With a taste for tradition

Celebration: An annual Independence Day picnic held by a Howard County church has changed little since the first one was held more than a century ago.

July 05, 2002|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's been decades since members of Gary Memorial United Methodist Church poured lemonade from large wooden barrels and an all-male brass band marched in uniform at the church's Fourth of July picnic.

Even so, the annual event is much the same as it was when it started more than a century ago - complete with hot dogs and boxes of Cracker Jack, three-legged races and a band playing patriotic songs. "The picnic is old-fashioned, friendly and small - like the church," congregant Sharon Wylie, public affairs manager at television station WBFF, said yesterday.

Held in recent years outside the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7472 in Ellicott City, the picnic draws more than 100 church members and their relatives. "It's just a fun tradition," said the Rev. Luther Starnes, pastor since 1987. "The whole picnic is really a throwback. It used to be the biggest thing in Daniels."

Founded in 1879, Gary Memorial is on Daniels Road at the edge of the Patapsco Valley State Park. The church survived the closing of the mill town that had surrounded it and a flood that destroyed much of Daniels in 1972. Today, about 180 members belong, among them Howard County Executive James N. Robey, a congregant for five decades.

In its early years, the picnic was held about a half-mile from the church in Picnic Woods. "Ours was the only church that had a picnic every Fourth of July," said Catherine Sauter, 83, a retired Daniels mill worker. "We looked forward to it, just to have a day to meet and see people you haven't seen in a long time."

The church's oldest congregant, Sauter has attended the picnic nearly every year since she was a child. Her father, the late Clarence Abel, played coronet in the Daniels Community Band, which led church members in a parade to Picnic Woods.

"We would dress in red, white and blue," Sauter said. "After the parade, we got free lemonade from a big wooden barrel, ice cream and a little Cracker Jacks box. We would run to the swings and merry-go-round. The picnic went on all day."

The picnic later moved to the Daniels baseball diamond, the church grounds and Patapsco Valley State Park. Among the four-hour event's highlights are barbecue, fried chicken, snow cones, bingo and a homemade-cake auction. Those who attend bring covered dishes and dessert. "The people are so wonderful, you don't have to worry about not having enough food," said Doris Mayhle, picnic coordinator.

Despite yesterday's 98-degree heat, longtime church members lingered with newcomers over food tables as children blew bubbles and filled water guns. "I like the hot dogs, but I'm too busy to eat," said Jimmie Wylie, 8, strategizing an impending water-gun fight.

Charles Lohr, 16, a senior at Mount Hebron High in Ellicott City, attends regularly. "Every year there's something different," he said. "The food is good. And it's not every day you hear live music."

Formed in 1879, the 17-member band, which now includes women, mixes swing music with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "You're A Grand Old Flag."

"Every small town had a band and a baseball team," said bandleader Gary Rudacille, 54, a Glenelg dentist who has played trumpet in the band for 40 years. "We do OK. We make some noise."

Even former church members such as Shirley Gamber, a retired Ellicott City secretary who grew up in Daniels, attends the picnic with her family. "They invite us every year and welcome us," she said. "I see people from my past."

Before saying grace and singing the national anthem, Starnes led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance. Several church members said they were dismayed by the recent ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco that the words under God are unconstitutional.

"I think it's a bunch of silliness," said Starnes, a former secretary of human resources for Maryland. "I am very committed to the principles of separation of church and state. ... But the Pledge of Allegiance is talking about God, not a specific religion. Without God means we don't know where we came from and where we're going."

Edward Stump, a retired Daniels mill worker and World War II veteran whose two sons served in Vietnam, echoed Starnes. "It's ridiculous," said Stump, 82. "If the country is not under God, then who is it under? If you don't want to say it, don't say it. But don't tell me not to say it."

Lohr said that the court is infringing on his freedom. "If I want to speak freely and say under God, then I should have the same right to say it," the teen-ager said. "If they're offended, then it's almost as if they're impeding on my freedom of speech."

As picnic-goers filled their plates and chatted, one thing seemed certain. "The good Lord willing, we'll be back here next year," Gamber said.

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