Penn Township dedicates historical marker in tribute to Sunset Park
● By Richard Gaw
Beneath a large white tent that nearly butted against the flow of traffic along Jennersville Road in West Grove last Sunday evening, about 120 Penn Township residents and patrons of country music gathered to pay tribute to a venue that stood near the site for 55 years, and while the legacy of Sunset Park flooded memories and elicited some tears, those in attendance reserved their heartiest thanks for the man who made Sunset Park possible – Lawrence Waltman.
On Aug. 12, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, in partnership with the Penn Township Board of Supervisors and the township's Historical Commission unveiled an historic marker honoring Sunset Park, an open-air ampitheater that served as one of the nation's most prominent country music venues from 1940 to 1995, and drew a Who's Who of country and bluegrass music legends.
Following tributes to Waltman and Sunset Park, an historical marker sign was unveiled on Jennersville Road at Waltman Lane that reads:
One of the premier music venues outside of Nashville, the park featured many of the biggest stars of country and bluegrass. Operated by the Waltman family from 1940 to 1994, it supported the transition from pre-WWII “hillbilly music” to the nationally popular country music genre. Featured artists included Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis and Bill Monroe. Live unreleased recordings of major performers have been preserved.
The signage is one of 2,600 state historic markers in Pennsylvania.
“Recently, I came across a June 2017 Rolling Stone Magazine list of the 100 greatest country music artists of all time,” said Scott Steele of the township's historical commission, who organized the event and served as its' master of ceremonies. “Rolling Stone ranked the top five, starting with number one, Merle Haggard, (followed by) Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and the Carter family. All five played the stage here at Sunset Park, some multiple times.”
Steele said that the dream to build a stage to serve as a platform for the musical genre began in 1939, when “Uncle Roy” Waltman and his son Lawrence hired Amish carpenters to build a performance stage in an eight-acre grove of trees on the edge of the family's 98-acre dairy farm. It opened in the spring of 1940, and for the next several decades, came to be known as the nation's most prominent country music venue outside of Nashville and hosted the likes of Dolly Parton, George Jones, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, George Strait and Waylon Jennings.
Steele told the audience that having a place to house the growing demand for country and bluegrass music was a welcome sight for the influx of southerners, who migrated north during World War II to work at the GM-Chrysler plant in Delaware and on farms in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“These transplants, who were part of what was called the Appalachian Migration, could find a little bit of home in the small concert venue, a few miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line,” Steele said.
What began as a performance refuge for many emerging country music artists who were looking to escape the glare of the Nashville music scene eventually evolved into subsequent generations of musicians, who longed to play at Sunset Park because their idols once did. Two of those artists were Randy Travis, who drew over 6,000 fans to the venue in 1987, and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who visited Sunset Park in 1964 as a 21-year-old, in order to see his bluegrass hero, Bill Monroe.
Lawrence and his wife Hazel, who married in 1943, took over the operation of the park when Roy died in 1957, and the Waltman family became synonymous with Sunset Park, which also included their children Anita, Larry and Donald, and later, the fourth generation of the family, who also assisted during concerts.
The ceremony was opened by Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass, and also included a country music tribute by Maria Rose and her husband Danny Elswick, who performed “Sunset Park,” an original song written by Rose. During her performance, emotions got the better of Rose, who sang the song's last lines through tears.
The real hero of the ceremony, however, sat in the shade of a John Deere vehicle beneath a tree and watched speaker after speaker pay tribute to him and the musical era he created.
Looking at Waltman, Steele said, “Lawrence Waltman is 99 years, eleven months and 25 days old. On Aug. 17, Lawrence will turn 100. What an honor it is to have you and your family here, as we celebrate your tremendous contributions to the community and honor the Sunset Park legacy to country music.”
Other speakers congratulated Waltman on the occasion of his upcoming birthday and his contributions.
After introducing Lawrence and his three children, Curtis Mason, chairman of the Penn Township Board of Supervisors, said, “They're the ones who kept Uncle Roy's dream alive and going for 55 years. They created and maintained with love a special place in the hearts of so many that reminded them of their home down south.
“It seems everybody has a Sunset Park story, and even music greats like Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash came to Penn Township, all of whom were here because of Uncle Roy and Lawrence.”
Finishing with the quote, “Preserve your memories/Keep them well/What you forget you will never retell,” Mason said, “Today is our way of making sure that [Sunset Park] will never be forgotten.”
State Sen. Andy Dinniman remembered visiting Sunset Park on the 50th anniversary of the venue, and recalled that the Country Music Association presented Waltman with a gold record for his contributions to country music. Referring to Rose's song, Dinniman said that Sunset Park now serves as a place of memories.
“I think that if we all listen real hard today, we can hear that music, can't we?” Dinniman said. “We can hear all of those performers. We can hear the joy of the crowds as they came here. I urge you before you leave this place, to open your ears to what Sunset Park was all about – to the joy it meant to be here.
“There was a time here in this county where we could all come together, where 'Republican' and 'Democrat' didn't mean one thing or another, or whether we were young or old, or black or white. What mattered was that we all came here together, without alcohol or drugs, and because the Waltman family gave us a venue [where] we could all celebrate the best of what this country, and what this county, was all about.”
Dinniman presented a citation to the township, and then left the podium, walked over to Waltman and presented him with a citation that honored him on the occasion of his 100th birthday and his contributions to Sunset Park.
Additional speakers included State Rep. John Lawrence; Ken Woodward, retired Oxford High School principal and president of the Oxford Area Historical Association; Pastor Jim Mundell of the West Grove United Methodist Church; Dr. William Lewis, commissioner of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; and Victor Mantegna, vice chair of the Penn Township Board of Supervisors.
Following the ceremony, the township held “Sunset Park Day” at Penn Township Park, that featured follow-up performances by Rose and Elswick, and Paisley and his band, as well as carnival rides and games, a moon bounce and food and treats by Hood's BBQ, Kona Ice and the Plum Pit.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.