From left: Moderator Larry Roeder, Ray Heffentrager, Dawn Newman, Charlie Newman and Danny Newman talk about the history and memories of the Sleep Hollow Ranch in Milford Township, which was deemed the Country-Western Capitol of the East Coast.
It's been more than 50 years since a fire tore through the Sleepy Hollow Ranch in Milford Township, but the legendary Country & Western venue can still draw a crowd. More than 100 people filled the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center meeting room Sunday afternoon to learn about the history of the ranch, share memories and listen to some music of the era.
Local historian Larry Roeder, editor and publisher of the Town & Country newspaper, kicked off the event with a brief history of Sleepy Hollow Ranch, which was opened in 1940 by the Sleepy Hollow Gang. The Gang consisted of Daniel "Uncle Elmer" and Kenneth "Pancake Pete" Newman, as well as a number of other performers. Eventually, the Gang was completed when Elmer and Pete married the Murray Sisters, Julie and Sophie Bogdonavich, respectively. The Gang, tired of constantly driving down to Philadelphia to record its radio show, decided to buy the property in Milford with the intent of opening a country-western amusement park.
For the next 23 years, the site hosted rodeos, square dances, and, of course, the music that earned Sleepy Hollow the title of "Country-Western Capitol of the East Coast."
"Some of the music that came out of Sleepy Hollow was just phenomenal," Roeder said.
Roy Rogers, Jimmy Dean, Loretta Lynn, Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, Audrey Williams, Tex Ritter and a slew of other big names, including a young Bill Haley, graced the stages of Sleepy Hollow. At its location, the Gang could transmit its radio show down to Philadelphia, but the show also went out on local radio waves. The Gang also hosted the first barn-dance show, "Hayloft Hoedown," to be televised coast-to-coast.
Tragically, a fire that started in a storage room behind the bar put an end to the music in November 1963. By the time firefighters arrived to fight the blaze, the main structure and other buildings were already too far gone to save.
"What we lost as a community may never be fully realized," Roeder said.
Roeder's historical account of Sleepy Hollow was followed by a lively panel discussion featuring Ray Heffentrager, a neighbor of Sleepy Hollow who worked and rode horses there for a number of years and became a very close friend of the family; Dawn Newman, granddaughter of Elmer and Julie and the family historian; and Charlie and Danny Newman, sons of Elmer and Julie.
Ray, Charlie and Danny all shared their own memories of the ranch, before the audience was invited to share their recollections. Dawn also shared memories of her grandmother.
Roeder inquired about the scars on Ray's head – sustained during a ride on a bucking bronco during a rodeo. "I rode all kinds of bucking horses" at Sleepy Hollow, he said. In addition to riding in the rodeos, Ray worked at the ranch's ice cream and fruit stands and pretty much helped out wherever he was needed. "From the day they opened up, the Newmans were like family to me," he said.
Danny and Charlie grew up playing music from an early age and often performed at the ranch. "No place that I ever played was" anything like Sleepy Hollow, Danny said. "It was just indescribable."
Charlie agreed, "Walking back stage and seeing [the stars] in the flesh was a treat." He noted one particular occasion when "Porter Wagner showed up with a very beautiful young woman – named Dolly Parton."
As a special treat at the end of the panel discussion, The Newman Brothers played a few tunes to take audience members back to the time when Sleepy Hollow was in its heyday. Renditions of "I'll See You in My Dreams," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and "Cannonball Rag" were met with calls for an encore and a standing ovation from the crowd.
After the performance, audience members milled about in the galleries to view an accompanying exhibit about Sleepy Hollow. The exhibit includes old event posters, photos, instruments, costumes, cowboy boots, a leather hat box gifted to Elmer by Tex Ritter and more.
Gloria Leskosky of Green Lane, who used to frequent Sleepy Hollow with her parents, said she enjoyed the program "immensely." She said of the ranch, "We always went there and we always enjoyed it." Charles Hartzell, also of Green Lane, agreed, remembering the times he would go square dancing at Sleepy Hollow on Friday nights.
Carol Mack – who owns Poor Richard's Historic Hereford Hotel along with her husband, Richard – remembered helping the ladies performing at the ranch style their hair, including the popular television personality Sally Starr. The Newman Brothers "used to play 'Kansas City' – they did such a good job," she said reminiscing.
On a more somber note, the exhibit also includes photos of the fire that razed the ranch and the aftermath of the blaze. As an illustration of just how devastating the fire was, a clump of melted pennies from the cash register is displayed; copper melts at 1984 degrees Fahrenheit.
Charlie said after the presentation that such events are bittersweet. "It's mixed emotions," he said. "Sweet and sad."
David Luz, executive director of the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center, stressed the importance of such programs to "preserve an oral history that's passing…It's information we will lose, so it's good" to do these types of programs while people who still have recollections about past events are still around, he said.
The Sleepy Hollow exhibit at the Schwenkfelder Museum and Heritage Center will be open through Easter. To become a member of the Museum and Heritage Center visit http://www.schwenkfelder.com/friends.html.