A spot of tea and history

In Carroll County, a holiday event offers an elegant glimpse of the Victorian era


Before she pours a spot of tea, Debbie Leister gets into character.

The Carroll County Farm Museum volunteer pulls her auburn hair back into a dainty net, dons a gray Victorian gown, made fuller by several crinolines, and accessorizes the ensemble with black lace gloves, a fashion-must for ladies of the 19th century.

Several times a year, the museum's Victorian parlor doubles as a tearoom with Leister presiding. The holiday teas, the most popular in the series, are the most festive and Leister's favorite.

While a kettle of water boiled, she arranged miniature cakes and tarts on china plates covered with lace doilies. In the formal parlor, tables, draped with colorful holiday linens and decorated with fresh greenery, awaited about a dozen guests for afternoon tea at the museum in Westminster. Glimmering scented candles filled the room with the aroma of holiday spices.

"Tea is a time to take a break, relax and enjoy one another's company," Leister said. "Tea also really brings out the conversation."

Usually, a theme guides the hour. The 2006 series includes a Sunday tea and croquet, a Civil War rose garden tea and an English twilight tea, with sandwiches instead of desserts, said Sharon Martin, events and volunteer coordinator at the museum.

"It is fun because we are going back in time," said Nancy Gabriel, a museum volunteer who often assists Leister.

The museum once held a spirited tea, similar to a wake after a funeral. A guide, veiled in black and dressed in mourning, talked about Victorian myths and superstitions surrounding funeral rituals.

The teas, which began in the parlor four years ago, have spread out to the front lawn and the gardens.

"We originally invited people in to have a quiet time, something we don't have so much of these days," Martin said. "We have had sweetheart teas and St. Paddy's teas. The idea just took off and there has been so much interest that we are already taking reservations for December 2006 teas. There are lots of tearooms, but ours is different. It has a museum quality to it."

Visitors can make an afternoon of their visit and a tour of the museum.

With its elegant furnishings, period paintings and this month's holiday decor, the parlor lends itself to engaging conversation, quiet relaxation and a gentle camaraderie, often among strangers who, before teatime ends, are usually talking across tables to each other.

At the first of four holiday teas this year, guests shared recipes, gift-giving ideas and family traditions.

"It is just a chance to socialize over a warm cup of tea," said Christine Baker of Manchester, who sat across from her neighbor Jean Lindner. "You would not believe it, but scones and tea can really fill you up."

Lindner and Baker shared a table that offered a view of the grounds. They savored Earl Grey tea, a strong, dark brew flavored with a hint of bergamot.

"I have never been here before," Lindner said. "The museum is really beautiful and the parlor is dressed up like a Victorian lady. I can't wait for the tour. I am fascinated with the beautiful furniture."

This month, the parlor reflects a holiday theme. Wreaths with red velvet bows hang in the windows and colorful stockings dangle from the fireplace mantel.

A small pine tree, decorated with handmade ornaments, sits in the corner. Christmas sheet music is open on the piano and a tape of traditional carols plays softly in the background. Ivy, poinsettias, holly and peacock feathers -- a favorite with Victorians -- make up the floral displays.

Most of the guests arrived in red and green holiday attire in keeping with the season.

"We are all decked out for the time of the year," said Baker.

Leister offered a brief history lesson while serving tea.

"You are here in a Civil War-era parlor setting," said Leister, setting teapots at each table. "I will serve you according to that theme."

Leister bustled among her guests, making sure everyone had sugar and cream before retreating to the kitchen.

"I have on a wool hoop skirt with lots of layers, like a Victorian lady," she said. "I usually fit among the tables, but you may have to warn me before my skirt knocks something over. You can see why ladies of the Victorian era moved slowly. Even the dances had to be choreographed to meet the fashion."

Ruth Edwards of Manchester remarked, "I would not want to iron her skirt."

Donna Williams came from Gettysburg, Pa., to meet her mother, Pauline Drawbaugh.

"I am a coffee lover myself, but I have to say, the word for this is `relaxing,' and it is a great way to spend time with Mother," Williams said. "The pace here is definitely slower than the usual hustle and bustle around the holidays."

Her mother added, "This is a great chance to talk about the husbands, without them knowing what we say."

Drawbaugh especially liked one parlor painting of an obviously well-to-do matron.

"She looks like she probably lived here years ago," she said.

Since the museum was built as an almshouse in the mid-19th century, Leister quickly dispelled that theory.

The spacious brick farmhouse is filled with a vast collection of artifacts that blends Americana and Carroll County's history with Victorian touches.

"All the decorations make this experience so special," said Sharon Nathanson of Baltimore. "If I were at home, I would be thinking of all the things I have to do. Here I am just chilling."


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