Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Since 1980, junior and senior high school students throughout Pennsylvania have participated in the National History Day program, which was developed to stimulate student interest in history. Each year, district, state and national History Day contests are held, and students compete in either the junior or senior divisions in one of several categories: historical papers, projects, performances or media presentations.

On May 14, students from around the state met in the third annual state contest. As in past years, those students who were judged the winners will advance to the 1981 National History Day program to be held at the University of Maryland in College Park. There, on June 10-12, they will compete with students from thirty other states for national recognition.

The article which follows was first entered in district competition as a senior division, historical paper in the 1981 History Day program. From there, it moved on to the state finals where it was selected as the winning essay. At the 1981 National History Day competition, the paper earned a second-place finish, becoming the first Penn­sylvania entry ever to receive a national award in the contest. The paper, which focused on the 1981 theme of Work and Leisure, is presented here in its original form.


The role that work and leisure has played in the life of the average American has changed dramatically since the first settlers came to this land. At first, work and leisure were closely connected. In the early days when almost continuous physical labor was required for survival, pioneers transformed some of their work into forms of enter­tainment. Hard jobs such as barn building and com husking were often turned into social events, complete with food, dancing and singing. Later, in the mid-nineteenth century, new machines began to make work less time-consuming. At this point, Americans began to have more time for purely recrea­tional forms of entertainment, separate from their work. The local community, however, was still a key element in the organization of recreational functions, and most people’s social lives continued to revolve around neighborhood ac­tivities. Parades, church picnics, strawberry festivals and band concerts were among the many local events that were popular at that time.

As Lime went by and technology continued to develop, an increasing number of inventions made solely for entertainment purposes began to appear. The American public eagerly ac­cepted such innovations as phonographs, radios and motion pictures. Because of this many older forms of entertainment such as the community band were pushed aside, and soon became almost obsolete. This paper will relate the story of the volunteer bands in one community, Hummelstown, Penn­sylvania, a small town in the south-central part of that state.

Hummelstown was typical of many American small towns in the nineteenth century. It was largely self-sufficient, providing most of the necessities of everyday life for its 2,000 inhabitants. Some of its businesses included one local newspaper, one bank, a dry goods store and a barber shop. It also provided employment for many of its residents. A nearby brownstone quarry, along with a local coachmaker and cigar manufacturer employed a substantial number of townspeople.

Because of its self-sufficiency, Hummelstown’s populace had limited contacts with other communities. As in most isolated small towns in the nineteenth century, the residents of Hummelstown felt the need for entertainment. Community gatherings such as fairs and various church activities were popular social events and were held often. Everyone from the area, regardless of social class, bad the opportunity to par­ticipate in these events because the population of Hummels­town, like most small towns in these days, was very closely knit. Businessmen, doctors and laborers alike, knew each other well and attended the same social functions. This was not uncommon, as Lewis Atherton stated in his book, Main Street on the Middle Border.

“‘Main street’ has continued to assert its faith in a class­less society and equality of opportunity. . . . Though plumbers, garage mechanics and carpenters seldom min­gled with lawyers, doctors, merchants and bankers in metropolitan centers, villages usually made no such dis­tinctions. ”

Hummelstown’s social gatherings were often enlivened by music provided by members of the town’s two community bands: the Hummelstown Silver Cornet Band, loosely organ­ized in 1854 and incorporated in 1869, and the Citizens’ Band, founded in 1881. Both were present at community affairs ranging from Fourth of July parades to the opening of a new reading room at the local Lutheran Church. These musical organizations averaged from twenty to twenty-five members and admitted into their ranks any man who could play an in­strument and wanted to join.

Members did have to comply to certain rules, however. The first pages of the Hummelstown Silver Comet Band’s record book listed the constitution of the band, the rules of order and the bylaws, all of which were to be obeyed. If not, penalties ranging from a 25 cent fine for playing an instrument out of turn to expulsion from the band for repeated unexcused absences from practice were given to the unfortunate offender. It ap­pears that these penalties were carried out, for the list of members in the record book shows several expulsions.

The activities of the bands were not just limited to playing at social events organized by other people. Both bands created functions of their own, usually in the form of fund-raising ac­tivities. The Citizens’ Band held annual “strawberry festivals,” usually in early or mid-June, and the Silver Cornet Band would bold annual “Band Fairs” during the spring and summer months. Occasionally, these events would include the performances of other bands from nearby to bring added at­traction. One such festival was the one written about in the Hummelstown Sun, a local newspaper, on June 22, 1885.

“One of the most festive times enjoyed in this place and by which an unusually large crowd was attracted to town was the festival held in Hummel’s Orchard by the Hum­melstown Silver Comet Band, on Saturday evening. The Denny and Watts Band of Union Deposit and the Derry Band were in attendance and lent extra pleasure by their appreciated music to whom are extended the best wishes of our boys [sic]. The affair was greatly enjoyed and financially was a perfect success.”

Another community entertainment service that Hummels­town’s two bands supplied was called “serenading.” This con­sisted of walking up and down the streets playing waltzes, mar­ches and polkas for the enjoyment of the townspeople. These serenades usually took place on Christmas Eve, New Year’s, and periodically during the summer. Serenading was often a spontaneous event, as evidenced by an entry in the record book of the Hummelstown Silver Cornet Band on June 30, 1871.

On motion of G.H. Grove, the reading of the minutes be dispensed with for that evening. (agreed)
On motion of J.F. Greenawalt, the band go out serenad­ing. (agree)

From the above information, it is clear that Hummelstown’s bands played a substantial role in the recreational activities of the town. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that such a small town could support two such organizations, both of which were very active. This again shows how important band activities were to the life of the town.

In 1885, the newly formed Citizens’ Band decided to erect a building in which to practice, give concerts and hold other community events. They purchased some land in Hum­melstown, and immediately began the construction process. With money supplied by themselves and the townspeople, the building was finished within the year. The Hummelstown Sun made periodic reports on the progress that had been made. This one from June 5, 1885, was characteristic.

“By the combined efforts of the members of the new band, none of whom shrank from introducing money and muscle into the erection of their new band hall, the build­ing now appears in such shape that a few weeks will only be required to complete it. The capacity of the building can now be appreciated. It will be sufficiently large to ac­commodate our people, from whom is expected a contin­uance of their highly appreciated liberality.”

The Citizens’ Band Hall, upon completion, was a large structure. It had a stage at one end, and could hold four to five hundred people. It was not always used for plays and concerts, however. The Hummelstown Sun, in one of its progress reports, mentioned another use for the hall that apparently was quite popular.

“As the band hall is nearing completion, the solid and most excellently laid floor of maple boards two by three inches wide has attracted general attention, especially among those who enjoy rollers, and consequently the members of the band have been persuaded to open the room on Saturday afternoons and evenings when all de­siring to enjoy the amusement will be provided with skates. Excellent music will be furnished by the band, and every convenience will be provided for spectators. The hall will be brilliantly illuminated in the evening.”

While the Citizens’ Band was enjoying the excitement and publicity thrust upon them by the building of their new band hall, the Silver Comet Band was left behind, practicing in the engine house of the Hummelstown Fire Department and lack­ing a good stage on which to hold their concerts. It was possibly for these reasons that they obtained their own band hall less than a year after the Citizens’ Band in March of 1886. This structure, named Washington Hall, was donated to the band by E. M. Hoffer, a wealthy businessman who owned an implement warehouse in Hummelstown. Hoffer tore fifty feet off the warehouse roof, and built in its place a second story room in which the band practiced and held concerts. Washington Hall was not nearly as solidly built or well fur­nished as the Citizens’ Band Hall. However, its stage had a drop curtain on which was printed the business cards of area merchants, and as in the Citizens’ Band Hall, many other bands and traveling shows performed there.

Around the year 1897, the Citizens’ Band decided to sell their band hall. The reason for this is not known, but it prob­ably had to do with the fact that very soon after that the Citizens’ Band itself dissolved. As for the band hall, it was used for quite a while after that for various public events, ranging from plays to the graduation of several of Hum­melstown High School’s classes.

With the demise of the Citizens’ Band, the Hummelstown Silver Comet Band was once again the only band in Hum­melstown. It continued playing at community events until 1911, when it too broke up. The last entries in its record book, dated May 6, 1910 and April 21, 1911, indicated that it had shrunk drastically in size (there were only six members present at the last meeting as opposed to over twenty at its peak), and that the remaining members were primarily concerned with disposing of all band property.

Community enthusiasm for volunteer bands, however, had not yet died. In the year 1912, just one year after the Hum­melstown Silver Cornet Band broke up, a new band was form­ed. It was called the Acme Band. This organization thrived for fifteen years until 1927, when it too dissolved. While it was ac­tive, the members of the band did many of the things that their predecessors had done. They played in parades, at picnics and held their own band festivals. Ralph Bistline, a former member of the Acme Band, remembers one fund-raising activity in which farmers from the area donated apples, potatoes, cab­bages and other produce, and these were “chanced off” on gambling wheels.

The Acme Band, however, was operating in a rapidly chang­ing America. In 1915, shortly after the band was organized, there were fewer than 2.5 million automobiles registered in the United States, but by 1930, shortly after the Acme Band dissolved, there were over 26.5 million. Furthermore, during the band’s existence, radio with its different kinds of music and entertainment became very popular and Hummelstown’s movie theater, built in 1910, was becoming an established center of entertainment in the community. It was at this time that the era in which Hummelstown’s volunteer bands had a large impact on community recreation drew to a close.

The Acme Band was the last serious attempt by residents of Hummelstown to form a group of musicians to play at com­munity social events. There was one other band formed in the late 1920s called the American Legion Band, but it did not meet regularly. and had little impact on community entertain­ment.

The influence of Hummelstown’s volunteer bands on com­munity recreation was both increased and decreased by technology. As people were freed from their work by machines, the bands became increasingly popular. As time progressed, however, technology stifled the bands by introduc­ing new, more exciting forms of entertainment. Soon, the music in Hummelstown began coming out of boxes instead of instruments. Machines now produced the entertainment that people once produced themselves.


Thomas Houts, a member of the class of 1982, Lower Dauphin High School, Hummelstown, will enter Grinnell Col­lege (Iowa) this fall and plans to major in history. His interest in the subject was intensified a few years ago when he discovered the diary of a Civil War soldier in the archives of the Hershey Museum of American Life, where he was a sum­mer employee. His paper about the writer of the diary, Alex­ander Parker, won second prize in the 1980 State History Day contest.