From a past of pigeons, Hegins Park now thrives on wine
HEGINS, Pa. (AP) — From shooting pigeons to sipping Chardonnay, supporters of the Hegins Park bore witness to a transforming period over the last 20 years.
The Fred Coleman Memorial Labor Day Pigeon Shoot ended with the 65th annual event in 1998, and over the past two decades, community leaders have developed new ways to raise funds for the park — including the Schuylkill County Wine Festival.
The thousands who were expected to visit Hegins for a relaxing day of wine and music over the weekend were a stark contrast to the clash of animal rights activists and shoot supporters, which led to hundreds of arrests in the late 1990s and as many as 8,000 estimated spectators for the one-day event.
The Hegins Labor Day Committee, overseen by Chairman J. Robert “Bob” Tobash, canceled what would have been the 66th pigeon shoot in 1999 following a state Supreme Court’s decision. It ruled that officers with the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had jurisdiction over the local event.
“I remember being my dad’s ‘tail,’ ” Chris Tobash, of Hegins, recently said. He was a teenager at the time his father, who died in 2014, was committee chairman.
“I spent a lot of time following him around. Beer used to be sold in returnable glass bottles, and I used to go around the park collecting them,” he said. He’d also run errands in the park when someone needed change, for instance, or had a question for his father.
He remembers there was an uncertainty about what protesters coming into the park could do.
“The animal rights people were doing more and more things,” he said about incidents of violence across the country.
At the 1997 shoot, vandals broke eight windows at the Tobash Insurance Agency office in Hegins. It was also the year that seven animal-rights activists bound themselves in concrete and chains across Route 25 with the intention of disrupting the shoot. As many as 31 people were arrested that year for offenses ranging from liquor control violations to harassment, disorderly conduct and criminal trespass, according to The Republican-Herald archives. Several of those arrested were from out-of-state, but others charged were also from the county.
When the pigeon shoot began in 1934, its goal was to finance the development and upkeep of Hegins Park, while it also provided a homecoming atmosphere for community members who gathered to watch the marksmen.
Fred Coleman, who was born in Hegins on March 7, 1874, was a famous marksman, avid hunter and munitions specialist who shot in exhibitions worldwide. He was known as “Champion Wing Shot of the World.” Coleman, who later moved to Maine, was invited back to the Hegins event as a guest shooter on several occasions.
The shoot grew — from 73 entrants to a high of more than 335 shooters in the 1980s — and eventually generated an average of $6,000 to $15,000 annually.
“In 50 years, the Labor Day (Shoot) Committee has contributed to the park association approximately $250,000,” according to the book “Hegins Labor Day Shoot, 50th Anniversary, 1934-1984.” The book, which includes local history and a record of shooters’ scores, was put together by the committee with an introduction by Bob Tobash.
The shoot was probably on its way out as interest waned, before the protesters began attending in the last dozen years of the event, some park volunteers surmised.
Delbert Hauck, current president of the Hegins Park Association, said the event was traditionally a community gathering like a town reunion, and relied on many volunteers.
“As kids growing up, we spent a lot of time at the park. I played football here,” Hauck said. He remembers in the 1960s and 1970s, Hegins Park was where the Tri-Valley football games were played.
Today, the wooded park includes courts for tennis and basketball, softball and Teener and Little League baseball fields, a playground, the Bob Tobash Walking Trail and fields where midget football teams practice. There are several buildings, a beer house, eating house, benches, picnic tables and two stages.
The park association gave land valued at $15,000 and a $10,000 donation so the Tri-Valley Community Pool could be built in the 1970s at the west end of the park.
“It’s just a terrific park,” Hauck said.
Over the years, funds raised have helped with building maintenance and upkeep, roofing and painting, field maintenance, tractor and mowing equipment, and with the costs of liability insurance.
Two members each from St. John’s United Methodist Church, Friedens Lutheran Church, Friedens United Church of Christ and the Hegins Valley Fire Rescue sit on the 12-member park association board. There are also at-large community members.
Bash without the Bang
Once the pigeon shoot ended, organizers tried to come up with another fundraiser. The “Bash without the Bang” was offered, which included a chicken barbecue and music in the park. The event made about $3,000 to $4,000, Bob’s wife, Mary Tobash, said.
“There wasn’t anything for a while,” she said. “We had the shoot and did everything that we could, but every year, it’s gotten harder. I’m getting older too. I love the park. Bob would take care of what I didn’t take care of.”
A few years later, Mary Tobash said she and her husband spoke with local wineries that were interested in starting a wine festival.
“It’s worked out very well. Folks have had a good experience and have made a day of it, with the live entertainment, the wine and good food. It has turned out to be a time for family and friends to get together and enjoy the day,” she said.
The one-day wine festival generates an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 for the park, according to Mary Tobash.
In turn, the park association continues its tradition of donating funds to several community organizations, including the three churches, fire company, library and swimming pool.
The park is used several months of the year, hosting reunions, picnics, sporting events, the fire company carnival, the wine festival and the Hegins Valley Arts & Crafts Faire.
“We have something unique here in the county, and we want to continue to be stewards of this,” Hauck said.
Pigeons to wine
Talk of a county wine festival began when Michael Masser, with Benigna’s Creek Vineyard and Winery, was at the Hometown Farmers Market and caught up with Mark T. Major, who was former executive director of the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau.
“I knew that Pennsylvania wineries were growing in number and other wine festivals were springing up,” Major said.
The visitor’s bureau presented seed money to a few countywide events, including the wine festival.
Major credits the winery families and park volunteers for the event’s success.
“It’s a nice event and has really grown over the years. They’re the ones that made it happen. ... It’s a proud accomplishment and probably one of my proudest moments,” Major said.
Masser said he wanted to have a countywide festival and thought Hegins Park was the perfect location due to its stand of shade trees as well as an open field for wineries to have their tents.
Benigna’s had held its own festivals for years at its vineyard in Klingerstown. Masser brought his idea before the park association and also invited a fellow wine producer, Tom Stutzman of Red Shale Ridge Vineyards in Hegins, to approach the board.
“I said I’d help ‘ramrod’ it,” Masser said of promoting and assisting at the first county festival.
“My boy played baseball at the park and I’ve seen the improvements and renovations. The park association has run a top-notch wine festival from day one and they pull off a good event,” Masser said.
The first year of the wine festival was a success, Stutzman said, drawing about 1,600 people and participation from seven wineries. Today, the festival hosts 12 wineries.
Stutzman’s late father, Warren Stutzman, was a former board president and a fervent shoot supporter and park volunteer. Tom Stutzman remembers the work involved with preparing for the pigeon shoot once protesters started attending, including erecting a temporary fence and the cleanup and fence tear-down after the shoot.
Although there’s still preparation for the wine festival, it’s a bit more manageable. Volunteers began setting up tents Wednesday, and on Saturday were scheduled to conduct last-minute preparations, like setting out trash cans and picnic tables.
“The amazing thing about this event is, once we close at 6 p.m., by about 8 p.m., the park looks like it did before we started. We get pickup trucks in here to pick up the trash. It’s a whole different ballgame.
“What people didn’t realize about the shoot was that we really didn’t make money off of the shooters. We made most of the money in the beer stand,” Stutzman said.
The wine festival’s legacy has been a positive one.
“To be able to clear at least $20,000 to $25,000 to maintain the park, everyone’s happy,” Stutzman said.
Information from: Pottsville Republican and Herald, http://www.republicanherald.com