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The Day the Music Died
Written by Larry Roeder, Editor

Originally published in the Town and Country as part of the Valley Past series on Feb. 27, 2003, the article has been updated with additional information and a first-hand account of this devastating fire.


On Sunday Nov. 3, 1963, at 5:40 in the morning, a passing motorist saw flames

coming from the structure.  The passer-by went to the next-door home of Daniel

Newman to alert him of the blaze and call for help.

            Sixty years ago, on November 3, 1963, we lost our area's best-known dance hall to the rage of fire – the Sleepy Hollow Ranch.  The fire struck well after the last customers and employees had gone home for the evening and nobody was hurt.  What we lost as a community may never be fully realized. 

            The Sleepy Hollow Ranch opened on May 4, 1940.  For years, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, summer holidays usually featured a Wild West and Rodeo show on the grounds of the Ranch.  It wasn't unusual for crowds of over 3,000 to attend the events.  The wooded surroundings were also home to several log cabin concession

The silhouettes of volunteer firefights against the flames cast

an eerie image and show the intensity of the wind-swept

flames devouring the building.

stands.  Pony rides, games, and kiddie rides helped to provide a carnival atmosphere for all the events.  At one time there were even stock car races held on the grounds.

            The rodeos were popular, but the musical entertainment that filled the 80x100 foot dance-hall building and the outdoor stage were the trademark of the local business.  Set beautifully in a section of woods on top of Kooker's Hill, just off the old Route 663 (Sleepy Hollow Road) near Miller Road, the structure had the appearance of a larger-than-life log cabin.  Its simple features resembled a rustic mountaintop hotel or resort.    

            Country Western stars like Roy Rogers, Jimmy Dean, Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, Chet Akins, Minnie Pearl, Granpa Jones, Sally Starr, Tex Ritter, George Jones, and Porter Wagner appeared on the same stage as pop stars Bill Haley & the Comets, Frankie Avalon, Everly Brothers, and Jan & Dean.  A crowd of more than 7,600 people showed up to see singer Eddy Arnold in August 1952.  That was an attendance record holder that even Roy Rogers and Trigger couldn't shatter.

            It didn't take long for fans to dub the Sleepy Hollow Ranch as the Country Music Capital of the East.

            The restaurant was known as the Sleepy Hollow Inn.  It was open all year round and featured square dancing on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights.  Your hosts were the "Sleepy Hollow Gang"The group featured Elmer, Pete, Julie & Sophie Newman, and Monty Rosci.  They provided class entertainment at a nearby location.    "Uncle Elmer" and "Pancake Pete" Newman were brothers who married sisters Julie and Sophie Murray.  The Gang grew to include Slim West, "Just Plain John" Oldham, Hank Harrigan, and others.

            In the mid-1940s the Gang teamed up with Philadelphia producer Jack Steck to become part of County-Western history.  WFIL in Philadelphia launched its radio and stage "Barn Dance Show" in 1944.  The cowboys and cowgirls of the Sleepy Hollow Ranch led the popular production.  It wasn't long before ABC selected the show to become the "Hayloft Hoedown", and televise it coast-to-coast every Saturday night. 

            The show also built a large, local following.  Every Saturday night, 1,500 to 2,100 folks would lay down 84 cents each to see the performers on the stage of Philadelphia's Town Hall.  It was a great run into the 1960s.

            Then disaster struck.  On Sunday, Nov. 3, 1963, at 5:40 in the morning, a passing motorist saw flames coming from the structure.  The passer-by went to the home of Daniel Newman, who lived next door to the ranch.

            There was no 911, no county emergency dispatch centers, and few radios.  Nighttime emergency calls were taken over the phone in the homes of assigned volunteers. 

            Newman called the Pennsburg Fire Company, who immediately called for additional units from Milford Township, East Greenville, Red Hill, Green Lane, and Lower Milford Township.

            Some of the state-of-the-art equipment responding was Pennsburg's 1962 Seagraves Engine, equipped with a 750 gallon-per-minute pump and 750 gallons of water, and Milford Township's 1957 International tank truck equipped with 1,000 gallons of water and a 250 gallon-per-minute pump.  Today's five and six-inch large diameter hose didn't exist back then. Two-and-half inch hose was the water carrier of the day capable of supplying much less than the larger hose.

            The motorized apparatus was greatly inferior to today's 3,000-gallon capacity tankers and engines equipped with 1,850+ gallons-per minute pumps.

            Today's Sleepy Hollow Road was Route 663 back then.  Fire equipment coming from the west traveled the serpentine road from Pennsburg to Geryville, then a quick left and right turn to continue their trip on Route 663 to the scene of the fire.  After negotiating the double curve at St. John's Church, fire equipment coming from the east had to chug up the steep Kooker's Hill.

            To say the volunteer firefighters were at a disadvantage is an understatement.

            I remember waking to the wail of the local fire sirens and peering out my bedroom window to see what was going on.  As the sirens sputtered forth their final burst, summoning volunteer firefighters to man the trucks, I could see that the eastern sky over the Bucks County line was aglow from the wind-swept flames that had already ravaged the structure. 

            The fire spread quickly through the wooden structure.  Pennsburg Fire Chief Willis Eschbach reported that the building's roof and walls collapsed shortly after the first trucks arrived.  The building was completely leveled in less than one hour.

            In an attempt to save a structure adjacent to the main building, Pennsburg volunteer firefighter Dennis Leister and a fellow firefighter were applying water to try and keep the intense heat from igniting it.  As they were applying a stream to the structure a large propane tank, attached to the burning structure and hidden by the flames, vented, spewing flames 100 feet across that temporarily cut off their escape.

            Only when additional trucks and water arrived were they able to scramble out.  And, it's a good thing because Dennis had to be in church in a few hours for the baptism service of his daughter.

            Recent rains had brought the area out of a serious drought condition and helped

Upper Bucks County Fire Marshall, Willard D. Underkufler reported that

the blaze started in a storage room behind the bar in the main building.

  The fire spread quickly through the wooden structure and it was com-

pletely leveled in less than one hour.  It was never rebuilt.

the volunteers save nearby buildings and woods.  Milford Township Chief Harold Boardman reported that sufficient water was available.  One defiant blaze, started by wind-carried burning embers, was extinguished after it spread about 50 feet into woodland behind the property. 

            Upper Bucks County Fire Marshall, Willard D. Underkufler reported that the blaze started in a storage room behind the bar in the main building.  A bartender reported that the nightspot was closed at about 2:30 a.m. and that there were no problems at that time. 

            The co-owners of the establishment at the time were Daniel and Kenneth Newman.  The ranch was insured for only a portion of its worth.  Reportedly, that kept the Newmans from rebuilding it. 

            Lost in the fire was much of the history of the Sleepy Hollow Ranch.  Photos, songbooks and other precious memorabilia perished in the flames.  Damage from the fire was estimated at more than $50,000 (that's nearly $500,000 in today's dollars).

            There are still some local clubs, bars, and restaurants in the area where you can still be serenaded by country-western music.   The playlist may still have a few honky-tonk tunes.  Knowing a bit of the history of the Sleepy Hollow Ranch and the claim of it being the Country Music Capital of the East makes you wonder what it would be like if it were still around today.






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