Back in the 1890s, the Shriver family of Union Mills celebrated the harvest season by feasting on freshly roasted corn. Time has changed little about the annual event -- other than its size.
More than 9,000 ears of corn were slow-roasted on iron stoves yesterday at the Union Mills Old-Fashioned Corn Roast, held at the Union Mills Homestead on Route 97 north of Westminster. And more than 1,000 people showed up to eat them.
Sitting at long wooden picnic tables covered with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, diners ate their way through the afternoon. Nine dollars bought a quarter of a fried chicken, sliced tomatoes, a roll and butter, applesauce -- and all the corn you could eat.
"All you can eat" is a challenge that some visitors have taken to heart.
Legend has it that a taxi driver from Washington, D.C., consumed 36 ears of corn at one roast.
"He could hardly keep buttons closed on his shirt," recalled Esther Shriver, a sixth-generation member of the Shriver family who made the corn roast a public event 29 years ago.
The taxi driver has not been heard from since. But hundreds of less ambitious corn lovers have returned year after year.
`A taste people love'
"They really like the way it tastes. They wouldn't miss it," said John Stuffle, a member of the Silver Run/Union Mills Lions Club who is in charge of roasting the corn.
The key to the flavor is that the corn is roasted in the husk, Stuffle said. The corn is soaked in a tub of water for 15 to 20 minutes, then placed on iron stoves and covered with burlap.
In addition, the corn is sprayed with water during the 15 to 20 minutes it roasts to keep it moist.
"It's a taste people love," said Shriver, who explained that the process was a little more rustic at the turn of the century. "Back then, they dug a hole and made a fire and put a grate over it to cook the corn."
Today, the crew must begin roasting shortly after dawn to keep pace with the crowd's appetite.
Historic Homestead benefits
All that corn produces more than piles of husks. Proceeds from the event support the continuing restoration and maintenance of the Union Mills Homestead and the Lions Club Park next door, as well as other Lions Club projects.
The Homestead dates to 1797, when brothers Andrew and David Shriver bought 200 acres and built a house, gristmill, sawmill, tannery, cooper's mill and blacksmith shop. The mill, powered by the waters of Big Pipe Creek, was in service until 1942.
During the Civil War, Union and Confederate troops stopped at Union Mills en route to Gettysburg, Pa. Some family members supported the North; others, the South.
The Union Mills Homestead Foundation Inc. was formed in 1964 to ensure the preservation of the homestead as a historical landmark.
Shriver, who serves as the Homestead's executive director, said the corn roast pays for a large chunk of the preservation work each year.
Eating for a good cause appeared to increase appetites.
"I made a hog of myself. I don't keep count," said Phil Smith, who has driven from Columbia for the roast for 10 consecutive years with his wife, Marty. This year he brought along his son, daughter and two grandchildren.
A `small-town experience'
His daughter, Tammy Coburn, said the corn roast was a welcome change from summer events that are often marked by loud music, lights and uncomfortably large crowds.
"It's a real small-town experience It's just a bunch of people getting together," she said. "It's going to be a family tradition."