A History of the “Old Barn”

On September 9, 2011, in News, by Brian Mills

Photo from Hershey Community Archives

The Hershey Sports Arena turns 75 years old this year and we’ve decided to honor it with a three* two part series.  If you have never been there, you should make it a point to go.  On most days, the building is open giving you the ability to walk in and at least see the arena.  They still offer public skating in the Old Barn, so go skate where so much history is made.  The building talks to you.  It really does.  Take in the sights and smells of this glorious building.  You won’t find another like it in North America.

*Note: This was originally a three part series which was to include coverage of a dinner event at the Old Barn.  Due to flooding conditions that dinner has been postponed until October 29th.

For this first edition, I’d like to welcome guest blogger, Kim Payne.  Kim grew up as a “rink rat” around the rails of the Hershey Sports Arena (later the Hersheypark Arena).  He played goalie and defense in the Hershey Youth Hockey Association and his dad, Bob, was the radio broadcaster for the Hershey Bears in the 1960′s and ’70′s.  Bob was also the Director of Operations for Hersheypark, Arena & Stadium for 22 years.  Kim was an usher at the Arena and served as an Off-Ice Official (OIO) for the Hershey Bears Hockey Club for 32 years (1978-2010) and performed all the different jobs including PA announcer, statistician, goal judge, penalty box attendant and clock operator.  Kim is proud and privileged to have been part of eight of the 11 Bears Calder Cup Championships as a spectator and OIO.  A Hershey native, Kim and his wife of 32 years, Susan, relocated to Tampa, FL last November.  They have two grown sons – Kyle (Charlotte, NC) and Ryan (Palmyra and works at the Hotel Hershey).  Kim still follows the Bears and tries to never miss a game by listening on the Internet.

With that, I turn the floor over to Kim.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

Happy Birthday to the Hershey Sports Arena – The “Old Barn” is 75 Years Young!

Photo courtesy of Kim Payne circa 1966/67.  Kim’s dad, Bob, is on the left, Kim in the center and former Hershey Bear forward, Keith McCreary on the right.

Events at the Hershey Sports Arena have always been popular with Central Pennsylvania residents.  The demand for hockey was so great that once Milton Hershey couldn’t get a seat at the old Ice Palace for a hockey game so he decided to build a larger facility.  Even after the new structure was opened, there was such an interest by hockey enthusiasts, that there were often times when Mr. Hershey couldn’t get a last-minute seat for hockey games and had to sit in the press box.

During it’s 75-year history, such was the situation for various sports and entertainment events every week as spectators traveled from miles around for hockey, basketball, ice shows, concerts, the circus and numerous other attractions.  The “Old Barn” in Hershey, PA was THE place to see and be seen.

The Hershey Bears christened the new sports arena on December 19, 1936, with a 3-2 victory over the New York Rovers and the last hockey game was played there on April 7, 2002, when the Bears beat the Philadelphia Phantoms 3-1.

In between those 66 years, the venerable venue along West Hersheypark Drive has hosted its share of annual nationwide tour stops — Ice Follies, Ice Capades, Liberace, The Harlem Globetrotters, Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, World Wrestling Federation (now the WWE), along with celebrities and musical groups such as Bob Hope, George Burns, Reba McIntire, Ted Nugent, The Carpenters, The Eagles, both Winters — Johnnie & Edgar –  and Hall & Oates along with scores of other musical acts and entertainers.

But, first, some history…

Great Building Campaign

During the Great Depression, Milton S. Hershey embarked on his “Great Building Campaign” to provide jobs for the town’s residents.  The Sports Arena, along with other notable structures such as The Hotel Hershey, Hershey Community Center, Hershey Theatre and the Hershey Stadium, were all constructed during this period transforming the town into a major tourist attraction.

Structure Design – The Largest Monolithic Concrete Roof Structure in North America

Mr. Hershey charged D. Paul Witmer, manager of the Hershey Lumber Company, to solicit plans for the project.  Through a contact with The Portland Cement Company, Witmer was introduced to Anton Tedesko, a German engineer with the Chicago design-construction company Roberts and Schaefer.  Tedesko was the design engineer who developed the concept of thin shelled concrete structures.  The Arena project offered Tedesco an opportunity to design the largest monolithic concrete roof structure in North America.  Nothing like this had ever been done before for a project of this magnitude.  Witmer presented the idea to Milton Hershey.  Initially skeptical, Mr. Hershey gave his go-ahead because the innovative design and newness appealed to him. Design plans were prepared and ground was broken for the huge arena on March 11, 1936.

Under Construction – Building a “Home-made Structure, Constructed by Hershey Men”

“Three hundred workmen of 18 different trades are doing their utmost to finish the huge Hershey Sports Arena for its opening on Saturday night, when at 7 p.m., the doors open of the hockey game between the Hershey Bears an the New York Rovers.” (Lancaster Daily Intelligencer Journal - December 18, 1936).

Tedesko secured the help of Oscar Pancake, a carpenter-foreman, who mobilized a crew of 250 men, 4 concrete mixers and 3 elevators.  The workers had no previous experience in concrete construction, leaving Tedesko the unenviable task of supervising all aspects of the concrete pours.  By July 2, 1936 pouring for the first roof section began.

Pouring the Concrete – Using Men, Machines and Manure

The barrel vault roof, known as the Zeiss-Dywidag, or Z-D type, consists of a concrete shell only 3 ½ inches thick at the upper most part, and is stiffened at 39 foot intervals by massive two-hinged arch ribs.  The roof crown is 100 feet above the floor, and the shell was constructed as five separate units, with expansion joints between each unit.  The scaffolding structure was composed of over 300,000 board feet of lumber.  The pours were simultaneously started on both sides from the ground level, and didn’t stop until the two sides joined at the top of the arena. These pours took between 14-20 days, working 24/7.  After the pour was complete, the concrete forms were lowered slightly so that the concrete could start to sustain its own weight.  After a brief curing, the support jacks were lowered and the forms would drop away from the concrete shell.  As the work progressed, they gained skill and subsequent sections were completed more efficiently.  Pours were still being made when the temperatures dropped significantly.  To protect the uncured concrete, Witmer collected all the horse and cow manure he could find locally and had it packed around the concrete to keep it from freezing.

Completing Construction – Finishing the Huge Project in Record Time

When is opened on December 19, 1936, only EIGHT months after its groundbreaking, the Hershey Sports Arena was the first large-scale barrel shell roof structure in the United States.  Not a single seat suffered from an obstructed view.  Its construction established Anton Tedesko as the premier engineer for such structures.  

Home for Hockey and Much More

Since it opened, the Arena has been used for a variety of  sporting, entertainment and performance events but it all started with hockey.  It was the home ice of the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears Hockey Club for 66 seasons — from 1936 through 2002 — 2,274 regular season professional ice hockey games, 18 Calder Cup finals, eight Calder Cup titles and three AHL All-Star games.  The Arena has hosted countless hockey games for many junior hockey teams including the Hershey Youth Hockey Association, and the Annual Hershey Holiday Hockey Tournament (40 years), Hershey High School, the Lebanon Valley College Flying Dutchman and the Shippensburg University Raiders.  It’s also been the home of the Hershey Figure Skating Club since it opened.  From 1988 until 1991, the Hershey Impact of the National Professional Soccer League, called it their home.

Since opening night in 1936, plenty of history has been made inside the walls of this famous building.  Over the years the Arena served as the venue for tennis, boxing and wrestling matches, ice skating competitions and basketball games.  The Arena’s most famous sporting event, a basketball game, was played on March 2, 1962 when the Philadelphia Warriors played the New York Knickerbockers.  It was during this game that the Warriors star center, Wilt Chamberlain, scored 100 points in an NBA game, a record that still stands.

Ice skating shows, such as Ice Capades, Shipstads & Johnson Ice Follies (founded at the Hotel Hershey in 1937), Disney on Ice, Stars on Ice and Sesame Street all made the Hershey Sports Arena an annual stop. The National Figure Skating Competition was hosted by the Hershey Figure Skating Club in 1953.

Meadow Lark Lemon, the “Clown Prince of Basketball,” and the Harlem Globetrotters along with Gunter Gable Williams and Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, and famous pianist, Liberace, “Mr. Showmanship,“ annually played the Hershey Sports Arena.

The Arena quickly became an important part of the Hershey community and served as much more than a sports venue.  Pennsylvania Dutch Days, an annual summer event featuring PA Dutch culture, history and traditions, used the Arena from 1947 to 1990.  As the venue with the greatest amount of seating, (7,286 fixed seats), community events were often held there.  Community birthday parties for Milton Hershey were held at the Arena in 1937 and 1938 for his 80th and 81st birthdays.  During the 1950’s, Employee Christmas parties were celebrated in the building.

The Arena also was the site of an important national event.  On October 13, 1953, Hershey Arena was the backdrop for the National Republican Committee who hosted an elaborate birthday celebration for President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the occasion of Ike’s 63rd birthday.

In April, 1979, the Hershey Sports Arena  served as an evacuation site when the region was threatened with a partial meltdown of the nuclear core at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in Middletown.  186 evacuees lived at the Arena for three days.

The Hershey Sports Arena is a true testament to Milton S. Hershey’s great visionary planning, his risk-taking nature and innovative ideas all for the benefit of his employees and community.  Happy Birthday!

* Special thanks to the Hershey Community Archives and the Hershey-Derry Township Historical Society for providing much of the historical information for this story.

Photos below are all from the Hershey Community Archives.

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  • Vanessa

    Being an out-of-state-er…I love learning new things. This article was great. And Kim, VERY informative! I look forward to part 2!!

  • Jeremy

    I grew up here playing ice hockey from the JR bears, high school, and the great adult league that “Punky” always put together. There are just so many great memories in the old barn. Great article.

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  • http://www.sportsannouncing.com Jarrod

    I used to visit the Old Barn sporadically and it’s always been a favorite of mine. I’ve been able to announce three games at Giant Center for a college hockey conference, but my dream is to get to do one game in the Old Barn. Hopefully, they keep it around for 25 more years so I can take my kids in there and bore them with stories of watching the Caps play an exhibition game there, and seeing some pretty monster fights the few times I got to see games there.

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