"Sunday we were big stars. Monday we were garbage men," said Charlie Newman, who has been a musician for almost 70 years. "That's the truth of running a business."
Newman got his start when he was 6 years old with the Sleepy Hollow Ranch Gang, a country-and-western family band fronted by two brothers, Elmer and "Pancake" Pete Newman, who married two sisters, Julie and Sophie Bogdonovich, AKA The Murray Sisters.
"They got their name because they had an agent that booked them on a show that couldn't say Bogdonovich," explained Newman. "Bingo! From that day on they were the Murray Sisters."
What sounds like the premise of a hillbilly musical turned into an empire. The brothers and sisters each had respective — and successful — singing careers before they crossed paths in Minneapolis. The ladies initially rejected the gentlemen's invitation to come to Philadelphia to host a radio show called "The Hayloft Hoedown," a weekly country music variety show broadcast live from the old Town Hall building, formerly at Race and Broad streets.
"It was the first country-and-western, coast-to-coast broadcast on a telephone line," said Newman.
Eventually the sisters accepted, and later married the lads. The foursome bought 23 acres of ranch land in Millford Township, just outside of Quakertown, Pa. In 1940, they opened a musical venue and amusement park called the Sleepy Hollow Ranch. It became the "Grand Ole Opry" of the East Coast.
"You were in this little grove. There were seats — bench seats," said Danny Newman, Charlie's brother and bandmate. "There was an outdoor stage, kind of like a bandshell like you would see today, but an old log cabin look to it." The park opened at noon on weekends, with three acts on and off in 30 minutes every hour until 9 p.m.
Country's biggest stars took the stage
Big names would come: Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, Roy Rogers, Minnie Pearl, Merle Travis, Roy Rogers (with Flicker in tow), Gene Autry, Eddie Arnold. After 23 years, the list became too long to itemize here.
"They were folks people didn't get to see except in the movies, and on the Grand Ole Opry," said Danny. "Those guys would play Saturday night on the Opry and be at Sleepy Hollow the next day. This was before interstates. They drove all night."
Both Danny and Charlie remember pigeonholing the stars to press them for an impromptu guitar lesson, begging to show them how to play this lick, or that chord. They got the best country music education money couldn't buy.
Sometimes it came at a price. "Homer and Jethro were famous comedic musicians and singers," remembered Charlie. "Homer told me he was going to take an aspirin and get rid of me."
The stars kept coming because the fans kept coming. Charlie remembers 8,000 people came to see Eddy Arnold. The next morning Arnold appeared at the family breakfast table.
Sleepy Hollow Ranch also boasted one of the finest rodeos on the East Coast, a dance hall, a restaurant, pony rides and a full-sized merry-go-round.
Larry Roeder, now publisher of the regional newspaper Town and Country, remembers going to the Sleepy Hollow Ranch as a kid. "Being too young to really appreciate the music, but you appreciate the carnival atmosphere, the people, the games."
"In the early 1940s, barn dance fever had hit the country," said Roeder. "It just so happened that Sleepy Hollow Ranch was built in a good location — outside of Philadelphia, between New York and Washington, D.C."
In the 1950s, the Ranch started to evolve. The acts started veering away from country.
"That's when we started having Bill Haley, Frankie Avalon, and Jan and Arnie — later Jan and Dean, a surf duo," said Charlie Newman. "Then all of a sudden television started entering the picture more and more. Toward the end, we weren't getting near the crowds we had been getting."
It was not a diminishing fan base that ended Sleepy Hollow Ranch. The Newmans kept the crowds coming with an expanded rodeo.
It was fire killed the ranch.
Fifty years ago, on Nov. 3, 1963, the dance hall and outdoor bandshell burned to the ground — a total and devastating loss.
"One of the sad facts about the fire was that many artifacts, photographs, much of the music, burned up," said Roeder, who followed the firetrucks as a teenager and watched the ranch burn. "Nothing was salvageable. A tremendous amount of history was lost. That's why not a lot of people know about it."
Nobody was hurt in the fire, but the Newman's insurance coverage was not enought to rebuild. It was the sudden and complete end of the ranch, and the beginning of the end of the Gang.
"They were still asked to appear at local places," said Charlie Newman. "We played Macungie Memorial Park, and the Blandon Carnival. But it was only '63 to ..." Charlie looked over to his big brother Danny. "When did Daddy die? '69? He didn't live much longer after that. You can tell it had really taken its toll."
Dimming of the glory days
Julie Newman, one of the original Murray Sisters, took a job in the office of Amtek, a local manufacturer of pressure gauges where her son Danny also got a job after leaving the military service. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 97.
Charlie Newman made a go of being a musician, touring with a rock band called the Rooftoppers and moving to Nashville to back up songwriter Doug Kershaw. "I quit every day job I ever had, so that I could play music," said Charlie. "I have twin boys, and one of my twins — who is a clown like myself — said, 'Hey, Daddy, what's the difference between a guitar player and a large pizza? A large pizza will feed a family of four.'"
Charlie moved back to the area, and lives in the same trailer park as his older brother. He works as a guitar technician and instructor at Fretz Music Center.
In the 50 years since the ranch burned down, Milford Township has hosted two Sleepy Hollow festivals, featuring surviving members of the Gang. But they didn't last. The ranch property has been developed into homes. Danny and his daughter, Dawn, a horse trainer in Coopersburg, Pa., have collected as much Sleepy Hollow ephemera as they can, including at least 30 studio-recorded songs.
Larry Roeder, as a longtime witness to local history, has put together a series of Power Point presentations about a range of local topics. His lecture about the Ranch has become his most popular. In August, at the Schwenkfelder Heritage Center in Pennsburg, a lunchtime brown bag lecture about the Sleepy Hollow Ranch attracted about 140 people. It will be repeated in November at the Haycock Historical Society in Bucks County.