organ out on the porch and provide some music for the show, which is fun.

How many carousel figures do you have?

Well, I have three figures, but only two of them count. Two of them are from the last carousel that was here in Mount Gretna. The two figures I have here [are] a horse and a goat; the thing that is most unique about them is that they have factory paint on them.

They haven’t been repainted?

What I mean by that is the carousel that was here, built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1905, was a beautiful four row carousel, a menagerie carousel [with] all kinds of animals. It went to several places, went to Euclid (Beach) Park, and then up to New England. In 1925, it went back to the factory and was refurbished. That’s when these figures were last painted. They have their 1925 factory paint. It’s just in recent years that big time collectors have come to the realization that that’s what they really want to collect: horses and figures with factory paint.

How did you acquire them?

I got one of them from a collector over near York a few years ago. He owned a trucking firm that shipped that carousel to California in 1979. He bought a few figures; he was a collector himself. The goat I just got this summer – it was in California. Of course, you know dealers know where every worthwhile figure in the country is – from every carousel that ever existed. Sec­ondly, they know who all the potential buyers are, not just look­ers but [those who] might buy. Among three collectors in Mount Gretna, we have five figures from that carousel.

So this wasn’t the carousel’s first home. Was it the last?

No, after it left here it operated for a short while up at Twin Grove Park near Pine Grove [Schuylkill County]. But in all those years following 1925 it was in places where the park was only open summers and it didn’t get heavy use. So the [figures] were never repainted.

How many figures were there originally?

Oh, sixty some. We have five figures and the chariot side, not the whole chariot, but the side, and the organ from the carousel. Now the organ is something else again. The organ was aban­doned; it was of no use after the 1930s when juke boxes came in, and it was shoved aside in an old building in the park. It was covered over with other junk and forgotten or it would have been hauled out and burned. Twenty-five years ago or so I found it in there and persuaded the guy who owned the park to let me have it, and he did. The tacit agreement between us was the firmest contract you ever heard of – not one paper – that I would restore it to playing condition. He knew I could do it and that it wouldn’t leave Mount Gretna. That organ is so much a part of my life, it comes right next to my wife.

How many years did it take for you to restore it?

Well, it didn’t take me too long to get the thing playing and operating mechanically, being an engineer. I got it working all right, but tuning has been very difficult. I have no musical back­ground. Over the years I had help from lots of friends who did have a musical background, some of them very extensive musical backgrounds, and they were no help!

How did you become Mount Gretna’s official – or unofficial­ – historian?

I earned my way. About thirty years ago, I began to come to the realization that living memory of Mount Gretna was disap­pearing. The people who had been here in the beginning, or in the very early days, were dying off. We had some in those days. We had several who lived to be a hundred – one lived to one hundred and five – who were here in the earliest days. I also became aware of the fact that old people were sitting around on their porches relating stories relative to the history of Mount Gretna that I knew, just by common sense or my own observa­tion, could not be true.

That’s an interesting perspective, that you knew that some of the stories people were relating were not true.

Well, I was an aeronautical engineer, and I learned to think objectively, factually, critically. I could always write fairly well. So that when I came to write a history that’s what I meant to do. So I decided that it was time we found out what the history of Mount Gretna really was. That was the summer of 1960-1961. When I was on vacation I went in and found the files of the Leba­non Daily News in the historical society in Lebanon. Mount Gretna was big news in the early days, from the very beginning. There were always three or four reporters out here. You couldn’t get a splinter in your finger without it being in the paper. I went through those papers on microfilm, page by page, day by day, month by month, year by year, frantically taking notes, ruining my eyesight. But 1 finally had a notebook full of information that covered everything that happened in Mount Gretna. That has been the foundation of the book. At the same time I found that Luther Harpel had a photo shop here in the early days of the park, and his son still had a store in Lebanon – Harpel’s Stationery – that still operates under his grandson. Donald Har­pel, the son, would let me go into the loft of their store, and go through his father’s old photo negative files. They were in total disarray. I went up there frequently for a number of years, and every time I would select pictures of interest and then I would have prints made from them. That’s the source of nearly all the good photos you see of Mount Gretna.

I went home that fall and I wrote like crazy and had a brief history of Mount Gretna published at my own expense. I came up here and gave half of them away and sold the rest. I had three hundred of them printed thirty years ago.

After I did that, people started giving me and sending me things – they’d take photos out of their albums, and write me letters about this, that and the other thing. I started to amass information. When I sat down to write [the second] book 1 had everything I needed right there, and in my mind. I hardly had to refer to my materials. I went into the courthouse and the files of the [Lebanon County] Historical Society, maybe two or three times, just to fill in certain areas. Nobody else has been a pre­tender to the throne.

I have the impression that the area is still changing. Are more people living here year ’round?

Oh, yes, about two thirds of the cottages are winterized, to one degree or another, and many are occupied year ’round. It’s in transition from a resort to a year ’round residential community.

How do you feel about that?

Oh, it’s inevitable; it couldn’t survive as a resort. All I hope for is that the majority of people we get here appreciate it for what it is – a different kind of place. Anyone who has memories of a more gracious, a more genteel era, often longs to return to it­ – and at Mount Gretna you find that, or what appears to be that.

Do you think the large majority of people who live here have had associations with Mount Gretna for a long time?

No, there are a lot of new people. We’ve had a surprising number from Philadelphia. In several cases those people bought a cottage the first or second time they came to Mount Gretna. They were just swept away by this idyllic little woodland para­dise. Swept off their feet – couldn’t wait to buy a place! There have been several people who have undertaken to restore their cottages to their original appearance.

When did people first start living in the cottages year ’round?

After World War II. Young couples found they could buy a cottage here for a couple thousand dollars, and they did. They tacked up plastic and they stuffed insulation behind wall boards, and wrapped the pipes with electric heating.

Did most of the families who lived here during the summer come from Lancaster and Lebanon, or were there some from Philadelphia?

Philadelphia had always been well represented here because of the troops that came from there, and their friends and family. The First City Philadelphia Cavalry [known popularly as the First City Troop] was the elite outfit in the whole Pennsylvania National Guard. To this day, they do not accept pay for their services – they were blue bloods. So there has always been quite an entourage from Philadelphia.

What makes Mount Gretna what it is?

Actually, it’s the physical appeal, and through the years it hasn’t changed that much. The trees have been preserved rather jealously. The cottages are in a better state of repair, fixed-up nicer than they used to be because it’s a more affluent period, and so the whole effect is pleasing and attractive. It’s a little Shangri-la in the woods, a retreat from the frantic pace of today’s life. People just react very strongly. As far as the people are con­cerned, there’s simply a cross section of the American people. Most of them cherish Mount Gretna for what it is. I think they all enjoy living here.

Let me ask you to look in your crystal ball. Where do you see Mount Gretna going in the future, perhaps in the next ten or twenty years?

I don’t see any particular change. We are blessed by a number of physical situations here; to our west and our south we are bounded by State Game lands, absolute protection. To our east, and part of the south, we are bounded by what is known as the Governor Dick Tract – now that is a tract of eleven hundred acres which was purchased by Mr. Clarence Schock, the founder and former owner of SICO oil company, and he deeded that property to Mount Joy School District – now the Donegal School District­ – stipulating that it must be preserved in its natural state perpetu­ally for the enjoyment of the people, and provided a trust fund to accomplish that. They don’t even allow motor vehicles in it. It’s a natural preserve, and it has trails – it’s enjoyed by many. On the north, across the road, and across the old railroad tracks, we are not protected. There is a possibility of some development there, but even if that should happen, I don’t think it can have enough impact to really spoil Mount Gretna very much. The worst thing would be an increase in traffic. But as 1 say, there are few commercial ventures here, there’s nothing agricultural – nor industry – and it will probably stay that way.

 

For Further Reading

Bitner, Jack. Mt. Gretna: A Coleman Legacy. Lebanon, Pa.: Lebanon County Historical Society, 1990.

Carmean, Edna J., ed. Lebanon County, Pennsylvania: A History. Lebanon, Pa.: Lebanon County Historical Society, 1976.

Gould, Joseph Edward. The Chautauqua Movement: An Episode in the Continuing American Revolution. Albany, N. Y: State Univer­sity of New York Press, 1972.

Habecker, Frederic S. “Robert Coleman, Millionaire Ironmaster.” Lan­caster County Historical Society Journal. 64 (1960), 17-33.

Habecker, Jan Margut. “A Dynasty Tumbles.” Pennsylvania Heritage. 13, 1 (Winter 1987), 10-15.

Oblinger, Carl. Cornwall, the People and Culture, 1890-1980. Har­risburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1984.

 

The editor gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Donald R. Brown, well known post card collector, who graciously loaned items from his extensive holdings to illustrate this piece. “The Magic of Mount Gretna: An Interview with Jack Bitner” is the first of a series of interviews with individuals who have played significant roles in documenting, preserv­ing, examining, interpreting, and, of course, making Pennsylvania history.

 

Diane B. Reed is chief of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Publications and Sales Division. She received her bache­lor’s degree in American Studies from the University of Massachusetts and her master’s degree in American Studies from the Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg. A former resident of the Berkshires in Massachusetts, she launched a search for the sylvan settings with which she was so familiar, and discovered the perfect combination of the arts, architecture, and natural beauty in Mount Gretna. Although a resident of Carlisle, Cumberland County, the author has spent many days enjoying the beauty of Mount Gretna, as well as attending the chamber music, jazz, and theater offerings. She particularly recommends Mount Gretna on warm summer days, when the temperature feels at least ten degrees cooler in the Conewago Hills. She also suggests a visit to the charming Jigger Shop, k11own to generations of cottagers and visitors for the ice cream treat for which it is named. Her previous contribution to this magazine, “Steel on the Susquehanna,” appeared in the summer 1990 edition.