Honoring the Birch Creek Associates

It was more than a decade after Birch Creek’s first season in 1976 that expanding programs and growing enrollment, together with the financial needs of maintaining Birch Creek’s historic campus, began to strain co-founders Jim and Fran Dutton. Jim sought help from summer residents Ruth and Bill Melzer by asking them to host a benefit fundraiser in 1987. The Melzer’s new home would be the perfect place, Ruth and Bill agreed during a breakfast meeting with Jim. Ruth then asked a question that silenced the conversation – “Who will help?” Birch Creek did not have a list of volunteers. 

The Melzer’s recognized that the cart was coming before the horse. They offered instead to organize a support group. “And then,” Ruth recalled later, “We’ll be able to move on to other tasks.”

In the summer of 1988, a small group met informally one evening to discuss the idea of forming a Birch Creek volunteer group. They considered many items of business that night, including how to draw up bylaws and assign leadership roles (Ruth and Bill were named co-presidents for 1989), and what to name themselves. “Birch Creek Barn Raisers” was one of the many suggestions, as was the name they chose, “The Birch Creek Associates.”

By 1989, The Associates had a name, by-laws, officers, and a membership list. They were now ready to take on the “other tasks” Ruth had mentioned in her conversation with Jim several years earlier. Working closely with the Duttons in 1989, the Associates held fundraising dinners and parties, were present on concert nights to greet audiences and hand out programs, and took on the project of building the Gazebo that now serves as the focal point of Birch Creek’s campus.

The following year, and each year since, Associates have enriched Birch Creek’s campus. Associate funds helped add a dining room to the Farmhouse, build a garage shed, and fund the two additions to the barn (including a concrete floor). Associates-sponsored fund drives over the years helped purchase the blue audience chairs in the barn, furnish the faculty dorm, buy lawn equipment, and contribute a substantial amount towards the expansion of the Administrative Office. With the impetus of Associates’ lead donations, floors have been replaced in the kitchen and dining room, and the Farmhouse remodeled, refurbished, and re-sided.


Visitors to Birch Creek will see evidence of the Associates’ hard work. There is a shady picnic grove with tables for casual student instruction or for picnics by campus visitors. Associates put up the blue-and-white striped awnings each year and take them down in the fall, clean the campus for opening and closing, sponsor the Bench Project and build the benches, make popcorn and sell concessions on concert nights, and run the Gift Shop. Associates continue to greet concertgoers, serve as ushers and hand out programs, just as they did in 1989. 

The fundraising dinner Jim Dutton proposed to the Melzer’s in 1987 might have raised $5,000 for Birch Creek programs and student scholarships. Yet, because of the Melzer’s decision to put the dinner on hold and instead bring together a group of volunteers whose work would continue over time, the amount raised by the Associates in their 20-year history is $314,000. Intangible benefits from the Associates are priceless. 

The idea of dedicated service to Birch Creek continues beyond the lifespan of early Birch Creek leaders. Jim Dutton, Bill Melzer, Dick Stolley, Al Neuville, and many others who were so vital to Birch Creek’s success in those formative years are no longer with us, but their belief in Birch Creek’s mission continues to inspire today’s Associates and staff, and serve as a lasting legacy. 

To honor and recognize the Associates, Birch Creek Music Performance Center’s volunteer organization, and their ongoing contributions to Birch Creek’s success and sustainability, Birch Creek is exhibiting a photographic history of the Associates in the Melzer Gallery entitled “The Birch Creek Associates ~ Celebrating 20 Years.” The exhibit is free and open to the public daily in the new Rehearsal Center at Birch Creek, three miles east of Egg Harbor on County Highway E.