Lawyers Hill's tradition-filled Fourth

A PICNIC ON THE HILL

July 03, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

On Lawyers Hill, tradition is held dear. And so for as long as anyone can remember, the Fourth of July celebration has been the same:

There's the children's parade with prizes for the best costumes, a turtle race, then children's games and maybe a softball game for the older folks.

And in the middle of the day, a huge potluck picnic dinner, served on two long tables in the building they call "the hall."

Tomorrow will be no different. More than 100 residents and former residents of Lawyers Hill are expected. The community association buys the baked ham and fresh rolls and then everyone takes casseroles, fried chicken, lots of salads, breads, plus cakes, pies and other desserts.

They'll eat outside under the same towering oaks that have sheltered members of this rural Howard County community since it was founded in the mid-1800s.

"At one point in history, I was told, lunch used to be served on linen tablecloths with fine silver and servants," says Van Wensil, who grew up a mile away and has been coming to the picnics since she was 14. "Obviously that doesn't happen any more, thank goodness.

"Now people bring their chairs and picnic tables or just a blanket and sit out on the lawn."

Other things about the celebration -- which, according to an early article in The Sun, started not long after the turn of the century -- have changed little over the years. It's still centered around the community hall, a brown cedar-shingled building with rusty-red trim that has been home since the Civil War reconstruction years to community-sponsored plays and dances.

There have been no plays in recent years, but the residents now gather there monthly for potluck dinners where they talk over community issues and plan the Fourth of July celebration.

"It's our big event of the year," says Ms. Wensil, a potter whlives on Lawyers Hill with her husband, Larrabee Strow, a physicist, and their 2-year-old son, Gailan.

The hall is decorated with flags and other forms of red, white and blue. For the last 20 years, one local avid gardener, Audry Suhr, has taken one or more large arrangements of black-eyed Susans and whatever other flowers are blooming in neighborhood gardens.

"Her gardens are just incredible," Ms. Wensil says. "And she knows who has gardens and who has the flowers she doesn't have. So she'll call on them the day before or that morning and gather the flowers."

If it rains, chairs and more tables will be set up inside the hall and perhaps under a tarp on the patio just outside.

The food, Ms. Wensil continues, is typical summer fare, served buffet style in the hall. "A lot of the same people come so it's kind of evolved to the point where we know certain people will bring certain things. One woman always carves out a watermelon and does wonderful things with fruit ke-babs and it's kind of expected that that's what she'll bring."

Ms. Wensil usually takes a pasta salad "with whatever's coming up in the garden. This time I think I'll do a pesto pasta salad. I've got so much basil this year."

In the past 10 or 15 years, she says, people have gotten much more creative with the dishes they take. "Now we have lots of chocolate desserts and things like bulgur salads. We had a grape pie once and a couple of years ago, a plantain dish. They're using vegetables creatively.

"We still get the deviled eggs and some coleslaws but it's not every other dish coleslaw and every other dish potato salad. People have gotten much more wild and creative. I think they're using it as a time to play."

While the enthusiasm for the meal has increased, the turtle race has suffered. "In the late '50s and early '60s, they used to have bushel baskets full of turtles. Now the most we have are maybe 15," Ms. Wensil says.

And the turtles themselves have caused one of the few breaks with tradition. "After the race, we used to just turn them loose on the big lawn across the street, but one of the neighbors had trouble with her tomato plants. So now there's a rule that if you bring a turtle, you have to take it home and turn it loose."

The area was settled in the mid-1800s by three prominent Baltimore lawyers. Judge George W. Dobbin was the first to buy property, followed by Benjamin H. B. Latrobe, lawyer for the B&O Railroad and also an inventor and architect, and then Thomas Donaldson.

They built what were called summer cottages. "Actually they were pretty good-sized," says Helen Voris, a local historian and who is in charge of this year's picnic. "Not in the proportions of the Vanderbilts at Newport or anything like that. But they were good-sized houses.

"Most of these people lived in Bolton Hill and in the summer instead of turning on the air conditioning, they came out here."

The area soon got the nickname Lawyer's Hill from the people in the village of Elkridge, some of whom worked in the big houses, and the name stuck. Two lines of the B&O railroad had stations nearby and the residents depended on the train to get to and from the city.

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