Music of Mercersburg

By Joan C. McCulloh

Music alone with sudden charms can bind
The wand’ring sense, and clam the troubled mind.
William Congreve

     Music has always been important to the life of Mercersburg and the surrounding area, and we who live here have been richly blessed. Through the years the churches have had many choirs, both of children and adults. For many years St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church has had a bell choir, a ministry to those who are handicapped. Likewise, the public schools have always maintained music programs with concerts, both vocal and instrumental, presented by students of all ages. In addition, the community for many years has had a band beginning, to our limited knowledge, with Captain Bradley’s Saxe Band in the nineteenth century and the Eagle Cornet Band, organized by Dr. Grosh, at the end of that same century. The last leader of that band, Harmon Hege, went on to direct the community band until his death in 1943. After World War II the American Legion Community Band was formed and later became the Mercersburg Community Band which still exists. The Mercersburg Academy also through the years has had a highly developed musical program with concerts, other musicals, and recitals by other musical groups to which the public is cordially invited. Today, of course, we are all aware of the music of the Mercersburg Area Community Chorus founded in 1975 with both its spring and Christmas concerts. Also, and very importantly, people in few communities have the opportunity to listen to the beautiful sounds of the carillon of the Mercersburg Academy that has provided from on high lovely music since the fall of 1926.

     In 1843 Alex McKinstry owned the first newspaper in Mercersburg, the Visitor. In the June 24 edition of that year an article, Music in Mercersburg, by an unnamed author appeared. The article in its entirety follows.

Music in Mercersburg

     “It is not necessary to be long in this place to discover that the subject of Music receives a considerable state of attention. Indeed, very few villages of the same size are blessed either with the quantity or quality of Music that ours is. It is frequently the case and especially towards evening at this time of year that the whole of Main street is filled with the soft notes of the Piano. And a person promenading from one end of the town to the other no sooner ceases to hear the performance which first attracted his attention than a column of new notes from the next house breaks upon his ear. In this way, led on, at every short interval hearing a different piece, he soon finds himself at the other end of town greatly gratified with the treat, and strongly disposed to retrace his steps. Flutes, clarionetts, violins, guitars & abound here also. The young men in this institution for the most part perform these…. during recreation hours, and not be greeted with a symphony from these delightful instruments. The citizens of the town, and the ladies in particular, know how well they can perform. All have had frequent opportunities hearing their pieces and that at a time which gave them the most effect. None can forget the serenading parties or the pleasurable emotions that those on being greatly awakened by a concert of soft instruments beneath the window. These little parties, passing off at the expense of sleep, evince, if nothing else, a troubador’s love of music; while at the same time they present a practical exemplification of the moral effects of music in disposing young persons to prefer recreation of t his kind to those unseemly roles which render night hideous.

     “The music in our churches may be said to be good; on many accounts commendable. That there is much in all the choirs which might be improved, I truly admit. There is a clinging to the old kind of notes and to the old kind of tunes also that reminds one that church music here dare not claim a prominence in the march of improvement that many other towns justly do. This, however, is not said in the way of fault-finding. Many of us who recollect the screeching, discordant singing which we had in our churches a few years ago have noticed a an improvement highly deserving of encouragement.

     “Singing schools for the purpose of learning the elements of music were at one time very fashionable in this place and were attended by young persons of both sexes and of all circles. Unfortunately, however, the interest in improving associations has become extinguished. And it is to be ardently hoped that some person may soon visit us who will bring with him a new impulse to this cause.

     “It is pleasing to observe, however, that instruction in instrumental music is better appreciated. For several years back an Italian instrumentalist made his stay with us and supported himself by giving instructions on the piano and different other kinds of instruments. He left us a short time ago. But his placed is now filled by a foreigner, who comes with the best of recommendations from a school of music in Germany, and who, I have understood, has already received flattering encouragement from different quarters. But in speaking of the state of Music in our midst, I cannot forbear mentioning a little association for the cultivation of ’music, which, though is devoted. I refer to a Juvenile Singing School connected with one of the Sunday Schools of this place, gratuitously conducted by a member of the Theological Seminary. It meets weekly in some private family and is occasionally visited by persons who take interest in objects of this kind. I have heard it remarked how pleasantly these little meetings pass off, and how marked the improvement of members from week to week. This is nothing but what one would naturally suppose. There can be no doubt at all but that Sunday School scholars are just the persons who should commence to learn to sing. Their voices at such a tender age are sweeter, more flexible and present less difficulty in being made to conform to that of an experienced teacher than is the case at any other period. And if any wish to be persuaded of this, let them but listen to the harsh, grating notes of a young lady or a young gentleman who as grown up, as it were, unconscious of the gift of song that slumbers in the soul.

     “Besides, it is passing strange that Sunday Schools whose professed object is to bring the young soul in communion with its Maker, should pay so little attention to the singing of psalms, which has such a strong tendency to raise our spirit from the rough world to a calm, complacent communion with Heaven. Sunday School scholars are generally required to commit hymns, verses from the Bible, prayers &, then why is not singing made a part of the tasks of every school.”

Note: “The Juvenile Singing School connected to one of the Sunday Schools of this place” was undoubtedly the one that young Henry Harbaugh, later the Reverend Dr. Henry Harbaugh, who taught in the local Theological Seminary of the German Reformed Church, conducted during his latter time here as a student from 1840 until 1843. A few months before he left the seminary in the fall of 1843 Harbaugh wrote the following about this experience: “This afternoon about three o’clock I visited the ‘Juvenile Female Sewing Society’ of Mercersburg, of which I am an honorary member. Perhaps I told you before of this society. It consists of young girls about 12 years of age. They sew little things, the profit of which is devoted to missionary purposes. They have already between four and five dollars of money. I like to encourage them, so I visit them frequently. They meet every Saturday afternoon. They are also my singing class. I took them a watermelon this afternoon. It was a large and excellent one. They were much pleased and we had a great feast. They are improving beyond all expectations, and I intend to hold a concert this fall before I leave. We are at present practicing tunes for it and I think we will have a crowded audience. I do not like to part with my class, and they do not like to part with me, but it must be. It is harder to leave this class than anything else I have found in Mercersburg.” Harbaugh all of his life loved music.

Music in Our Public Schools

     Music in our area public schools is deserving of special attention. In 1911 in Pennsylvania Act XVI, Section 1607 provided for the teaching of music in the public schools but only on n optional basis. However, in 1921 Act XVI Section 1607 Revised stated that the teaching of music was and is mandatory in every elementary school in the state. For many years individual classroom teachers provided the music instruction in their classes. In 1921 Mercersburg hired its first music supervisor, Henrietta Craley, who taught in 1921-1922 and who was followed by Bertha Yocum 1922-1921, Ellen Nevin Heffner, 1923-1927, Alda K. Myers 1927-1931, Mary E. Brewer, 1931-1937, Betty Fizell 19227-1928, Paul Lucas 1938-1942. Since that time many music teachers have served the district. In 1939 St. Thomas and Hamilton Townships hired a music supervisor, Maralee Gipe 1939-1942 who was followed by Ruth Wix 1942-l943 and Anne Rinedollar Reese 1943-1944. St. Thomas also had a vital music program including a band that could also be recognized by “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Peters Township in 1941 hired its first music supervisor, Faith Harbeson 1941-1944 who was followed by Dorothy Royer and other music teachers who directed various musical groups. In all of these schools concerts, operettas, and Christmas musicals were integral to the rhythm of the school year.

     From 1925 to 1932 Franklin County Field Meets in which students competed in both athletic and music were held. In these meets held each April choruses from the high schools in the county, divided into Class A and Class B by their school census and later sub-divided according to whether or not the district had a music supervisor, competed for first, second and third place awards. In 1927 Mercersburg received the first place award, in 1928 received the second place award, in 1929 was in third place, and in 1931 was again in first place. In 1931, although Peters Township had not yet hired a music supervisor, it received the second place award in the Class A group. In that same year St. Thomas in Class B received the second place award. In 1932 both Peters Township and St. Thomas, one with a music supervisor and one without a music supervisor, received first place awards. Since this competition in both athletics and music was so intense, in 1940 it was decided to discontinue these events and to hold a Music Festival each year in which choruses from both elementary and high schools would present selections with no thought of competition but for the enjoyment of the music itself. However, with gasoline rationing. these festival were discontinued during World War II. However, in 1948 music teachers in the county brought these Music Festivals back and chose Wayne Mowery as president and Helen Hovis Martin as secretary-treasurer. These reorganized events lasted some years until they took a different structure.

     Music instruction and enjoyment occurred not only in the consolidated schools in the boroughs but also in the rural one room and two room schools long before the time of the traveling music teachers who came to the schools at appointed times. In one room and two room schools every teacher set the tone of his or her school or room so that each school or room was a reflection of the teacher’s personality and interests. In addition to the many subjects each teacher taught it seems that most teachers including singing in one form or another and prepared their students for special programs and entertainments, especially at Christmas. Although the amount of music varied with each teacher, singing was important. One teacher who also drove a school bus after the advent of the big yellow buses recalled the merry singing of the students as they rolled along toward their homes.

      But singing was mot the only kind of music in the one room and two room schools. For instance, in 1926 Earl M. Smith, teacher of the Lafayette School in Montgomery Township, formed, trained, and directed the Lafayette School Band comprised of his students. In 1929 the twenty student-members with the sounds of two song-a-phone saxophones, three solo cornets, two first cornets, one second cornet, one third cornet, three slide trombones, two B flat basses, one baritone, one B flat alto, cymbals, one song-a-phone clarinet, one bass drum, and one tenor drum gave various concerts and during the summer vacation played at picnics and festivals.


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