Sometimes, you want to go where everybody knows your name. Luckily, you only need to travel to North Street in historic downtown Harrisburg to find it.
“It’s like Harrisburg’s version of Cheers,” said Barry Dobb, president of Der Harrisburg Maennerchor, the city’s oldest fraternal organization that recently celebrated its 150th consecutive year of operation.
The members-only club operates out of a renovated cathedral, its architecture and décor reflecting its history, culture and values. A mahogany staircase leads to a second floor used for private parties, monthly membership meetings and corn hole tournaments. Large, cathedral-style windows line the north wall, inviting in an abundance of natural light and a clear view of the state Capitol.
The main floor consists of a horseshoe-shaped bar and a game room with family-style seating, pool tables and an oversized Jenga. Coats of arms decorate the walls, representing various regions of Germany—a symbolic nod to the club’s beginnings.
Whether a bartender, business owner or government official—the Harrisburg Maennerchor offers fellowship, great prices and a variety of other amenities to its nearly 800 male and female members.
“Three words come to my mind when I think of the place,” said Bryan Robinson, who joined last August, “economical, pleasant and entertaining.”
“As far as I’ve been told,” Dobb added, “it’s been like that since the beginning.”
Der Harrisburg Maennerchor—literally “The Harrisburg Men’s Choir”—formed in 1867, one of many German-American clubs that sprouted up across Pennsylvania in the 19th century to share and preserve a common heritage following mass migration from Europe.
“Each club operates independently, but they all started for the same reason, the same cause,” Dobb said.
Club records indicate meetings were originally held at Eby’s Place, located on Market Street across from the railroad station.
According to the “Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania,” community advocate Eby Byers erected the building in 1862 to care for wounded soldiers during the Civil War. It later evolved into a meeting place for immigrant groups, including the Maennerchor, where men could commune for fellowship and fun.
The club secured its official charter in 1890 and purchased a building at Walnut and River streets, now the location of the McCormick Library. Membership increased, and the club sold the Walnut Street property to the Dauphin County Library System in 1901, buying the cathedral at North and Church streets.
“We’re one of the oldest continuously operating clubs of its kind in the country,” said Dobb. “We’re part of Harrisburg’s history.”
Club activities evolved in response to the changing political climate, yet it remained operational.
“We survived Prohibition,” Dobb said. “Rumor was they used to run booze through the catacombs in the basement.”
Although the Prohibition-era activity is part of many members’ narratives, Dobb emphasized that no records document any unlawful alcohol transport.
In the 1940s, membership declined.
“They began downplaying the German aspect, and that’s when focus shifted to core values, to caring for the community,” Dobb explained.
Later in the 20th century, membership expanded again when women could join. In 1980, the Women’s Auxiliary gained momentum. Dobb said that the group supports the community and the club, selling baked goods at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and sponsoring various events.
Looking after their community is important.
“Members take care of one another,” Dobb said. “People come for the great prices, the fellowship and the food—and, of course, they enjoy the gambling.”
More than half of the gaming proceeds go to fund the club’s charitable giving. To date, the Maennerchor has donated more than $329,000 to numerous nonprofits, including the American Cancer Society, the Harrisburg Public Schools Foundation and the Salvation Army.
Volunteer committees also organize events and fundraisers throughout the year, celebrating the club’s culture and values. Most recently, it hosted an Oktoberfest that included an outdoor biergarten along Church Street. In November, it held a celebratory dinner to commemorate its 150th anniversary.
Robinson said that the club offers much to members.
Dinner is served five nights a week, along with a weekly Sunday brunch and bloody Mary bar. The private club designation permits alcohol to be served until 3 a.m.
“It can be two or three deep at the bar, and all the tables full on any given night,” said Vice President Georg McLaughlin. “But everyone respects the rules.”
Dobb, McLaughlin and Robinson agreed that the rules are part of the tradition. These include no hats or tank tops for men and no foul language.
“There’s a swear jar the bartender will get out if you forget,” McLaughlin warned.
Long-time member and former manager Paul Baldari also believes the club’s friendly atmosphere stems from a universal respect of its policy. Throughout his 27-year involvement, Baldari has held numerous leadership posts and was instrumental in many changes in the club. He attributes the Maennerchor’s long-term success to one major factor.
“It’s the people—the members and the staff,” he said. “Someone is always willing to step up.”
Baldari is part of the club’s modern history. He has seen business ebb and flow, yet one thing remains consistent.
“It’s always been a nice place to go,” he said, noting that many members often refer to it as Harrisburg’s “best kept secret.”
Dobb pointed out that too much of a secret can be a bad thing.
“When you’re private from everyone, you’re going too far,” he said. “We want people to know what we stand for and what we do.”
Membership expansion continues to be a priority. Robinson said he plans to use social media to increase outreach and share the club’s community events. According to Robinson, new members can expect to find camaraderie in an easygoing atmosphere—one that has been 150 years in the making.
“This is no longer a German club,” Robinson said. “It’s a club for every race and religion—a friendly place for friendly people.”
Der Harrisburg Maennerchor is located at 221 North St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.hbgmaennerchor.com or their Facebook page.