Story and Photo by Deborah Lynch
When planning day trips this summer, why not add a trip down memory lane to the itinerary? The Harrisburg region can provide nostalgia that will please the young and old alike with everything from collectibles to comforting food and ice cream to fun family events.
Haar’s Drive-In in Dillsburg is known both for its drive-in movie theater and its auction house. Some evenings, three auctions are taking place at a time in the sprawling auction house, some of which was a former roller rink. The Harrisburg area is also fortunate to have several roller rinks still in action offering throwback music parties and roller derby leagues. For those not willing to sit through an auction to find a bargain or a connection to the past, the Old Sledworks in Duncannon promises shoppers can “buy back your memories.” With car shows and an Antique Auto Museum (AACA) in Hershey, the area also has demand for car restorations, and can provide that, too, at Horsepower Enterprises in Lancaster.
From Bunny Burgers to nearly unlimited flavors of hand-dipped ice cream and malted shakes, foodies can satisfy their nostalgic urges at several old-time eateries in the region.
The Red Rabbit — a habit?
Most famous, perhaps, is the Red Rabbit, a third-generation, 1950s-style drive-in restaurant located on Route 322, a half-mile west of the Clarks Ferry Bridge over the Susquehanna River. Here, curbhops — otherwise known as carhops — still come to the car to take orders, then serve the fare on a tin tray that attaches to the car window. As one might imagine, this was a hot spot to be during the otherwise dining-out drudgery of 2020 when many restaurants were shut down temporarily, then limited in capacity. The Red Rabbit continued to operate with takeout, bringing back trays and picnic tables when things opened up a bit.
“It’s amazing to think when my grandparents opened in 1964 and chose carhops over a dining room that that would have positioned us to weather the pandemic so well,” said Sam Berger, a third generation Sam running the business.
Berger — who goes by Sammy at the restaurant since his father is also Sam — started working at the Red Rabbit as a teenager, then took it over from his parents in 2017 after serving in the military and working other jobs. Berger’s grandparents opened the Red Rabbit in 1964 after his grandfather and his brothers had operated the BBQ Cottage (and had worked at the former Blue Pig at the same location), carhop restaurants in Harrisburg. They purchased the building that houses the Red Rabbit, which had been a local chain called Distelfink — named for the Amish Hex sign of a bird — a sandwich and ice cream shop with no inside seating, and just a walk-up window with picnic tables outside.
“With their experience with carhop service, they figured that was the way to go and to identify themselves,” Berger said.
Berger mused over the Red Rabbit’s success where others have not survived locally, including the chain Sonic. “Our food is made when it is ordered. When someone places an order, their burger then goes on the grill,” Berger said, noting that the fast-food model might work for others, but his grandparents, then his parents, and now he never found that the way to go. “You need to make sure you keep the quality in the food and don’t try to push the food out too fast and cause the food to not be as good.”
Business hasn’t slowed for the Red Rabbit since the start of the pandemic, and along with limited dining options then Berger acknowledges the role that nostalgia also plays in the business’s success. “In busy times of today, it’s good to be able to slow down — to have a place to go that it’s not rush, rush, rush. The customers get an opportunity to sit in their cars, relax, and sort of wind down to a slower time,” he said.
As might be expected, Bunny Burgers and fries with Bunny Dust are the most popular items on the menu, along with milkshakes. The Bunny Burger is a ¼-pound beef patty with cheddar cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, and the Red Rabbit’s mayonnaise-based sauce. The Bunny Dust that is sprinkled over fries is compromised of various seasonings. The menu is still mostly original with chicken sandwiches, a half of a fried chicken, chicken fingers and nuggets, and peanut butter milkshakes and Slush Puppies adding more modern fare.
Don’t just cruise by
Those who pass by the Red Rabbit, might also exit north onto Routes 11 and 15, just a quarter mile further down 322. A little more than 20 miles later, Route 104 North will meander off to the left and eight miles further on, those out daytrippin’ can take another food break at Cruiser’s Cafe in Mt. Pleasant Mills.
Cruiser’s is an original building for a Texaco station built in 1931. The old Texaco sign and gas pumps still decorate the exterior of the sandwich and ice cream shop that sits at the corner of routes 104 and 35. The inside decor takes diners back to a 1950s soda fountain vibe with retro soda fountain counter stools covered in red naugahyde.
“A lot of people do come in and reminisce and listen to the music,” said manager Marisa Spade of Richfield. “It’s a mix of that, and just people traveling by. They go by here. They stop in, and say, ‘Oh my word! I’m so glad I found this place.’ ”
With 16 flavors of Hershey’s hand-dipped ice cream that can be turned into sundaes, milkshakes, banana splits, and floats, it’s no surprise that ice cream is a favorite order here along with fish sandwiches, cheesesteaks, burgers, and fries.
“Overall, it’s just a fun place to work,” Spade said. “I used to work at Texas Roadhouse, so it’s different here. It’s fun to talk to customers that I’ve known for the many years that I’ve worked here.”
Nestled in the mountains of Lebanon County sits a shady oasis with a lake, trails for hiking and mountain biking, tennis courts and playgrounds, and a throwback Chautauqua community of cottages gathered around a vaulted conical-roofed outdoor auditorium where lectures, religious services, theater, and concerts are still held each summer. Since the late 1800s, summer visitors have streamed to Mt. Gretna and its landmark buildings, including the more than nearly 130-year-old Jigger Shop Ice Cream Parlor at 202 Gettysburg Ave., accessible by foot after parking just off Route 177, or Mt. Gretna Road.
The Seyfert family now owns the legacy of the longtime ice cream parlor and while ice cream might be the main attraction and the Seyferts don’t want to “mess with tradition,” they have also added some new hot foods to the menu including “a very cheesy cheesesteak” sandwich. The California cheeseburger is still a hot food favorite. On the ice cream side, the Jigger sundae (2½ scoops of vanilla ice cream with butterscotch, chocolate, and marshmallow sauces, and jigger nuts on top) is popular, and at the Jigger Shop, a lot of ice cream treats get malt added to them.
“We try to continue the legacy that has been built,” said Kyle Seyfert, who owns the Jigger Shop along with his wife Kortni, and his parents, Leon and Trudy Seyfert.
Seyfert believes that the nearby Lebanon Valley Rail Trail (which leads into the Conewago Recreation Trail) has helped business as a stop on the rail trail. “We’re more of a destination for people who come out to Gretna. We also have the lake next door. People come to visit the lake and stop in for lunch or dinner after. Also the theater,” Seyfert noted.
The Jigger Shop is closed during the winter, but opens each year in mid-May and is open six days a week (closed Mondays) through Labor Day, when it remains open on weekends until the end of September.
With the Mt. Gretna Outdoor Art Show returning Aug. 21 and 22, along with other programs including Chautauqua arts and crafts, Gretna Music, Gretna Theatre, a summer concert series, and more, the Jigger Shop is sure to enjoy a busy summer season.
Still guiding the way
It’s not possible to drive up to the Old Sled Works in Duncannon and merely walk in the front door. Too much on the outside is beckoning first. An old forest fire lookout tower climbs high into the sky directly across the street “like the Kissing Tower of Duncannon,” according to the Old Sled Works owner Jimmy Rosen, who moved it from six miles down the river above Dauphin to his property 22 years ago when 322 was widened. Along the street in front of the parking area, an old pull camper sports a sign reading “Perry County Hilton.” It sits behind a relic of a pickup truck with blue paint peeling from it and a bed filled with old weather-worn sleds. A rusted Gulf gas station pump sits between them.
Then, there’s the historical marker across the street south of the entrance that explains the history of the Sled Works, where the Lightning Guider sleds were produced between 1904 and 1990. It reads that “in 1920 the plant was credited with producing more children’s sleds than any other U.S. factory; its capacity was then 1,600 to 1,800 per day.” It’s here that on Wednesdays through Sundays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. one can “buy back your memories.”
That’s the whole idea, according to Rosen. When his family officially closed the factory in 1990 (his father had bought it when he was 29 years old), Rosen envisioned an antique and craft market for vendors, but he wanted something that men would also enjoy. “Duncannon’s not a tourist mecca,” he said. “I tried to come up with little attractions. With that came old televisions, vintage arcade machines … an old soda fountain. It wasn’t a boring, dusty antique market. I needed to do something different that I thought would reflect my interests.”
Rosen said the connection to the sleds has flamed the nostalgia for his business. “The old sled represents a part of Americana. To be able to walk through the factory and still see the red paint on the floor — there’s a nostalgia. I’m riding that wave.”
That wave has also washed up with a book that Rosen is currently promoting called “Got Gas?” His self-conceived and designed coffee table book includes a collection of photographs from the 1920s and ’30s of Central Pennsylvania gas stations including many from the Harrisburg area (one once sat in Market Square). He’s interspersed the book with essays from the times as well, including one about the female gas station attendants during World War II.
Although the Old Sled Works is made up of more than 100 vendors (with even more on a waiting list) selling everything from antique bottles to spinning wheels to modern crafts, the store is also a museum complete with an Automobilorama that houses a handful of vintage vehicles including a police car and motorcycle, an old soda fountain, and a collection of vintage arcade machines. It also includes a room that pays homage to the history and craftsmanship of the Lightning Guider sleds.
“We were never going to be a huge business there,” Rosen said, but added, “It kept me employed for all these years. It was supposed to be a 2- to 3-year project. I was 26, and now I’m 56.”
Restoring automotive memories
At Horsepower Enterprises in Lancaster, general manager Peter Taraborelli warns that clients should bring in old vehicles to restore memories, not to gain value.
“Only a very few cars can be restored as investments,” he said. “Most cars are restored for sentimental reasons. We love both, but we really love the sentimental reasons — we get to be a part of that car’s story, that family’s stories.”
Among the stories is that of a Camaro they recently restored for a Vietnam veteran. “He and his wife took it on their honeymoon, he picked up his only daughter from the hospital in it. … We bring it back to life to look like it did when he came back from Vietnam in the late ’60s.”
Taraborellia said the employees enjoy working on a 1967 Lotus Cortina that a man is restoring to the condition it was in when his father brought it back from England. “He wants to just be able to drive it. He’s never going to get back the money he put into it, but he’ll have maybe a decade that he can drive around in his dad’s car, and it’s going to look like it just came back from England.”
Horsepower Enterprises offers sales, restoration, and service including full restorations of classic cars. Taraborellia said the company has restored a couple of 1957 Ford Skyliner retractable hardtop convertibles — quarter-million-dollar restorations. While the business occasionally sells restorations (mostly to help clients), car sales are the smallest part of the business. Restorations are precise and historical — every nut and bolt must be period correct — and can take as long as 2½ to 3 years to complete.
Of course, it’s only proper that this work is done inside a 1930s-era art deco Buick dealership on N. Prince Street in downtown Lancaster. Customers are primarily local or within a two- to three-hour radius, but after some restorations went up for auction and fetched “insane amounts of money,” the Horespower name spread and brought in more business.
Driving to the movies
Haar’s Drive-In in Dillsburg is a third-generation survivor.
Opened in 1952, the drive-in movie theater joined an auction house that started in the late 1930s. The third generation of sisters Vickie Hardy and Connie Darbrow, and their cousin Sandra Haar have been operating it with spouses since 2003. Their grandfather built the business, but after he died in 1972, it went to his four children, who ran it until 2002 when they sold the property to Ahold Delhaize USA/Giant. In March 2003, this third generation secured an open-ended lease to continue running the business.
Two years ago, a sign appeared on the property, unbeknownst to the family, listing the property for sale. “That created a lot of concern and conversation in our community,” Hardy said. “Everyone was so upset.” The story ended well, she said, when someone purchased it and continued the lease with the family for another 10 years. “Then we’ll see what happens after that,” she said.
Hardy said the business grew out of her grandfather’s dream of being in a carnival. That vision morphed into a drive-in — drive-ins were in existence” in the ‘30s, but they weren’t big. Her grandfather wanted “bigger and better” and a 500-vehicle drive-in was created. “When my grandfather did things, he didn’t do it small,” she said with a laugh.
The original screen “might have still been up to this day, but it started to get dilapidated and we put up a new one in 2016,” she said. When the drive-in started, the theater operated all winter long with heaters in the speakers.
Once a 7-day-a-week operation, the drive-in now operates only three days a week from Memorial Day through Labor Day (although Covid extended last season and brought an earlier opening this season). The drive-in opened in May last year thanks to a deal with Amazon with a special Amazon premiere movie, The Vast of the Night. Some onscreen concert nights are planned this season and might include local entertainment to precede the screen shows.
The drive-in has a long history of hosting bands and concerts including Elvis impersonators, local bands, and country music acts. This year, it is catering more to new release movies.
Part of the auction house was originally a roller rink although it was built to house a carousel. The skating rink opened in the late ’50s and operated until the mid-’80s.
Auctions are still held every Monday night with three auction rings. One has tools and box lots, another has furniture, and the third has collectibles and antiques. More than 250-300 people can spread safely through the web of large rooms.
Hardy said she and her family are proud to have been able to continue a long family business. “Not only are we honored to continue to operate a family business, but we’re also proud we can give families support — to give them somewhere to come out for an evening of entertainment.” She also noted the service provided by the auction to families who are downsizing or emptying homes after deaths. “Both businesses are a help to our community.”
She said she frequently has customers tell her “I met my wife here” and recount their first dates and skating trips. They even had a movie screen proposal. “A lot of people come and go down memory lane.”
Rolling in memories
Diane and Bob Schiazza are also third generation owners. Bob’s grandfather started a roller rink in the Philadelphia area in the 1940s. They have owned the Fountainblu in New Cumberland for 26 years.
Many of the adult skaters have skated with them since they were kids. To keep that base coming in, the rink features a retro night on the last Saturday of the month when they play older music and “roll” through the decades of the best skating music. “We see so many generations of skaters who were teens when we first bought the rink bringing their kids back now,” Diane Schiazza said.
Public skates are held on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The rink also hosts special events, holiday skates, parties, fitness classes (like aerobics), and a roller derby league, Keystone Roller Derby.
“The ’70s was definitely the heyday” for skating, Schiazza said, noting that rollerblades came on the scene. “It’s cyclical. Right now, roller skating is really hot. With Covid, people wanted to be more physically active. Roller skating is something they could do outside and inside. It’s a good workout. Almost anybody can learn. And, it’s fun.”
Just as the sport is throwback, so too is their building. Schiazza said the rink used to be tennis courts that were converted to a rink in the 1970s. Some of the clay tennis court is still visible in the skate room, and the main floor is a maple floor, something new rinks can’t afford. The building’s previous owner also brought collectibles from old Harrisburg buildings into the structure giving it a perfect nostalgic vibe.
When Covid restrictions started to ease, Schiazza said the community came back in support.
“It does bring back a lot of happy memories for the older skaters who come back.”
The area does have other nostalgic businesses including more roller rinks and drive-in theaters along with a myriad of antique dealers. Let us know about your special finds.
For hours and menu from the Red Rabbit, go to www.redrabbitdrivein.com/Red_Rabbit_Drive_In/Welcome.html.
Cruiser’s Cafe menu and information is available at https://cruisers-cafe.com.
Learn about the Jigger Shop at www.jiggershop.com.
More information on Mt. Gretna events is available at http://mtgretna.com/things-to-do.
For more on the Old Sled Works, go to www.sledworks.com.
Information about Jimmy Rosen’s book is available at www.facebook.com/gotgasbook.
To learn more about Horsepower Enterprises, go to www.horsepowerenterprisesllc.com.
For more on Haar’s Drive-In, go to www.haars.com/drive-in.
Times and skating programs at the Fountainblu can be found at www.fountainblu.com.