Bingo! Let the chips fall . . . Fund-raiser: Lineboro Volunteer Fire Company enlists the aid of a cow -- and a cheering section of area residents -- to raise funds for a new firehouse.

June 27, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

LINEBORO -- Once a year a crowd of people from the communities along the Mason-Dixon Line converges on barnyard in this 200-person town, whips up some sandwiches, slaps down some bets, gets the music jumping and then kicks off the summer's big event: They watch a cow.

They watch it intently. If need be, they watch it for hours.

There are plenty of ways to bluntly describe what the crowd is waiting for the cow to do -- what the crowd, in fact, is cheering for the cow to do -- but this is a morning newspaper, and so we will not be blunt here.

Rather, we will gently -- gently -- step around it, telling you merely this: The crowd is not cheering for the cow to eat.

All of this hooting and rooting is for Barnyard Bingo, which may sound like a nickel-and-dime game, but which last year raked in about $7,000 in a single day.

Today, when it is played again in the northernmost reaches of Carroll County, the rules will be simple enough: A grid of 3-by-3-foot squares is painted on farmland; people pay $5 for a square; a cow is set roaming across the grid; if it answers the cheers in your square, you win $1,000.

"We always hope for a constipated cow so people can buy more sandwiches," says Jim Buckley, 60, who helps organize the bingo game for the Lineboro Volunteer Fire Company. "One year it only took about six minutes. We don't want that cow back."

Lest anyone believe this is mindless gambling -- a winner based solely on the disposition of Daisy or Elsie or Bessie or whatever the particular cow is named -- it should be known that there is strategy involved, and some degree of exertion by participants other than the cow.

"We're legit," says Buckley.

Fund-raising forever

Like many small towns and villages around Maryland, Lineboro's volunteer fire department must pay for its own equipment and find money for the operating expenses that the county does not cover. That's tough to do in a village as small as Lineboro, whose downtown consists of the firehouse, a feed store and the ghostly gray Lineboro General Store, long ago closed.

When a fire company needs something as expensive as a new building, as Lineboro does, the fund-raising goes on forever -- until, some might say, the cows come home.

Most fire companies rely on summer carnivals to generate money, but Lineboro does not have the facilities. ("We're so small," Buckley likes to joke, "that our prom queen and prom king were the same person.")

Lineboro, though, has had small-town persistence since a group of Germans from Pennsylvania settled it in the 1820s, and it was not about to decide that a new firehouse was out of its reach.

"If we want to improve our service, it's our responsibility to pay for it," says Linas Saurusaitis, president of the fire company. "We get tremendous support. The flip side is we work very, very hard for it."

Nearly $30,000

In the six years that the fire company has set a cow roaming, it has earned nearly $30,000, enough to purchase a house that sits on land the company needs for its planned expansion.

Lineboro is named for the Mason-Dixon Line, which it practically straddles. The fire company is responsible for calls well into Pennsylvania as well as in portions of northern Baltimore County. With more and more people moving to the area, it has outgrown its firehouse -- built in 1912 -- and hopes to have a new one built by 2005.

Thus, the bingo.

The company has sold about 1,500 tickets, Buckley says.

Bettors will surround the fenced area where the cow will start roaming about 1 p.m. They will swing cow bells in hopes of repositioning the cow before it actually places its marker. They will place side bets on how long it will take the cow to do its part.

Feeding strategy

As for strategy: Say, for example, you have square No. 6. Before the cow begins roaming, you are permitted to buy feed for $1 and place it wherever you want on the painted grid. Put the food on your square, right?

Wrong.

"They put it on a square near theirs," explains Buckley, a seven-year veteran of the game who gets more and more excited as he describes the strategy.

"See, they figure, well, if his head is here, his butt will be over there."

Ahhhh.

There has been no shortage of people wanting to get in on the game. Last year, the fire company sold 1,200 squares. At $5 a chance, that's a $6,000 gross. In addition to the $1,000 big prize, $500 is paid on the eight blocks closest to the big winner.

By the way, if there should be any question as to what block the cow actually chose, all decisions of the judges are final. Last year the Carroll County Fire Prevention Queen ruled.

"Nobody's ever got upset," says Buckley. "They just come out for fun, kind of make a day of it, a lot of laughing and yelling."

As for the yelling, Buckley says there's a lot of "C'mon cow! C'mon cow!" But the loudest chant?

"Go! Go! Go!"

Pub Date: 6/27/98

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