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Take a step back in time at the Penn’s Colony Festival

Rex Rutkoski
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Take a stroll through Penn’s Colony.
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RichPatrick — Rich Lange, Jim Borowski and Susan Borowski — performs contemporary and traditional songs from Ireland and Scotland.
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Brigadoon Highlander Pipes & Drums will be on hand during the Penn’s Colony Festival.
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The British are coming! A young patriot stands his ground in the face of oncoming red-coated re-enactors at the Penn’s Colony Festival at Saxonburg in 2016.

History stands still at Penn’s Colony.

The sentiment comes from Dormont musician Sue Borowski, who adds, “And I really like that.”

Borowski, who also is entertainment coordinator for the Ligonier Highland Games, long has had an interest in honoring the past in song. The 35th annual Penn’s Colony Festival running weekends Sept. 22-23 and Sept. 29-30 in Butler County’s Clinton Township, just outside of Saxonburg, is one of her favorite places to do that.

Her fellow bandmates in the RichPatrick trio agree. They will be returning to the fest to perform more contemporary and traditional songs from Ireland and Scotland, along with a few American folk songs. “We love historic festivals like Penn’s Colony because it is an escape from reality,” says Borowski, who plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin and Irish whistle. “It is a way to visit a period of history that may or may not have been better or worse than the current time period we are living. In a way, festivals remind us to be grateful for all that our ancestors have done to make Pennsylvania what it is today.”

Penn’s Colony offers its version of an 18th-century village in the woods, with period costumes, scenery, historical re-enactments, entertainment and artisans. The focus remains on the French-and-Indian War era, beginning with the 1753 journey of a 21-year-old George Washington through this region. “It was a time of extreme conflict, yet Penn’s Colony re-enactors provide the personal stories which are told with a perspective from all sides and an understanding of the difference in cultures, which comes with the passage of time, like 264 years,” says Beth Rush, festival coordinator.

New exhibitors

The festival’s selection of new exhibitors “means we’ve put the craft back in the craft show,” Rush adds.

She says the artisans and craftsmen in the Penn’s Colony traditional craft marketplace are the fabric of what keeps the majority of customers returning each year. Most of the exhibitors sell original work and do not appear at other area craft events, she says.

“There are more younger, talented quality artisans entering the handmade field than I’ve seen in the 30 years I have been involved with Penn’s Colony,” Rush says. “And, they eagerly participate in the recreation of the Colonial-era village. It’s exciting and energizing to have the newcomers embrace the history of the design. There is a history behind the design influence seen in the artisans, too.”

What’s in the Marketplace

The Marketplace shows many new additions ranging from seasonal decorations to the traditional category such as “leather smithing” and jewelry design. Many of the new artisans are in their 20s and offer the style of items that trend, such as urban farmhouse and simple life designs. Rush says the daily entertainment schedule features a fresh variety in the styles and instrument compositions that were enjoyed during the Colonial era.

More bands, more variety

There are more bands this year playing over the two weekends, with variety to the musical schedule that changes each day. “At festivals, you realize that the patrons are there to experience something special and it’s a wonderful feeling to be a part of that,” says Sue Borowski’s husband, Jim Borowski, who plays bodhran in RichPatrick. Rich Lange is on guitar.

Everyone sings.

Polished Brass is new, offering another popular sound of the era that is
different from the distinctive lyrics and song of the Celtic islands. The Balmoral Quartet is a first-timer to the fest and Na Gaels, a staple at the Pittsburgh Irish Festival, has not played at Penn’s Colony for 10 years.

The Low Kings are a Pittsburgh-based band playing Irish and Scottish music. “We are really excited about participating in Penn’s Colony for the first time,” says the group’s Tom Bayley. “Our number one goal is to entertain, bring energy and make sure the audience has fun. You’ll be able to sing along and dance to your favorite traditional tunes. If you want to find us day of, just follow the sound of the bagpipes.”

Good music, bad jokes

Percussionist Shawn Howland, adopting the persona of pirate Howlin Mad Jack Howland, promises “good music and bad jokes” from Crossed Cannons, which offers upbeat traditional Celtic tunes, sea shanties and original pirate music.

Matt Hughes, as buccaneer Angus McHugh, on guitar, percussion and vocals, says Penn’s Colony is an amazing festival in which to participate. They are based in Pittsburgh. “That makes us ‘Pittsburgh Pirates,’” Hughes insists. “I enjoy the camaraderie between the performers, the actors and re-enactors. In addition, I love entertaining the audience,” he says. “It always makes my day to have people come up and tell me how much they enjoyed our show.”

Trombonist Steve Lynch says Polished Brass (also known as South Hills Brass) is delighted to be making its debut at Penn’s Colony. “We have prepared a program of largely 18th-century and earlier music which we are sure festival goers will enjoy,” he says. “Brass ensembles have a unique blending quality which will complement the other musical offerings at the festival.”

Adds Crossed Cannons’ Howland: “Festivals of any sort are all about the smiles. There is no smile in the world like one I helped create.”

Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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