SUMMERVILLE – For 35 years, Summerville has been the site of an annual bluegrass festival, which benefits the Summerville Volunteer Fire Department. Saturday night saw the end of an era as George Shick stepped down as the event’s organizer.
Shick, of Hawthorn, who turned 80 this past July, first organized the bluegrass festival 35 years ago and has continued to do so every year. With turning 80, he says it has become too much responsibility for him and so decided to step down this year.
With no one else willing to take his place, this past weekend’s event was bittersweet as it was the last bluegrass festival to be held in this Jefferson County municipality.
“Once you stop them, it’s generally hard to get them back going again,” he said.
The festival, which began in 1983, brings about 22 bluegrass groups to the area. They come from Ohio and all across Pennsylvania as well as some from New York state.
“There used to be a lot of bluegrass festivals around,” Shick said, including one in New Bethlehem, but he noted those festivals have closed down, adding “We’re the only one in this particular area still going.”
The closest bluegrass festival he said is in Reno, Pa., which is on the other side of Oil City, and there is a large festival in Erie at the fairgrounds.
The number of people attending the Summerville festival has dwindled from what it once was. Shick noted that at one time there would be 300 campers parked and those attending for the day would have a hard time finding a place to park. While RVs still roll in, the number is no where near the 300 that were there in the festival’s heyday.
“They were bumper to bumper,” Shick said, but when asked if he thought it could be that way again if someone else would take on organizing the festival, he said, “I really don’t know. Because it seems like our festivals are sort of falling away. They ain’t what they used to be. Other areas, they are bigger, just like Erie. Whether we’d ever get up to that again, I don’t know. When we were up to 300 (campers), most of those people are dead now or in nursing homes or something of that nature and not able to come anymore.”
Part of the problem is that young people in the area do not gravitate to the bluegrass music. “In some places they do,” Shick said, “but this ain’t one of the areas where they gravitate to it.”
He noted one couple who used to come with an RV all the time but no longer have one who came to the festival Saturday afternoon. They have a house in the Kittanning area but head to Florida in the fall, he said.
“We see a lot of our friends that we don’t see for a long time. These people here are like brothers and sisters because I’ve known them for 50 years,” he said.
Shick is not just an organizer of the festival, he is also in a bluegrass group, Sonny George and the Bluegrass Boys, who performed Saturday night.
He has played guitar for 50-plus years. When asked if he taught himself how to play, his answer is “yes and no.”
He said he bought a guitar and adding that “Doc Williams was a big star on WWVA and he had a guitar course you could send for and learn to play. Well, I got the thing, seen where you put your fingers on the string and after a bit got so I could run those chords right around to see how fast I could do them. Finally I got pretty good at it and threw that (the course paperwork) in a corner somewhere and I was on my own after that.”
So what drew Shick to bluegrass?
“Well when I was young, I liked country music and I played some but it didn’t just suit my caliber. So I quit playing that music. And one night I was asked to play bluegrass. Well at that time I didn’t even know what bluegrass was but I said yeah I’ll come out.” Bluegrass hit the spot for the young Shick and he’s been playing it ever since.
He noted that Bill Monroe is the “father of bluegrass” and he plays a lot of Monroe’s songs and a lot of the Stanley Brothers stuff as well, saying “That’s the music that I do.”
But after a heart attack some eight to 10 years ago, he has not really played much guitar. He was playing the night he had a heart attack. “I didn’t even know I had one. I told my wife, ‘That guitar really pulled on my shoulder tonight.’”
The couple went home and to bed but Shick says, “It (his shoulder) started to hurt more and more.” He says he thought “something’s not right here” and got up and drove himself to the Brookville Hospital.
Following an examination and some tests, he was told he had had a heart attack. “No, baloney. I don’t have no chest pains,” Shick said he told the doctor. But they assured him he had definitely had a heart attack and sent him to Penn Highlands DuBois.
Someone at the PH DuBois called Mrs. Shick the next morning to alert her to the fact that her husband was in the hospital and had had a heart attack. Her reaction, Shick said, was “No you don’t, he’s upstairs in bed.” The two had separate beds so his leaving had not awoken her. “Boy, did she give me the devil for that,” he said with a laugh.
“So I associate the guitar hanging on me the night that I had the heart attack and it just sort of works on me. I’ve picked it up a couple of times for a little bit,” Shick said, noting he may never pick it back up to play like he used to.
While he didn’t play his guitar, he did sing Saturday night with his bluegrass group to the delight of the crowd.
While on stage he took the time to say goodbye to those gathered there. “See you along the road somewhere” at another bluegrass festival, Shick said.
The last group was slated to perform at 10 p.m. Saturday night as those who have traveled from near and far sat for the last time to listen to the music in this small, rural town.