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Penn's Colony Festival is rooted in the past

| Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012, 8:56 p.m.
Soldiers show a young boy a cannon at a previous Penn's Colony Festival in Clinton Township near Saxonburg. Submitted for September 2012
Jan Pakler | For Trib Total Media
John Gore carves brooms at the Penn's Colony Festival in Clinton Township near Saxonburg. The brooms, called woodspirits, are said to bring good luck and happiness.
Jan Pakler | For Trib Total Media
Marilyn Merbach of Saxonburg uses a drop spindle to work with yarn at the 'One of A Kind Handwovens' booth at a previous Penn's Colony Festival in Clinton Township, near Saxonburg.
The RichPatrick Celtic music trio. Submitted in September 2012
The Latrobe-based Cogan Brothers play acoustic Irish music. Submitted in September 2012
Penn's Colony Festival
A re-enactor awaits his military 'orders' at the Penn's Colony Festival in Clinton Township near Saxonburg.
An American Indian sits in front of a wikiup, a type of Native American dwelling, at the 2011 Penn's Colony Festival in Clinton Township near Saxonburg. Submitted

Too many people, Beth Rush believes, see history as something that is dead, in the past, not a part of their daily life.

Every year, she and her husband Ray Rush offer their labor of love — the Penn's Colony Festival — to suggest otherwise.

“We are connected to our history on a daily basis, and that becomes a very interesting life lesson when it is experienced,” Beth Rush says. “Our actions, catchphrases, holiday traditions, even sometimes, our attitudes, have origins (in the past).”

Her observations unfold with vivid examples during the next two weekends as the 29th Penn's Colony Fest unfolds Saturday and Sunday and Sept. 29 and 30 on the easy-walking, park-like 12-acres of the festival village grounds in Clinton Township, just outside of Saxonburg.

Pennsylvania's Colonial experience is showcased in this early-American village setting with a blend of French and Indian War-era living history and 185 artisans showcasing work handmade in America.

Admission includes two stages of entertainment, period performers, 18th-century Scottish and Irish music, French and Indian War battle re-enactments, craft and history demonstrations, popular “Hidden History” presentations, more than a dozen children's activities and 25 food purveyors.

“I think what I hear most from newcomers is that they would have come years ago, but they thought Penn's Colony was like a museum experience, and now that they know the difference, they wish they'd come earlier,” Beth Rush says.

She says it is an experience that affects people from the inside.

“Everyone expresses it differently. There are handwritten notes left in our sign-in books from families all over the region that thank Penn's Colony for the experience, and they say they're coming back.”

“These kinds of festivals are rare,” says vocalist-musician Sue Borowski of Munhall, who returns with the RichPatrick Celtic music trio. “Few people are willing to do what (the Rushes) do, because it is a lot of work and a lot of worries. They are passionate about it, and that is what keeps it going.”

The Rushes consider Penn's Colony a mission and a passion. “We find that there are hundreds of people behind us who feel the same way. Some are artisans, some are customers, some are educators,” she says.

They all come together there once a year and develop relationships that last many years.

“We don't personally know most of the people who feel as passionately about it as we do. But Ray and I know that customers feel like they own Penn's Colony Festival,” Beth says. “And, for that reason, we do everything in our ability to continue making this a unique, family event that tells the story of who Western Pennsylvanians are and how we started back in 1753.”

Borowski sees Penn's Colony as the “perfect” setting for a historical celebration.

“We enjoy the beauty of the property. The vendors are fun, and the folks who stop by to see our show always makes us smile,” she says. “We are there to make their experience more memorable, and, in return, they make it memorable for us by enjoying our music.”

“(Festivals) are a celebration of something special, and Penn's Colony is definitely something special,” says Borowski, who may include some songs from her new debut CD, “In the Celtic Spirit,” (www.steelclovermusic.com) inspired by music's role in helping her through breast-cancer treatments. It is part of her solo project under the name of Steel Clover.

RichPatrick will draw from its new EP, “Just a Bit of Craic.”

The trio plans to serve the festival audience with appealing arrangements of favorite Irish and Scottish tunes: “Not too busy, not too rushed, relaxed and fun,” Borowski says.

The Latrobe-based Cogan Brothers are a “new and lively addition” to the festival's musical fare.

“We encourage audience participation, and will supply a joke, blessing and toast as the mood presents,” acoustic guitarist Gregg Cogan says. “We love to see the crowd smiling from ear to ear as they find themselves getting caught up in some foot-stomping and Irish jigging.”

Cogan believes the group's strength lies in its family ties and mutual love of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. “We fashion our music to emanate the style of these Irish musicians,” he says. A sampling can be found at www.coganbros.com.

The open-air setting at festivals is a wonderful experience for the band, he says, allowing a large number of people of all ages to enjoy the music in a free-spirited atmosphere.

“We enjoy playing Irish music that, at times, has been lost over the years,” he says. “Although the Irish history is laden with heartache and despair, which many of the ballads can portray, we feel that the Irish were also a heritage which certainly knew how to overcome adversity with songs of merriment, rebellion and pride.”

Penn's Colony remains one of Celtic performer Bruce Golightly's favorite venues. The Pittsburgh resident returns as the sole member of DruidSong.

He wants the audience to take away a bit of his love for the Irish and Scottish heritage.

“Those cultures have had a tremendous impact on the shape of this country in so many ways,” he says.

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com.

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