I grew up in Central Pennsylvania where my family had a pool membership at Woodridge Swim Club in Lititz, and we regularly visited the shore at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. While I enjoyed both, Mount Gretna Lake still holds a special place in my heart.
The small town that I lived in had a chocolate factory, not the famous Hershey Chocolate, but its lesser-known rival the Wilbur Chocolate Company. My hometown was also in the heart of the Amish farmland. Every morning I wasn’t sure if I’d be greeted with the sweet smell of milk chocolate being created or the sour stench of fertilizer being laid on the cornfields. But when we went to Mt. Gretna, I always knew the air would smell clean and fresh like pines, chestnut trees, and a myriad of flowers.
Each summer, I relished the challenge of swimming out to the float on the lake that had both a giant ladder leading to a dizzyingly high platform to dive from and an area with a rope swing that would put you out over the water in a thrilling arc before you let go. I also sometimes just chose to float peacefully around the idyllic lake in a giant inner tube or to play in the sandy area on the bank.
My family often set up our towels on the grassy picnic area near the lake because there’s an advantage to not having to worry about pesky sand sticking to your sunscreen and lodging itself between your toes.
Mount Gretna is also the home of my favorite ice cream places: The Jigger Shop. Many years later I still crave the singular sundae called a ‘Chocolate Jigger,” a sundae made with thick hot fudge, smooth cold ice cream, silky marshmallow topping, and crunchy kernels of malt. There’s nothing like a Jigger!
The janky, but charming, miniature golf course with its cracked pavement and deceivingly simple-looking holes provided hours of family fun. Once my younger brother and I laughed ourselves into cramps at my mom taking 27 strokes to finally get her ball into the eighth hole. “Maximum stroke scores of six” didn’t exist at this old-school establishment. The Mt. Gretna Roller Rink was located in a building that looked like a giant barn. It featured wood floors, live organ music, and clunky beige rental skates with toe stops. Gliding around that rink felt like flying.
As a junior in high school, I started going on dates to Mt. Gretna. The 80’s were rife with horror flicks in which unsuspecting teens encountered homicidal maniacs in the woods. More than a few times, my boyfriend Reed and I made out on a scratchy wool blanket in a thick stand of trees near the lake. A sense of (knowingly unjustified) fear always seems to enhance teen passion.
Mt Gretna was originally the Pennsylvania Chautauqua. By the time I reached high school age, I appreciated the Chautauqua’s social movements and their significance for philosophy lectures, women’s rights speakers, dedication to literacy, and general support of the arts and entertainment.
As an adult, I’ve loved taking the winding paths around the old “camp house” area to gaze at the brightly painted homes surrounding the lake with their eclectic architecture, including Gothic Revival, Victorian, Queen Anne, and Craftsman. During Christmas in Mt. Gretna, the houses glitter with even more color and splendor than usual.
Every summer the annual juried Mt Gretna Art Show held near the lake is one of the best I’ve ever attended in the entire world. Because of the canopy of the trees and the elevation, the area is a lovely respite to the humid August heat to stroll through and discover your next “one of a kind” treasure.
The Mt. Gretna Playhouse, a historical outdoor theater, and The Timbers Restaurant and Dinner Theater still provide venues for some of the best plays, music, and dance on the East Coast. Many Equity actors from New York City walk the boards of these iconic stages and I love to peruse the schedules each year for the summer repertoire offerings.
Mt. Gretna is a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The lake has an ineffable draw, a unique vibe, that even today calls to me. Luckily, my mom still lives nearby. I’ve taken my young daughter there and watched her paddle around in the lake’s peaceful waters and soak in its special ambience. And then, of course, to finish our day, we have a Jigger sundae at twilight on the porch of the ice cream parlor in the cool evening air.
-Debby Dodds, Author and guest writer for Lakebound