An enduring tradition

Picnic: Since 1883, a Carroll County church has raised money for Sunday school with a day of food, music and small-town fellowship.

July 09, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Georgia Wilson got up early yesterday morning, slipped on her pale lavender skirt suit and pinned a shiny gold cross to her lapel.

Since the 1930s, the 92-year-old Westminster resident has attended an annual fund-raising picnic at Zion United Methodist Church in the tiny town of Shipley in Carroll County. The drill for almost 70 years has been the same - a home-cooked lunch, an ice-cream cone and then an afternoon of watching the children play games as a gospel or country music group performs in the background.

The event to raise money for Zion United Methodist's Sunday school program is not unlike the hundreds of church picnics that take place in the Baltimore area every summer.

But it is unusual in that it has been held every year since 1883 - and several of its organizers and attendees today are descendants of the church's founding members.

"It's a lovely, clean place, they have delicious home-cooked food and there are very nice people here," said Wilson, who paid 30 cents for a meal at the picnics in the 1930s. "That's why I come. It's just a lovely thing to do."

The congregation of Zion United Methodist Church held its first summer picnic in August 1883, shortly before the one-room, red brick church was completed that October.

A small farming community founded by Grove A. Shipley, a farmer who owned dozens of acres in the area and ran the general store, the town south of Westminster began the festival, as it was called then, to raise money for its Sunday school.

The school operated on a separate budget from the church, and the daylong gathering offering food, music and sermons from visiting ministers gradually drew families from all over the county. The Aug. 5, 1893, Democrat Advocate, a Carroll County newspaper, said it was "well attended. ... Everything passed off pleasantly and the committee cleared about $11.00."

Through world wars and the myriad social revolutions that have altered America, Zion United Methodist Church held onto its tradition of holding the Sunday school picnic. It now offers $5.50 lunches, a flea market and local bluegrass or gospel bands. It draws 200 to 300 people and brings in about $1,100.

The Rev. Roger Strait, who has been pastor at the 175-member Zion United Methodist for three years, said he had served at four churches before coming to Shipley, and none of them had annual events that had endured for even close to as many years.

"I think it's the ethos of this community that keeps it going," said Strait, 67. "They're very close-knit, very closely related kinds of people. They have a strong commitment to the church, and there's a lot of desire to maintain this tradition."

Watching her 8-year-old daughter, Rachel, down a hot dog, Diane Crenshaw offered another reason. Crenshaw, 34, a postal clerk who lives in Hampstead, said not only has she been coming to the church since she was baptized as a baby, her ties to Zion United Methodist date from the 1880s, when her ancestors helped construct the building. "It's the family connections," she said. "The feeling of always coming home whenever you come here."

Though attendance has remained about the same in recent years, Wilson said she has noticed a disturbing change. When she first starting attending the picnic, most people stayed the whole day. But since the 1970s and 1980s, most people stay only a few hours, she said.

"More automobiles, more transportation, more places to go," said Wilson. "Sure, it makes me sad. ... The older people die off and the younger generation usually finds other ways to entertain themselves. Yes, indeed."

But others point out that Shipley and its church have managed to keep their young close to the fold the past several decades. Many young people who leave for college or jobs often return for the picnic, and several have moved back to the town of 50 homes after they married and had children.

Ron Zepp, 47, a Bell Atlantic service technician, and two of his brothers did just that. The three brothers live within a stone's throw of their mother's house in Shipley, where they grew up.

Zepp says congregants' love for this town keeps the church and its picnic going strong.

"There's no place better than Shipley," said Zepp, whose family settled there in the late 1800s.

His children, Adam, 21, and Sayword, 16, haven't exactly come around to loving Shipley, the church and its picnics quite as much, Zepp said. Both were absent during the fried chicken lunch yesterday, but Zepp said he believes his son and daughter will make the community a priority in their lives when they're older.

"If somebody had told me 30 years ago that I would be here today, I would have laughed in their face," said Zepp, the town's unofficial historian. "The last thing I wanted to do was stay in Maryland, let alone Carroll County. ... But I hope they go through their finding themselves ... and come back to the church and to the community. I want our heritage to continue."

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