The Woodstock event was a special one. Typically, the Wagon Wheel plays host to local bands, delivering affordable, old-fashioned entertainment in a relaxing setting.
“We have a lot of talent within a 50-mile radius,” said Wagon Wheel owner and operator, Jim Verbeck. “We give them all opportunities if we can.”
The amphitheater has been steadily growing since its unlikely beginning 14 years ago.
“Someone stole a car, and they burned it, right here on fire, and my wife said to me, ‘Your field’s on fire,’ and I said, ‘No! How can it burn?’” Verbeck said. “And I check it out, and this Camaro was burning up. So I cleaned up that spot, and I started to cut the grass, and I would go out further each time, and I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is something, but I don’t know what it is.’
“You could tell it was something,” Verbeck said. “It was nothing I made — the Lord made it. All of a sudden, it dawned on me — it was an amphitheater. So I built the stage. I like to play, and I like to listen to music — it’s one of my pastimes.”
In addition to being a popular live music venue, the Wagon Wheel is now a destination for weddings, graduation parties, reunions and other events. Verbeck said his goal has been to promote live music and support people who want to perform.
“We started to build on pavilions when we started to get bigger crowds,” Verbeck said. “Next thing you know, we’re in the entertainment business. So here we are.”
Verbeck said local businesses who advertise at the venue have been “very instrumental in our operation.” Their contributions, in exchange for season tickets, help pay the bands and maintain the buildings.
“If it weren’t for them, we probably couldn’t do it as big as we do it,” Verbeck said.
The Wagon Wheel focuses on “country and rock, usually,” Verbeck said. Recognizable area bands and musicians who take regularly to the Wagon Wheel stage include Felix and the Hurricanes, Zero Tolerance, the Chris Bell Band, The Moore Brothers, Richard Sleigh and Fred Myers and the Redneck Majority.
“We got a girl here (this year) from Curwensville who sings Patsy Cline,” said Verbeck. “You’d swear she came out of the grave. I mean, she’s that good.”
Verback said the Wagon Wheel also recently gave a kids’ band from the Moshannon Valley YMCA their first paid gig when they opened a concert earlier this summer.
Verbeck himself appears on stage sometimes, as does his son, Mark. Mark Verbeck is a professionally trained blues artist who works as a musical duo with his wife, a vocalist, in Kansas City.
The Wagon Wheel has recently started offering tent camping so people can “build themselves a little fire when the show is over and enjoy the evening,” Verbeck said. There’s also a dance floor and a variety of concessions, the latter of which Verbeck’s wife, Robin, is the mastermind. Alcohol is permitted but is BYOB and limited to one six-pack of cans.
“People come, and they eat good, and they have a good time,” Verbeck said. “With the costs today, families are really in a pinch, especially entertainment-wise. It’s $10 to get in here, usually, and the kids are free if they’re under 12. So if you had a couple little ones, you can bring your wife here, and get your kids something to eat, and yourself a sandwich, and not spend over 50 bucks. That’s unheard of.”
Verbeck said the Wagon Wheel is a wholesome fit for the whole family.
“The children love it,” said Verbeck. “They run all over the place here. I think everyone gets to the point where they need a respite. They need a day off. They come out here, sit in their chair, and the kids can play around them and not get hurt or run off. It works out really well.”
The community-oriented environment also makes Verbeck’s job easier.
“After the regular shows, I hardly ever have to pick anything up,” Verbeck said. “They take ownership of it. I’ve seen guys say, ‘Hey, pick that up. Put it in a can.’”
The spirit of a family reunion is evident on the amphitheater’s stage and pavilions. The main stage is named in memory of Verbeck’s mother, Florence Jean, and the pavilions are in memory of Ed Navasky and Martha Saupp; all three died of cancer. Proceeds from parking now go into the Florence Jean Cancer Fund.
“Some people in Philipsburg don’t have insurance, and they don’t have enough money to travel to Pittsburgh or Philly or Hershey or wherever,” Verbeck said. “We make sure they have money to go. We don’t care how they spend it. Put it in the gas tank, hotel, whatever. There’s no insurance for that, that I know of, anyhow.”
There’s no reserved seating at the Wagon Wheel. Verbeck said, “You pick a spot, throw your lawn chair out and enjoy the show, or whatever you want to do. You want to dance, dance. We have a lot of people who will dance in the grass. You’ll see them dancing all over the place, ‘cause they like the music. Stirs their boogie toe, or something.
“The thing about this place, it was an accident,” said Verbeck. “The Lord did it, I didn’t. People love to listen to music here, there’s just no doubt about it, because it’s pure. And you should see it at night when we light the place up — and the fireflies are out right now.”
The Wagon Wheel Amphitheater is located at 491 Sleepy Hollow Road in Philipsburg. More information is available at wagonwheelevents.com.