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A Home Away From Home

by Pepper Van Tassell & photos by Turner Photography Studio

When crowds for the Stanleys’ homegrown jam sessions grew too large, the Old Cider Press was renovated into a music venue where all are welcome.

It was a drizzly and gray first day of October — the opening night of the season for Old Cider Press’s weekly concert series — and nearly 100 people poured into the hall of the former Grossnickle Cider Press in Smithsburg, many of them old enough to recall stopping there as children to get a glass of apple cider.

For owners Doug and Debbie Stanley, the old cider press they converted to a concert hall is an extension of their home about a mile away. Every Saturday at 5:30 p.m. from October to July, Doug — who plays guitar and sings for The Gloryland Ramblers — puts out a pot of homemade soup, starts a pot of coffee and opens the doors of the Crystal Falls Drive music hall. Dubbed “The Grand Ole Opry of Smithsburg” by its patrons, the weekly crowd of familiar faces and a few new friends glory in the traditional old-fashioned country and bluegrass entertainment that harkens back to a simpler time.

Their guests — who are asked only to make a $4 donation toward building expenses — drop potato chips, drinks and homemade desserts off at the buffet table, get soup or coffee, and take a seat while chatting and patiently waiting for the music to start. No alcohol or profanity is permitted. The Gloryland Ramblers opened the show opening night with songs like “They’re Holding up the Ladder” and “Falling Leaves,” followed by The Back Creek Valley Boys, a popular traditional local bluegrass band that plays at Old Cider Press about four times a year.

Doug and Debbie open the stage to bluegrass and bluegrass gospel musicians on the first and third Saturdays of the month, and classic country music on the second and fourth Saturdays. Doug said the crowd and the musicians can change week to week. “You never know who is going to show up,” he says. For months with five Saturdays, Old Cider Press holds a dance or a special event. In December, it will host a nativity play on the first Friday and Saturday and second Friday and Saturday of the month. But fair warning, tickets to these particular events will be sold through advance tickets only.

Finding Connections

Doug has a following among seniors thanks to his band’s nursing home ministry that takes its performances throughout the area. It was through that ministry that The Gloryland Ramblers’ mandolin player and vocalist, Katrina Freeman, 28, and banjo player and vocalist Jared Freeman, 27, first met. Their daughters, who are 6 years old and 20 months old, have grown up at Old Cider Press — as many attendees happily point out. “Us playing music together is the foundation to our marriage and our family time together,” Katrina says.

Donald Hutson, 79, of Hagerstown, is Doug’s public relations man. He says he goes to all of the local bluegrass and country jam shows, and discovered Old Cider Press in its beginnings. Now, he helps spread the word. “Old Cider Press is the best entertainment value in the tri-state,” Donald says, holding onto a Styrofoam cup of Doug’s vegetable soup. “For just $4, you get live music, all kinds of drinks and snacks, and he’s been making soup all week.”

Doug clarifies that the soup is free, and the $4 admission — billed as a way to help keep the doors open — barely pays the electric bill. “We’ve never considered it a business, but it is open to anyone who comes in and wants to spend some time with us,” Doug says. “If it wasn’t for our love for the people and the joy it brings them, it wouldn’t be worth anything to either of us,” Debbie adds.

‘Our Other Living Space’

Debbie, who owns Village Emporium in Smithsburg, and Doug, who is a drywall contractor, initially rented the old cider press as a place to warehouse Doug’s antique tractor collection. At the same time, Debbie’s family — including her father, Jesse Bell, an old country steel guitar player, and mother, Booth Bell, an electric bass player — would often jam with Doug at their home on East Water Street, drawing as many as 125 musicians and friends on some nights. “We were pretty crowded, so he started getting the idea of taking the old cider press and creating what we call ‘our other living space,’” Debbie says. “We couldn’t fit enough people at our house, so we figured we could get a lot more in there.”

Grossnickle Cider Press hadn’t been in use for several years before the Stanleys bought the property. The cider press and apple butter equipment had long been sold off, and all that was left was a big empty building, which Doug — the drywall contractor — had no trouble converting.

The Old Cider Press has the feel of a warm living room, only with rough wooden floors. The area converted for the music hall — with its high ceilings and exposed wooden beams — is painted and decorated with shades of gold and green, and adorned with quilts, antique cider equipment, rusty saws and tools, and signs with gentle reminders like “Use Kind Words” and “Love One Another.”

Many lifelong Smithsburg residents — like Patsy Hays, and John Palmer Sr. and his wife, Brenda Palmer (married for 60 years with about 20 children and grandchildren in town) — recall grabbing a glass of cider at Grossnickle Press on their way home from school, which stood nearby at the time. John, who used to drive a truck for a nearby orchard, remembers hauling apples to its loading dock, which is now a rustic front wooden porch. “It’s really nice,” John says of its new incarnation, holding back tears. “It’s something that was needed. There was no entertainment around here.”

Doug dedicated his band’s last two songs of the night to newlyweds Dick and Esther Harbaugh. Dick, 85, and Esther, 70, met at C.W. Brooks Senior Apartments in Hagerstown, and were married at Old Cider Press only two weeks before. Doug gave Esther away. The couple — wearing matching red plaid shirts — has been regularly attending Old Cider Press concerts for the past five years. It’s even where they had their first date. “We really look forward every week to coming out here,” Esther says. “There’s great entertainment and great food.” Dick adds that “it’s a family of good Christian people. We call them family.”