56th Harmoniefest honors borough history, residents, author
HARMONY -- The borough’s distinct history was celebrated at an annual meeting, awards dinner and author’s forum Saturday night during the 56th annual Harmoniefest.
Held in Harmony Museum’s Stewart Hall, 46 history buffs enjoyed wine and cheese followed by a catered dinner, the presentation of the Heritage Award, annual meeting of the Historic Harmony group that keeps the borough’s history alive, and keynote speaker, author C. Prentiss Orr.
The event also marked the 218th anniversary of the first Harmoniefest in 1805, where the borough’s progress of the previous year and plans for the next year were shared with the community.
Harmony was settled in 1804 by Johann Rapp and his followers, who broke away from the Lutheran Church in Germany and founded a pious and efficient borough in Butler County, where they lived for 11 years.
Rodney Gasch, president of Historic Harmony for the past seven years, said the Harmonist Society held the first Harmoniefest in 1805.
The event was revived in 1967, when the then-Harmonist Memorial Society decided to hold a feast to celebrate Rapp’s Harmonist Society and first Harmoniefest.
Greg Such, president of borough council, said residents and visitors alike love to come to Harmony to walk the streets, learn its history and enjoy the distinctive and well-preserved architecture.
“The people of Harmony really love the legacy of having a community built in 1804 and they want to maintain it,” Such said as he waited in line at the dinner buffet. “Harmony is an asset to all of Butler County.”
He said the public events held in Harmony each year bring in visitors from a 90-mile radius.
Longtime Zelienople Mayor Tom Oliverio and his wife, Helen, have been members of Historic Harmony for 50 years and always enjoy the annual Harmoniefest.
Oliverio said he and Helen moved to Harmony in 1966 and lived there for five years before relocating to nearby Zelienople.
The couple remained members of Historic Harmony after moving a short distance to the west.
“It’s a very active organization and we like history,” Oliverio said. “Also, Historic Harmony has a lot of good people.”
“The leaders are very enthusiastic and they kind of spur people on,” she said.
Tom and Karen Nesbitt of the Zelienople Historical Society also attended Harmoniefest on Saturday night.
Karen said the couple attends every year, and that the two neighboring boroughs’ historical groups volunteer for one another’s events.
She said Historic Harmony’s mission statement mandates that its members share the borough’s history with the community.
“They are passionate about that,” Karen said.
Tom Nesbitt was the keynote speaker at the 2022 Harmoniefest, where he talked about the Studebaker family, who built the first log cabin in the county in 1790.
Gwen Lutz, vice president of Historic Harmony, said Harmoniefest is not a fundraiser for the group, as just enough is raised through reservations to attend to cover costs.
“It’s to celebrate the founding of Harmony,” Lutz said. “It’s a nice evening to get together with other people who enjoy history as well as we do.”
After dinner, Gasch presented Harmoniefest’s annual Heritage Award to Jim and Linda McCormick for the historically accurate restoration of their Main Street home, which was built in 1815.
Linda McCormick said she and her husband stripped the old paint on the exterior, left the original brick, repointed the mortar between the bricks, painted the bricks and completed significant tedious detailing included by the home’s builder.
McCormick said she consulted with historical experts in Harmony before deciding what to do with her home of 40 years.
“We were going to just paint it,” she said. “Then I saw the brick and wanted to keep it because it was so beautiful.”
McCormick has a long history in Harmony, as her two grandfathers and father built the monuments in the town square.
But she said the town’s history is not really its best feature.
“The people here are fantastic,” McCormick said. “You can go to anybody and they will help you.”
She said she and her husband were pleased and very surprised to win the Heritage Award.
Gasch then gave Historic Harmony’s annual report, which included the raising of $30,000 for Harmony Museum through the 2022 German Christmas Market and Silvester winter events.
He also touted the upcoming debut on Saturday, Feb. 25, of Community Collections, an event in Stewart Hall that will display 11 unusual collections. More information on the event is available at harmonymuseum.org.
Gasch also announced that he and Lutz will retire at the end of the year from their positions in Historic Harmony, and new leaders must be chosen from among the group’s 150 volunteers.
The final piece of the 2023 Harmoniefest was a presentation by Orr, a historical author who also signed and sold his book, “The Surveyor and the Silversmith.”
Orr detailed the business and social association of David Shields, one of two main subjects of his book, with Johann Rapp and his adopted son, Frederick.
Orr, of Pittsburgh, was delighted to be invited as the keynote speaker for the 2023 Harmoniefest.
“I’m really awed by how many people are here tonight,” Orr said. “I love communities that value their history and actually do something about it.”