On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon in July, families trickled into Mount Gretna to spend a day immersed in old-fashioned Americana, a hidden treasure in the Lebanon County woods that’s like no other town in Pennsylvania — and one of only a few of its kind left in the United States.
Gretna is a step back in time — from the “roller rink” to the old-fashioned ice cream parlor at the Jigger Shop, to Conewago Lake’s retro sandy beach, concession stand and water swings. Add to that the tennis courts, a playground, gift shop, pizzeria and a few restaurants, and it’s a family’s non-stop play day under a cool canopy of oak trees, nearly as old as the town itself.
And then there’s the other side of Mount Gretna, the version of this town that makes it even more special — one of only a few in this country.
In the late 1800s, Mount Gretna became swept up in a movement that created hundreds of summer educational resorts throughout the United States. Built on four pillars — arts, education, religion, and recreation — they were called Chautauquas, named for the first resort of its kind in Chautauqua, New York. The original resort — Chautauqua Institution — and Gretna are among only a small number of these resorts that remain; many disbanded during World War II.
Staying true to the heart of its mission, Mount Gretna has lectures, arts and crafts programs, Gretna Theatre, several summer festivals, a music series, and a nationally recognized juried arts festival in August that fills many of its quaint streets.
“I fell in love with Gretna, like everybody,” said Suzanne Stewart, who started working for Gretna Music in 1999 and is its executive director. “The spirit of Gretna just pulls you in.”
That spirit is also found in its homes. Quaint and unusual for central Pennsylvania, they also make Mount Gretna a magical place. Massive old cottages, once designed to be summer resort homes that now house some of its residents year around, line the streets of this tiny borough. Other homes are occupied part of the year and rented out during the summer.
The home and garden tour is actually a fundraiser for Gretna Music, a diverse program that lures world-class musicians. During Gretna's summer Chautauqua program, musicians such as classical guitarist Christopher Parkening and the quintet Canadian Brass, play at Gretna Theatre. During the academic year, Gretna Music moves to Elizabethtown College.
Since the music program's start 41 years ago, it has offered to anyone 18 years old and younger a $1 fee to attend a concert, and just $5 for an adult accompanying the young concert-goer, Stewart said.
MUSIC: Find the concert schedule here.
THEATER: Find the Gretna Theatre schedule here.
The biggest event of the summer is actually the Mount Gretna Outdoor Art Show on Aug. 20 and 21. It fills the streets with people and art, live music, a children's art show, strolling performers, and a food court.
ART SHOW: Find details and gate fees here.
Take a drive into Gretna for a stroll, some ice cream, a lecture, music, the house tour or the art show, and be prepared to fall in love with the place.