By Deb Everts

The Hootenanny at Allegany State Park will kick off its summer season Thursday, June 27 at 8 p.m. at the park’s Quaker Amphitheater. 

People arriving at “Sally’s Hootenanny” will find guests singing, dancing and having a great time. If anyone wants to come early, Sally Marsh is usually at the amphitheater singing by 7 p.m.

Marsh is going strong and hopes to still be performing when her 50-year mark of the hootenanny comes along in just two short years.

As the park’s favorite songstress, Marsh has led the ever-popular sing-along every Thursday night for 48 years throughout each summer season. For 10 weeks, she entertains campers and other friends at the park, rain or shine, through Labor Day.

This year’s “fall hoot,” cosponsored by the Allegany State Park Historical Society (ASPHS), will take place on Sunday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m.

What started as a sing-a-long around a campfire with a few people has grown over the years to be bigger and better. Marsh said she always looks forward to hosting the hootenannies and seeing all the people because they’re like family. She said the people are what keeps her coming back year after year.

Marsh, who turns 65 on July 7 said, “What a great thing in my life it’s been. I can’t imagine doing or being anywhere else after all these years.”

Many people have generously donated items to be raffled off during the hootenanny to benefit others in need. At the top of Marsh’s thank you list are her sister, Mary Kay McHenry, who has donated animals with blankets and singing poodle dogs; Kathy Kiely Christensen who sent four boxes of wonderful items for the raffles; and her friend, Judy Fiero, who embroidered the patches to make the “Hoot Bears” for the raffles. 

The “Be Kind Raffle” is especially dear to her. According to Marsh, the special raffle made it possible for the group to make Christmas last year nicer for 78 kids. The proceeds from the raffle also allow the group to donate to benefits, help families and kids and so much more. 

“I have always believed kids learn kindness by example. My own son made me really proud this last year when, for his birthday, he raised money for St. Jude’s and then matched it,” she said. “At last year’s fall Hoot, my awesome friends from Buffalo bid $50 each on four, 35-cent fly swatters because of one favorite song, ‘My Ding-A-Ling,’ and said it was for the kids. Kindness matters.”

Over the years, several organizations have recognized Marsh for her dedication and longevity at the park’s hootenanny, as well as her contributions to the community.

On Aug. 15, 2013, the hootenanny attendees successfully broke the Guinness Book of World Records when they were the biggest group to sing “Old MacDonald.” She organized Smokey Bear’s 70th birthday party that was celebrated at the amphitheater as a fundraiser in August 2014.

Marsh was inducted into the 14th annual Cattaraugus County Sports Hall of Fame in April 2016. That same year, she was featured in the “Of Distinction” tab published by The Salamanca Press.

In July 2016, the ASPHS honored her with a plaque, and former State Sen. Catharine Young (R, Olean) presented her with a Senatorial Resolution for her 45 years of hosting the park’s hootenannies.

Besides her passion for music, some people may wonder what drives Marsh to lead the hootenanny after all these years. She said it’s the fun, the kids, the families, the joy and the acts of kindness that make the Hoot special.

“To see the faces of these kids and their families … there is so much joy there. I’m can’t even tell you how lucky I am to have that joy,” she said.

A loyal hootenanny fan recently sent Marsh a message saying, “Don’t think you could ever imagine the gratitude we have for your selflessness. You have created traditions and memories for so many … including us McDonalds, our children and now grandchildren. They all look forward to the Hoot just as much as I did 40-plus years ago. It brings tears to my eyes when I watch my grandchildren sing and dance and feel my dad smiling down as he watches tradition being passed down to yet another generation. You are so special, Sally. Thank you for bringing such joy to so many.”

When the park turns 100, in 2021, Marsh will have been leading the hootenanny for 50 years, which is her goal. She said that will be the biggest celebration yet, thanks to the continued support of so many people who love the hootenanny.