As the “In Harmony” Heritage Music Festival made such an impact last year, Grove City College students chose this new event for a writing project. Learn more about the history of Harmony, festival details and why this quaint, small town in Butler County is so unique!
By: Sarah Horn, Seth Myers, & Jon Meilander
The warmth of the sun on bare skin, the drifting of the gentle wind, and the twinge of sweet music can carry anyone into a harmonious state. Add in the scent of delicious food, the feeling of community, and you have the interwoven celebration of the “In Harmony” Heritage Music Festival. Planning for the second annual event has the town of Harmony, Pennsylvania bustling with excitement over the reemergence of a beloved music festival. The festival is set for July 20th through 21st this coming summer of 2018. It is a two-day outdoor celebration of the city’s roots and musical heritage. The festival is sponsored by Historic Harmony, headquartered in the Harmony Museum, 218 Mercer St. Harmony, PA 16037 just over a half-hour drive from Pittsburgh.
This was a long-time vision of Historic Harmony Board President, John Ruch, who passed away in 2016. An anonymous grant was given to the Harmony Museum in his honor to start up the festival he dreamed of. Ruch’s vision was, as the official website for the festival puts it, to “promote the extensive musical heritage of the Harmonists, using the beautiful historic venues he helped preserve in and around Harmony’s National Landmark District.1” Upon further research, we discovered that a sense of pride in this history truly defines the Harmony Music Festival.
The borough of Harmony, founded in 1804, is rich with history and culture. It has more than 250 years of remarkable history that encompasses the first early 19th century settlement of the Harmony Society in Butler County. Harmony was designated as Western Pennsylvania’s first National Historic Landmark District in 1973, 30 years after the Harmony Museum was founded. The area is about two blocks wide with several buildings dating back to the original settlement period.
The Harmonists were deeply engulfed in music. They were wealthy enough to afford new instruments, music, and even one of the first orchestras in the Alleghenies. Originally organized in Germany, the Harmonists came to the United States to escape the persecution of the Lutheran Church. They settled in Harmony and spread both their beliefs and their music. Eventually, the Harmonists moved to Indiana where New Harmony was founded. After this, they returned to Pennsylvania where they settled in Economy before dying out.
Today, Harmony, PA is home to eight historic properties, including the 1809 museum building and the two main venues for the festival: The Harmonist Barn and the Mennonite Meetinghouse.
Music is a central part of the Harmonists’ history. Finding the right musicians for the festival, then, was vital. We had the opportunity to speak with the Festival Chair, Cheryl Speir, who offered great insight into the current and future vision for the festival. Ms. Speir reaches out through her network of friends in the region’s music community to find musicians and musical acts for the festival. She takes the names of acts, listens to their music, and decides whether they might be a good fit for the festival.
This year, the Harmony Music festival will be featuring 18 different musical acts. “We want to make it exciting for a variety of music genres and age ranges,” Speir explained. “It doesn’t have to strictly be the harmonists’ style from the 1800s, but how that style might have evolved and taken on a new life in some of today’s music. So there’s a mix.” Although these acts may vary somewhat in their styles, a sense of historical reminiscence is central to the music of the Harmony Festival. Some performers, such as The Pittsburgh Historical Music Society Orchestra, perform authentic 18th and 19th Century music on period instruments while in costume2. A group called Dearest Home also performs in historical costumes. Other groups, like the Snappin’ Bug String Band, preserve and perform songs written in the early 20th century Southwestern Pennsylvania3. Another group called Old Song Rescue Society focuses on practicing the traditions of historical music, like interactive singing between the performers and the audience. Overall, the festival has a lot to bring to its many attendees. There is an intricate flow of music styles from folk to classical and bluegrass.
While the Harmony Festival certainly tries to support its local musicians, it also incorporates many of Harmony’s local businesses. Speir mainly focuses on bringing in food and drink-oriented companies, along with a few craft vendors. The festival organizers also try to incorporate non-profit groups that can come in to make some money toward their missions. For regular vendors, Speir said for last year, “We had two local breweries, we had a local vendor for moonshine tasting, and then we had some food vendors. They typically give us a donation, so we can offer the festival again next year." Then musicians can sell their CDs for those that really connect with their music.
The true beauty of the Harmony Festival, however, is its potential to bring people together in celebration of the past. The Harmony Festival is not only a quaint, friendly event for the family, but a necessary fixture of any society, a means of bridging gaps and connecting people over shared Heritage and a passion for music. The festival is beneficial to local businesses, musicians, and most importantly, the strength of the community as a whole. Ms. Speir emphasized the significance of such events to people in a community. “They like the community, history, and being a part of something that’s rooted in history.” Near the end of our interview, we asked if she thought the festival was in line with what John Ruch had envisioned. She replied with certainty. “I do” she said. “I think John would really have loved what happened last year.”
In a follow-up to Speir’s initial interview, we asked if there were any ways to help with the festival. She said that “We can always use volunteers to assist us with the festival – activities such as maintenance of the grounds, admissions, parking attendants, signage placement – day of festival and day before festival, set-up beforehand, and clean-up afterwards.”
The festival will be located on 218 Mercer St. Harmony, PA 16037 from July 20th-21st.