Many years ago, sweet, golden corn was so sought after that it was as valuable as furs and meat when used in trade. Early settlers learned from Native Americans how to make corn into a breakfast cereal and the corn harvest was celebrated. In Union Mills, corn is still celebrated annually, but in a different way.
On Saturday, more than 2,000 people turned out to rejoice in the sweet taste of corn at the 47th annual Old-Fashioned Corn Roast Festival held at the Union Mills Homestead. Beginning at 11 a.m., a record of 1,899 adults and 159 children were served before the chicken ran out around 4:30 p.m.
"The numbers were way over the average," Jane Sewell, executive director of the Union Mills Homestead, said of the turnout.
The Union Mills Homestead joins with the Silver Run-Union Mills Lions Club to host the event. Allan Chrest, chairman of the Corn Roast Committee for the Lions Club, was pleased.
"We had to have extra corn delivered," Chrest said, noting that it was the first time the club has ever had to order 840 dozen ears of corn.
Those who attended were served up a chicken dinner with all the corn on the cob they could eat. The corn — picked fresh the night before and delivered by Baugher's of Westminster — was soaked in water before it was laid atop old-fashioned wood stove cookers, then covered with burlap and sprayed with water as it roasted in its own sweet juices.
Rachel Spigarelli, of Reston, Virginia, said they learned about the corn roast several years ago when they were doing a family history. That's when they found out that they are related to the Shriver family, who once owned the Homestead property. Since then, they have volunteered at the event for the past three years.
"It's the best corn I've ever had," Spigarelli's daughter, Natalina, said before sinking her teeth into an ear of corn.
James Shriver, who serves on the board of governors for the Union Mills Homestead Foundation, said longstanding support by the community and a multitude of dedicated volunteers always make the difference for this event, held on the property that was once his family's home.
"We see the same faces, year after year," Shriver said. "We even have a couple of people who have volunteered all 47 years."
For Jerry Stuffle, of Factoryville, Pennsylvania, the corn roast is a way to honor his father, John Stuffle, who was a charter member of the Silver Run-Union Mills Lions Club, and chairman of the Corn Roast Committee until the year he died. The younger Stuffle returns annually, traveling to Union Mills from his home near the New York state line, to take on the job of stoking the stoves.
"My father was a part of the first corn roast and keeping the stoves going was his job. He was always the very first one here at 5 in the morning to start the fires. I don't think he missed a single one. I just kind of took over for him. He was an icon, and I do it in memory of him," he said.
Stuffle recalled that the original cook stoves came from the old BF Shriver canning company. "Chuck Dorsey said they were used to scald tomatoes," he said, referencing a Lions Club member. "The wood used to come from the [now-closed] B & D Woodworking Co. It was harder to stoke back then because there were a lot of little scrap pieces from the stairs they used to make."
Stuffle said everyone always seems to enjoy the event, and he loves spending time with Lions Club members.
Ron Stonesifer, the newest Lions Club member, lives nearby. He's attended in the past, but this was his first year to work at the corn roast.
"It's interesting," he said. "You see how the process is accomplished. It's nice to be doing something for the community and to see all these people enjoying themselves."
Stuffle looked out over the crowd.
"You can't beat Maryland corn," he said. "And because of the way it is steamed, it is some of the best."
Attendees Nicole Ostrowski and her husband, Joe, were dressed in corn attire. She wore a cornhusk hat and corn earrings while her husband sported a shirt that looked like an ear of corn. She said they add new corn accessories annually.
"We get a lot of friends to meet us here every year so we can break corn together," she said with a smile. "We were married here, so when we come, we walk around and relive that in our heads. The corn is always good so the corn roast is on our calendar every year."
Live music from the Standard Delivery Band floated across the grounds as diners slathered butter on ears of corn. Children danced and rolled down the hill, giggling and brushing grass from their clothing. Couples strolled along the creek, visited with vendors and stepped inside the blacksmith building to see blacksmith "Reb" Staub bend hot metal, while woodworker Don Lindsey demonstrated how furniture was made in the 1800s.
Michael Arbaugh, from Lineboro, said he and his family have been coming to the corn roast for eight years. For him, it is strictly about the corn.
"The chicken is good, too, but I can wrap that up and take it home," he said. "We always have a little contest to see who can eat the most corn. My record is 14 ears."
Arbaugh's brother, Pete, shook his head.
"That's not the biggest record though," he said. "Someone who came with us one year — Steve Hoff — ate 17 ears. It's the best corn you'll ever eat."
"The weather has everything in the world to do with the turnout," Sewell said. "We've had wonderful volunteers, good music and perfect weather. You can't ask for more than that."
Lions Club member Jeff Moody agreed.
"It's a good year to serve the community," he said. "Everyone says the corn is good and they will be back next year."