In a tree filled grove in southern York County, folks sit on folding chairs in a wide semi-circle around the stage, listening to a march by John Phillips Sousa. The steeple of St Paul Ziegler’s Lutheran Church in Seven Valleys rises in the distance, while historic wooden buildings line the back of the grove, housing homemade food like chicken corn soup and raisin pie for sale. There’s local homemade Carmen’s ice cream to indulge in, orange pineapple being a family favorite. My husband’s whole family has gathered here to honor their family patriarch, Dale Gladfelter, as well as to celebrate a moment in the history of this community band which is entertaining us tonight- Brodbeck’s Band. Dale is being honored for being the longest running member of the band- 70 years. He began to professionally beat his drum at the ripe age 10 and this year, Dale turned 80. Seemed like a good enough reason to highlight this little slice of Americana in Pennsylvania- community bands.
During the 1840’s, there were eighty community bands in York County alone. Almost every community had one. They traditionally played at summertime church or Sunday school picnics. Community bands play marches, show tunes, patriotic songs and sacred songs, such as traditional hymns. Most have huge repertoires such as 80 marches in their book of music but are just as comfortable playing a traditional bluegrass piece like “Rocky Top.”
Samuel Brodbeck conceived of the idea of a community band and financed it back in 1856, and so it was named after him as well as the town in which he lived, (which has since been changed to Glenville.)
My husband, Todd’s great, great grandfather, Ephram Gladfelter was instrumental in starting the band. Every generation (four in total) since this community band came into existence, a Gladfelter has kept the beat.
My mother-in-law Doris says that her husband, Dale was always tapping his feet at the kitchen table, to the point of keeping the kids up at night with the vibration and sound. “It’s an involuntary reflex!” she exclaims! Band Director, Carl Steger agrees, “All Gladfelters have the rhythm. Music is in their bones.”
My grown kids, Sierra and Bryce, have fond memories of “band jobs” at York County church picnics. There were lively “cake walks” whose winner got a delicious homemade cake. Their great grandmother, Eva Gladfelter, would dole out quarters, which the kids traded for paper tickets which purchased a pile of penny candy. Fired up on sugar and ice cream, they ran around playing hide and seek behind the tombstones in the neighboring cemetery, shooting water pistols and listening to the music in their periphery. It was really a place to play outside with their cousins, see their extended family and make a memory. This kind of event was the mainstay of a community band, a tradition that is falling by the wayside.
Steger tells me that the average age of the band member is getting older- 50 and above. “Many in the younger generation don’t want to play but part of the appeal of being in a community band is the sense of community, they are a family, and many are related!”
Brodbeck’s rooster is healthy at 50 members with 25-30 showing up for concerts. With only two church picnics, however, they have since begun performing during church services, and at retirement communities and nursing homes- about 30 performances in all.
Although Todd taps incessantly and uncontrollably, the tradition, sadly, of having a Gladfelter drummer in the Brodbeck’s Band will die with Dale. (Although son-in-law Jeff Forbes does play alongside “Papa.”) We live too far away to justify driving two hours one way to practice. But it’s been a good run.
The band plays “Stars and Stripes Forever” as their last number, a tradition, as the folks pack up their chairs, hoping community bands and church picnics will not disappear into the past forever.
(A version of this story will appear in an upcoming issue of Pennsylvania Magazine).
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