There are a lot of things I learned to love about Pennsylvania the year I lived there: the broad fields of deep, rich soil and the Amish farms that seem to have to limit to their production. The way the locals call it "P A", and the endless tables of starchy, white food. But that's just the view from Lancaster County, and this enormous state is full of surprises. One of them I found just down the road from me.
Mount Gretna is nestled just south of the first folds of the Alleghany Mountains, in a strip of forest flanked by plowed fields as though the disks had just separated a bit in passing. It would've remained unknown to me had relatives not chosen to retire there. And it amazes me to this day.
Secluded in penumbral light under pines and hardwoods that date back to centuries past, and laid out in a way that betrayed the planners of a pre-automobile, farming society; the chatter of birds and squirrels on all sides, and the buzz of card games and low conversation from the broad, wooden decks flanking footpaths: to visit Gretna is to go back in time by about a century, to the late 1800s and the Chatauqua movement.
Gretna was a resort spot on a Pennsyvlania train line, built by 18th century industrialist Robert H. Coleman at a time when resorts still meant chopping wood for the potbellied stove and having your morning constitutional in a wooden latrine. It drew two sets of regular visitors: a crowd of fervent Methodists who began organizing camp meetings (and indeed, "Camp Meeting" was its original name), and the Pennsylvania Chautauqua, members of a movement who believed that culture, religion, education and recreation could lead to a state of human perfection. They organized speakers, music, and entertainers in traveling caravans known to visit hundreds of American cities over a course of a summer. William Jennings Bryan, preaching temperance, was a well-loved regular on the Chautauqua circuit until his death, as were many a motivational speaker as well as probably more than one huckster.
My family organized a family reunion that brought Woods into the Gretna woods from all over, and my relatives kindly lodged us in rented homes in town, affording us the briefest of glimpses into what life in Mount Gretna is - and must have been - like. For starters, it must have been a summer town, because there wasn't much for heating and insulation other than a potbellied stove or a fire place. Inside, the low-ceilinged rooms gave a sense of intimacy or claustrophobia depending on your height. Real living was obviously conducted on the broad porches, each set with multiple sets of wicker chairs orbiting card tables, stuffed couches, and carved, wooden benches. Checkers and iced tea made sense, and card games over bowls of stew and hearty bread. What did you cook on those old wood burning stoves? And how far did you have to go to get your supplies? Behind our backs was forest and the easy hike up to Mount Governor Dick. Beneath us was a broad, public pond with a sandy, swimming beach.
I couldn't imagine wintering there (it was cold enough in a somewhat-modern A-Frame in which I spent the winter of 94 in Speedwell Forge). But it was fun to spend a pair of late-summer evenings, wondering what life must have been like before automobiles, when houses could be set together across a path just broad enough to bring a horse up, when entertainment and learning meant a summer spent at a camp, listening to speakers and being exposed to new ideas at a time when information traveled slowly. I was fun to imagine cooking over the wood stove, and swimming in the lake (who swims in lakes anymore?)
I also envied the Chautauqua movement itself. Such heady idealism, and to reach it these days you have to dig through two world wars and the Cold War, the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb, and the grinding violence of the 20th century Middle East. It's fun to think, as you lean into your wicker chair on a moonless late summer evening in the forest, that there's still a place for a society bent on human perfection through education, religion, culture, and recreation. But in the age of the Internet, when information is more available than ever, but wisdom is not; when religion is either a fading shadow or a knife that divides; and when we increasingly seek the entertainment of our possessions than the camaraderie of our companions, it's increasingly difficult to believe in.
And there under the forest shadows, remains hope. And a whole lotta squirrels.
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