Hey, let’s take a pair of feet and attach a set of wheels to the bottom of them. Now there’s a good idea.

Boy, talk about a unique mode of transportation, a challenge to one’s equilibrium and an accident waiting to happen.

If you really think about the nuts and bolts of it, roller skating is a uniquely adventurous activity. But it is not a cerebral pursuit. It is a pastime that must be experienced to be appreciated.

There is nothing quite like the feeling one gets from the movement created by his or her own foot propulsion.

Roller skating isn’t for everyone. Or is it?

If roller skating is a Lebanon County tradition, then the Mount Gretna Roller Rink is a local institution. They’ve been roller skating in Mount Gretna for the better part of the last 90 years, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a local who hasn’t been there or felt the sensation of wheels interacting with varnished hardwood first-hand.

Eunice Heist is the Mount Gretna Roller Rink’s newest proprietor. She and husband Brian — whose first date was pulled off while on roller skates — have owned the iconic local spot for about 29 months now, at least six of which have come under the dark cloud of COVID-19.

Eunice Heist and her husband Brian have owned Mount Gretna Roller Rink for 29 months. (Jeff Falk)

“It’s a family thing,” said Eunice Heist. “It’s about getting the family out and exercising. It’s fun to be skating. Skating is still thriving. It’s a wonderful activity for families to enjoy.

“It’s been going great,” Heist continued. “Business has picked up. Since we’ve taken over, we’ve had to learn everything. I was kind of familiar with it myself, but I had never owned a business before. Skating is a part of our lives.”

The financial difficulties caused by the coronavirus have been a challenge for even the most seasoned business owners. For the Heists, it was especially difficult given the social aspects of operating their new enterprise in a time of mitigation and social distance requirements.

“Well, it certainly affected us,” said Heist. “It wasn’t good. We had to shut down. There was a lot of money out the door, and none coming in. It put us in the position of possibly having to close down. It’s our only income. That’s all my husband and I do.

“But it’s getting better,” Heist added. “As soon as we opened the door again, they [loyal skating customers] came back. They were waiting. They wanted to get back in. When I opened back up again in the middle of June, it was full.”

Mount Gretna Roller Rink proprietor Eunice Heist. (Jeff Falk)

In the spring of 2018, the Heists discovered that the Mount Gretna Roller Rink was for sale. While owning the local landmark most certainly involved a leap of faith, no one could’ve predicted the coming of a pandemic at that time.

“We were actually skating at the time, and a floor guard told us about it,” said Heist. “We inquired about it, and here we are. We would go skating here every weekend.

“When I was a kid, I’d go skating at Sinking Springs,” Heist continued. “When I got bigger, I went to the Casino [on Oak Street in Lebanon]. It burned down and then I started going to Mount Gretna. Now we take our children here, and our grandchildren. Skating is where my husband and I had our first date. We were both already skaters, but I never thought I’d own it. There’s always a plan.”

The act of roller skating requires athleticism, balance and determination. It’s a great way to get exercise without even really realizing you’re doing it.

Heist herself became an accomplished skater through the shear enjoyment of it.

“It requires balance and coordination,” said Heist. “Can anyone do it? Absolutely. Some people pick it up quickly, for some, it takes longer. We have kids from a year old, up to 90-year-olds, out there skating. Anybody can do it. But it does require patience.

“I’m pretty good, I guess. I don’t know,” added Heist. “I’m not a beginner. I’m probably more advanced than some, but not all. I can do some tricks, but I can’t figure skate.”

Public roller skating in Mount Gretna dates back to the 1930s. But the history of the structure that now houses the Mount Gretna Roller Rink goes back even further, to the turn of the last century.

At one time, before the hype of roller skating, the Mount Gretna Roller Rink building was a farm show event space, a dance hall, and a theater.

“It was built in 1890 for the farmers’ encampment,” said Heist, of the historic building. “Then it became a dance hall and theater, before it was a roller rink. But no one knows the exact dates. Before the farm show started to be held in Harrisburg, it was held here. Every county had its own farm show back then. I didn’t know that. I was surprised when I learned that.

“I really don’t know the reason why it was turned into a roller rink,” continued Heist. “I think someone decided one day, ‘Hey, I think this will work as a roller rink.’ I guess they put a rink floor in. The right flooring was needed to make it a roller rink. But it might have been in place when the dance floor was there. It’s pretty much the same now as it was then, except for the ceiling covering the rink area.”

Over the years, the popularity of roller skating in Lebanon County has waxed and waned, ebbed and flowed. But because of stalwarts like the Heists, the Mount Gretna Roller Rink has stood the test of time.

“I think back in the 70s, skating was super popular,” said Heist. “It might not be all the way there, but it’s coming back. More and more people are coming out, and they say it’s like the old days when it was popular. But I don’t know if I’m in it long enough to say that.

“It’s a fun, cheap activity for families to do,” continued Heist. “Skaters and skating need a facility to skate. I guess you can skate outside, but it’s not the same.”

(Jeff Falk)

With its picturesque views, quaint cottages and one-of-a-kind atmosphere, Mount Gretna is a great many things to a great many people. The borough offers residents and visitors a myriad of unique activities, a lifestyle that the Mount Gretna Roller Rink only enhances.

“I don’t know if the people who come to visit Mount Gretna come to the skating rink as well,” said Heist. “I don’t know how many residents come here. But we get people from all different states coming in.

“I think most people from the county know about the Mount Gretna Roller Rink,” Heist continued. “Sometimes we get people who say, ‘I didn’t know it was here anymore.’ When they were a kid, it was a popular thing. But when they stopped skating, they forgot it was here.”

Perhaps the most fun a person can have on eight wheels.

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Jeff Falk is a seasoned journalist based in Lebanon, PA. He's a graduate of Cedar Crest High School, Penn State University, and a lifelong resident of Lebanon, born and raised. Currently, he is a feature writer for Engle Publishing in Lancaster, the editor of LebCoSports.com, sports director at WLBR...


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