Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

The Hills Are Alive: The Perry County hills, that is, with music.

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From Guthrie to Gershwin, Basie to Brahms, Perry County comes alive each year with a wealth of musical programs. Whether it’s the Festival at Little Buffalo in early October, the Fetter House classical music series in the fall and early spring, or the internationally acclaimed Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering in late June, there is something for every ear.

The Festival at Little Buffalo

On Oct. 5, the Festival at Little Buffalo will celebrate its 30th anniversary with an array of great music, tasty food and a wide variety of interesting vendors. The festival runs from noon to dusk at Little Buffalo State Park and is free of charge, although donations are welcome.

Carol Vrcarich, the first executive director of the Perry County Council of the Arts, remembers the beginning.  “It was the summer of 1983, and a number of us gathered around a kitchen table trying to figure out how to celebrate the arts in Perry County. One of our committee members suggested a festival.”

From those humble beginnings grew one of the most successful music festivals in central Pennsylvania.  However, challenges abounded for the organizers. For the first 10 years, festival acts played on a somewhat rickety temporary stage.

“The final straw,” Carol’s husband Tom told me, “was when we hosted a clogging act, and I worried the stage would fall in. Fortunately, our group of volunteers, the Buffalos, went to work and, during one summer, built the Moore Pavilion.” The pavilion became home to the festival, as well as a number of other musical events at Little Buffalo State Park.

Over the past 30 years, a number of national acts have graced the stage—Arlo Guthrie, Kathy Mattea, Rosanne Cash and Leon Redbone to name a few.  “One of the most memorable festivals occurred the Saturday after 9-11,” Tom remembers. “Richie Havens headlined the show and, when he got up on that stage and sang patriotic songs, everyone rose to sing along. There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience, including mine.”

This year, musicians once again will play on the three stages; arts and crafts vendors will be in attendance; and there will be poetry readings, workshops, demonstrations and lots of great food. The performers, some new to the festival and some who have played previously, are always diverse and crowd-pleasers.

The Buffalo Kids area will be active again, including dance, music and magic. Parking is ample and convenient, so visit the website, pick out your favorite acts and come prepared to enjoy toe-tapping music, tasty food and items for sale.

Classical Music Moments

For more than 20 years, the Sunday Arts Hour has brought beautiful classical music to central Pennsylvania. This autumn, you have an opportunity again to join the tradition and savor an afternoon of music from some of central Pennsylvania’s leading performers.

The historic Fetter House in Landisburg, Pa., built in 1848 and the current site of the Arts Hour, was the family home of the late Lady Marjorie Fetter-Goossens. The Steinway grand piano in the parlor belonged to her husband, Sir Eugene Goossens, a composer, violin virtuoso and symphony conductor.

Sir Goossens’ fabulous piano continues to delight music lovers, thanks to the generosity of Lady Goossens and the Perry County Historical Society.

Dick Gregg has been the driving force behind these programs. “Many of the musicians,” he said, “come back time and again because they love the parlor setting and the wonderful Steinway piano.”

When I asked him who was his favorite performer, he said, “That’s really tough because there have been so many great ones, but John Eaken was our first performer, and his wonderful trio has played for us a number of times. They even played for my 50th wedding anniversary celebration.”

Each year, there are four Sunday Arts Hour concerts—the first Sunday of October, November, February and March. The concerts this fall will be presented by pianist Steve Rudolph in October and Bucknell College Music Professor Barry Hannigan in November. Be sure to check the Perry County Council of the Arts website for times and locations since the concerts are now divided between the Fetter House in Landisburg and the Landis House in Newport.


Mark Your Calendars

It may not take place until next June, but it is perhaps Perry County’s most noted annual music event and is definitely worth the wait. In 2014, the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering will be held June 25 to June 29 at Little Buffalo Campground, about five miles west of Newport.

This internationally acclaimed festival brings together autoharp enthusiasts from around the world for five days of workshops, concerts and around-the-clock music-making. Now in its 23rd year, the festival features concerts and workshops by some of the folk world’s best musicians.

Dr. George Orthey is the founder of this musical happening, as well as the premier maker of autoharps for the past 50 years. Orthey began building instruments in1964, and this avocation became a full-time enterprise when he returned to Newport after 28 years of service with the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps.

Over the years, Orthey has built 1,500 autoharps and 1,639 mountain dulcimers, along with a number of other instruments. He currently has the wood cut out for eight more autoharps. “If my health hangs in there,” he said, “I hope to build a hundred more autoharps, then we’ll see.” Knowing George, I believe he’ll make that goal.

Orthey autoharps have been owned and played by some of the finest musicians in the world—June Carter Cash, Mike Seeger, Doc Watson, Patsy Stoneman and most of the Carter family, the first family of country music.

I asked him how he got to know June Carter and Johnny Cash. “After I had built a number of harps, a friend suggested I travel to Carter Fold, home to the Carter family, and set up a booth,” he said. “While there, Janette Carter, June’s first cousin, stopped by and liked what she saw. Her brother, Uncle Joe Carter, suggested I make three harps, one of those would be for June. I’m not a musician myself, so it’s been a thrill for me to become friends with the Carter family and enjoy them and other terrific musicians playing my instruments.”

If you’re interested in learning to play the autoharp, you can register for a number of workshops at the festival. And, if you’re in the market to buy an autoharp, there are normally at least seven of the world’s best-known autoharp luthiers on site.

For those of you who can’t wait until next June to learn to play the autoharp or hear toe-tapping music played on the ‘harp, the Mini-Mountain Laurel workshop and concert series is for you. This is a group of afternoon workshops and evening concerts with recognized autoharp masters beginning on Nov. 1 to 2 and continuing monthly thereafter. Check out for the exact times and locations.

More Music

In addition to the musical events mentioned above, there are many other gatherings around the county, such as a coffee house series sponsored by the Perry County Council of the Arts, church recitals and concerts, a number of festivals at wineries and a community theater each spring. So what are you waiting for? Place these wonderful musical activities on your calendar and enjoy your own Perry County “Sound of Music.”

Don Helin published his first thriller, “Thy Kingdom Come,” in 2009. His recently published thriller, “Devil’s Den,” has been selected as a finalist in the Indie Book Awards. Contact Don at his website,



Perry County Council of the Arts

Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering

The Little Buffalo Festival

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