Mt. Gretna was born in a forest of chestnut trees that for more than a century provided charcoal to the Cornwall Furnace that once forged cannons for George Washington’s army. The site was discovered in 1883 as a pleasant place to spend a summer day along the extinct Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad linking the Reading Railroad in Lebanon with the Pennsylvania Railroad near Elizabethtown. Originally you could travel here by rail from any point in the country. President Benjamin Harrison actually did. He and thousands of picnickers detrained at a small station, walked down a tree-lined corridor past a stone fountain (that still exists) and spent the day in a woodland park that expanded each year as the number of visitors grew, eventually sporting an elaborate carousel, a primitive roller coaster called a “switch-back,” a dancing pavilion, and other attractions of an early amusement park. In 1885 the Pennsylvania National Guard began a 50-year annual encampment at Mt. Gretna. That year Conewago Creek was dammed to form Lake Conewago, more aptly called a pond, but ideal for swimming and canoeing.
In 1889 iron-foundry heir and generous owner of most of Mt. Gretna’s original land, Robert Coleman, built a narrow gauge railroad to carry visitors from the park, around the lake and up to the top of Governor Dick Hill where they could see as far as Lancaster and Harrisburg. A loving history of Mt. Gretna can be found in Gretna historian, Jack Bitner’s book: “Mt. Gretna, A Coleman Legacy.” In 1892 a group of Evangelical United Brethren members identified Mt. Gretna as a good location for a Chautauqua. Like hundreds of Chautauquas Mt. Gretna’s “Pennsylvania Chautauqua” was modeled after the original Chautauqua Institution, established in 1874 in New York state. Within a few years they drew up a plan for lots and began constructing, according to a popular plan of the day, a vaulted conical-roofed outdoor auditorium for lectures, religious services and concerts. The first Chautauquans built summer cottages around it, a Hall of Philosophy for meetings, and a small wooden Greek temple for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. Both buildings are still used today. That same year the United Brethren moved in across Pinch Road from Chautauqua and hired the same builder, John Cilley, from Lebanon, to build a Tabernacle for religious services and Bible meetings. The Tabernacle, a smaller version of the Playhouse (23 chestnut supporting posts around the perimeter vs. 26) still stands in the Campmeeting (the Playhouse collapsed just short of its hundredth anniversary year in 1994 under a heavy load of snow and ice). The Brethren mapped out plots for tents around the Tabernacle, but by the first summer’s Bible Conference 100 cottages had already been built by worshipers on the tent plots. Tents appeared only around the immediate perimeter of the Tabernacle, each sparsely furnished with a table, chairs, a lamp, a Bible and a box-like bed with straw sheets. The success of Mt. Gretna as a summer retreat led to the construction of restaurants and hotels, including the Chautauqua Inn, The Jigger Shop Ice cream parlor, The Conewago Hotel, Kaufman’s Store and Hotel, and others.
Through the first two decades of the 20th century, Mt. Gretna teemed with summer visitors who attended concerts, lectures, trade shows and Bible meetings and relaxed in the park, lake and on porches. And, as the Lebanon Daily News reported in 1892, “During all this time…the Chautauqua and Campmeeting are occupied by persons who love to linger around the pleasant scenes of this delightful place and to drink in all that is to be seen and heard. Built in 1909, the 125-room Conewago Hotel was one of the first in the country to offer private baths and telephones in the rooms and an elevator, as well as “servants in uniform… and chefs from New York.” Guests could enjoy the terraced tennis courts overlooking the lake and parade grounds by day and a “ladies orchestra” in the dining room at night for dinner and dancing. It thrived for only two decades. A casualty of the new mobility made possible by the automobile, it was already vacant when the Depression dealt it a second blow. It was finally dismantled in 1940. The Chautauqua Inn, once standing near the Playhouse, had a longer life. It was more rustic and lacked private baths, but its dining room remained legendary well into the second half of the century. Even so, modern fire codes and liability insurance rates forced its closing and demolition in 1970. For a short time the small Kaufman Hotel across from the current Mt. Gretna Inn, completed a trio of Gretna hotels, but it too no longer exists. No longer an obligatory destination of captive railroad passengers, many of Mt. Gretna’s attractions languished in the 1920s as vacationers drove their cars to the Atlantic shore and other more distant points, and students found summer education at colleges.
The Depression, departure of the National Guard in 1933, and finally World War II diminished Mt. Gretna’s popularity. The amusement park closed, hotels lay empty, and the narrow gauge was abandoned. Even the chestnut trees fell victim to a nationwide blight and were replaced by oaks and evergreens. Some Gretna institutions continued: a long tradition of theater in the Playhouse, the Campmeeting Bible Conference, Chautauqua programs in the Hall of Philosophy (aka Community Building), the Jigger Shop, swimming and boating in the lake, a roller rink which was once the Farmers Exhibition Hall, and, or course, the long tradition of lingering on the porches. The Timber Restaurant was built in the 1960’s on the gentle rise that had been the site of the National Guard headquarters. A growing population of permanent residents began to occupying the homes. Some date Mt. Gretna’s modern revival to 1976 and the First Annual Outdoor Art Show, the creation of Gretna artists, Bruce Johnson and Reed Dixon and John Wenzler, then Director of Summer Programs for the Chautauqua. In its distinctive setting, the show almost immediately became on the most successful in the state. In the next two years, a new Gretna resident, physician and musician, Carl Ellenberger, again at the suggestion of John Wenzler, began inviting musician friends to perform in the Playhouse and longtime Gretna resident, Mary Hoffman revived the theater productions in the Playhouse after a year when the theater was dark. Both Gretna Theatre and Music at Gretna flourished, attracted government, foundation and corporate grants as well as new visitors and residents. Mt. Gretna became known in the region as a center for arts and culture and increasingly as a desirable place to live, especially for those who wanted to participate in its artistic activities, but also those who had discovered its other virtues during a visit to the Playhouse or the Art Show. Many Gretna residents serve on one or more of the boards that guide each section of the community and the performing groups, and most volunteer to help at the Art Show which brings thousands of visitors and vital economic support to Mt. Gretna. Whether or not Gretna residents enjoy the artistic activities of Mt. Gretna, they mostly agree that these activities give the community an identity far stronger that most other communities of similar size and make it a desirable place to live.