Sitting on the dunking booth's hot seat at midafternoon, Nick Caputo figured that he hadn't been as wet since the last time he volunteered to let 5-year-olds smudged with cotton candy take their best shot.
Nearby, families lounged in the shade with pizza. Bargain-hunters stalked alongside mounds of clothes, bicycles, vacuum cleaners and old sofas. Children danced about with plastic leis they had won on the midway, couples snatched up tickets for the $20,000 raffle and -- in the background -- volunteers fried up 4,000 pounds of chicken.
The Clarksville Picnic turned 125 yesterday, showing no signs of slowing down.
Columbia has all but engulfed the once-rural crossroads community in western Howard County -- little about the maze of traffic, stores and mansions suggests the sleepy place it once was. The greater Clarksville area grew by a third in the last decade to approximately 8,300 residents, which is more than half the size of the entire county's population when the picnic originated.
But the town's annual extravaganza is a compelling example of the power of tradition in the face of change. Organizers think it might be the largest and longest-running community picnic in Maryland, and no wonder.
Seven to eight thousand attended the countrified event. About 1,000 volunteers cook the homey all-you-can-eat meals, organize the giant rummage sale, run the hayrides and generally make sure people have as much fun now as they did when the gathering was first held in 1878.
"We think it's the best of the good ol' days," said Joe Lorsong, who is general chairman of the picnic this year after two decades in a supporting role.
Some of the people who attend have long ties to the town. Plenty don't. "Everyone intersects at the Clarksville Picnic," said Monsignor Joseph L. Luca, pastor of St. Louis Parish, which runs the event on its 17-acre site at Route 108.
Lauren Bowlin of Columbia saw lots of friends -- some from the Catholic parish, some not -- while Sandy Kendall of Clarksville had a lunch date with a dozen or so fellow 1961 graduates of the St. Louis School.
Anthony "Skip" Scarpone, 73, stood under a tent and encouraged friends and strangers to take home a lamp, a lockbox or an organ or two, all available at the "white elephant" rummage sale. Thousands of items were priced to move.
"Very few people leave here without buying something," said Scarpone, a St. Louis member for 33 years. "I just sold an old Victorian bathtub," he added later with a hint of pride.
Caputo, 19, was soaked during his stint in the dunking booth. But he still called out words of encouragement to the children attempting to hit the target from a yard or two away.
"Whoa!" he spluttered after Jordan Maddox, 5, dropped him into the water on his first try. "You've got a career in front of you, kid."
Two other 5-year-olds, stepbrothers Joshua Holland and Ashtin Guinn, shared a seat in the shade and enjoyed the simple pleasure of strawberry ice cream on a hot day.
Matt Webb, 22, a Columbia resident who has been to the picnic every year since he was about their age, finished his lunch and explained the appeal.
"Same stands, same swan ride I went on as a kid, same people. It's great," Webb said.
It's a tremendous undertaking for the volunteers, who took two weeks to set up and will need at least eight hours today to put everything away. Wait a day or two, and they'll start planning for next year.
Workers feeding the masses with meals of chicken and ham this time prepared 16 bushels of cucumbers, 700 pounds of applesauce and just as many of beets, 800 pounds of succotash and half a ton of potato salad. They started frying the chicken at 7 a.m. and expected to keep going until 6 p.m.
"They have to, just to get it all done," said Fulton resident Rick Baker, dinner chairman.
The work pays off for the church, which usually raises $70,000 to $80,000 from the picnic -- helped in large part by the population boom in Clarksville and surrounding communities. From its modest roots reaching back to pre-Revolutionary War days, St. Louis has grown into one of the largest parishes in the Baltimore Archdiocese, with 4,400 families.
Lorsong is glad the daylong celebration has also survived the times.
"It's just a good community event," said the picnic chairman. "We need more of these kinds of things, I think."