How Harrisburg's oldest social club plans to keep going
Harrisburg social club Der Harrisburg Maennerchor may be celebrating 150 years of continuous operation this weekend, but leaders of the nearly 800-member club have their eyes fixed on the future.
The club was founded in 1867 by men of German descent to celebrate their shared cultural heritage. It continues to draw members because of traditional events, including an Oktoberfest celebration, and the camaraderie among members, said current club officers, both young and old.
But the Maennerchor is less well-known than larger organizations like the Elks or VFW. In hopes of attracting new members, the club's leaders are aiming to promote its events more aggressively and tell its story more widely.
Like other fraternal and social clubs, the Maennerchor has cheap beer and annual dues (it started as a choral society; its name means men's choir in German).
But it needs to do more to add value for people who have other choices for spending their time and money, said club president Barry Dobb, a seven-year member and owner of a Cumberland County audiovisual company.
For many people, the club's venue on at 221 North St. is an inexpensive alternative to downtown bars. Some members belong to other private clubs and the Maennerchor is an extension of their social circle.
The club's facility — its home since 1901 — also is close to the state Capitol complex, which helps attracts people who work downtown, from state employees and local politicians to business owners and people who work in the service industry and want a late-night spot to unwind.
Many members join the Maennerchor because of family ties, some going back generations. However, the share of members without family connections is growing, officers said.
More often than not, it's the spirit of fellowship among core members that is the draw. That's how Bryan Robinson, an incoming officer, found the Maennerchor about 18 months ago.
The nearly 40-year-old hotel manager heard about the club from friends who are members and gave it a try. He's now a regular and said he is seeing other young people join the club.
Vice president George McLaughlin, a six-year member with a long history of family members who were members, has interviewed many prospective members over the last year. Most want to join, he said, for the atmosphere: It's a change from Harrisburg's restaurant row.
Men pay $50 to join the club and $40 for annual renewals. Women in the ladies' auxiliary pay $25 at the start and $20 to renew. The club has about 250 women as members. New members have to be sponsored by a current member to join.
Fellowship and community service are at the heart of the organization's mission. Each year, it raises tens of thousands of dollars through small games of chance and then donates the money to community groups in Dauphin County, including the American Cancer Society, the Harrisburg Public Schools Foundation, the Salvation Army and others.
More than $329,000 has been donated over the last six years.
Dobb and other officers hope they can hold more events not only to raise money, but to give members other activities to look forward to throughout the year. The club has annual social events in the spring and summer. Officers are open to new ideas and want to encourage other recreational activities within the club, including pool and dart leagues.
"We need different ideas to propel success," Robinson said.
Everything is cyclical, Dobb said.
Members sometimes lose interest in certain activities. And younger members have different expectations and may have other interests that the club could support, Dobb said. "We're always racking our brains to try to improve matters."
He would like to do something around the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament, which is more commonly known as March Madness. Dobb also would like to host more events around the holiday season.
"The sooner we put it up (on the calendar), the less likely we are to see poor attendance," he said. For some members, special events may be the only time they come into the Maennerchor.
"There is no reason not to do these things," Dobb said.
Some new initiatives have already been implemented.
For the past two months, the club has been serving a Sunday brunch. The board would like to increase rentals of its second floor space, the Cathedral Room, to generate income to support club operations and community initiatives.
But with a volunteer board, it can be hard to consistently promote new initiatives, officers said.
"All we can do is get better," Dobb said. "I could see the number of events and attendance growing if we keep it up and tell people."
The Maennerchor will celebrate its 150th anniversary with a special dinner event on Saturday.
Der Harrisburg Maennerchor is one of the oldest fraternal organizations in the country. There are other Maennerchor clubs across the country, but most are located in the Northeast thanks to a wave of German immigrants coming to the U.S. in the mid-1800s.
Maennerchor singing societies were established in places like Harrisburg to preserve folk songs and dances from the old country.
The first meeting for the Harrisburg club was held on Market Street in 1867. By 1877, the club established its first home at Fifth and Walnut streets.
While the choral society is a thing of the past, the Maennerchor still offers traditional tunes, dancing and German food at annual events, including its Oktoberfest, which is also its largest event of the year.
The Harrisburg Maennerchor is an independent organization and not part of a larger chartered organization like other social clubs.
Membership is open to the public, but applicants must be sponsored by a current member.