A PICNIC ON THE HILL Lawyers Hill's tradition-filled Fourth

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On Lawyers Hill, tradition is held dear. And so for as long as anyone can remember, the Fourth of July celebration has been the same:

There's the children's parade with prizes for the best costumes, a turtle race, then children's games and maybe a softball game for the older folks.

And in the middle of the day, a huge potluck picnic dinner, served on two long tables in the building they call "the hall."

Tomorrow will be no different. More than 100 residents and former residents of Lawyers Hill are expected. The community association buys the baked ham and fresh rolls and then everyone takes casseroles, fried chicken, lots of salads, breads, plus cakes, pies and other desserts.

They'll eat outside under the same towering oaks that have sheltered members of this rural Howard County community since it was founded in the mid-1800s.

"At one point in history, I was told, lunch used to be served on linen tablecloths with fine silver and servants," says Van Wensil, who grew up a mile away and has been coming to the picnics since she was 14. "Obviously that doesn't happen any more, thank goodness.

"Now people bring their chairs and picnic tables or just a blanket and sit out on the lawn."

Other things about the celebration -- which, according to an early article in The Sun, started not long after the turn of the century -- have changed little over the years. It's still centered around the community hall, a brown cedar-shingled building with rusty-red trim that has been home since the Civil War reconstruction years to community-sponsored plays and dances.

There have been no plays in recent years, but the residents now gather there monthly for potluck dinners where they talk over community issues and plan the Fourth of July celebration.

"It's our big event of the year," says Ms. Wensil, a potter whlives on Lawyers Hill with her husband, Larrabee Strow, a physicist, and their 2-year-old son, Gailan.

The hall is decorated with flags and other forms of red, white and blue. For the last 20 years, one local avid gardener, Audry Suhr, has taken one or more large arrangements of black-eyed Susans and whatever other flowers are blooming in neighborhood gardens.

"Her gardens are just incredible," Ms. Wensil says. "And she knows who has gardens and who has the flowers she doesn't have. So she'll call on them the day before or that morning and gather the flowers."

If it rains, chairs and more tables will be set up inside the hall and perhaps under a tarp on the patio just outside.

The food, Ms. Wensil continues, is typical summer fare, served buffet style in the hall. "A lot of the same people come so it's kind of evolved to the point where we know certain people will bring certain things. One woman always carves out a watermelon and does wonderful things with fruit ke-babs and it's kind of expected that that's what she'll bring."

Ms. Wensil usually takes a pasta salad "with whatever's coming up in the garden. This time I think I'll do a pesto pasta salad. I've got so much basil this year."

In the past 10 or 15 years, she says, people have gotten much more creative with the dishes they take. "Now we have lots of chocolate desserts and things like bulgur salads. We had a grape pie once and a couple of years ago, a plantain dish. They're using vegetables creatively.

"We still get the deviled eggs and some coleslaws but it's not every other dish coleslaw and every other dish potato salad. People have gotten much more wild and creative. I think they're using it as a time to play."

While the enthusiasm for the meal has increased, the turtle race has suffered. "In the late '50s and early '60s, they used to have bushel baskets full of turtles. Now the most we have are maybe 15," Ms. Wensil says.

And the turtles themselves have caused one of the few breaks with tradition. "After the race, we used to just turn them loose on the big lawn across the street, but one of the neighbors had trouble with her tomato plants. So now there's a rule that if you bring a turtle, you have to take it home and turn it loose."

The area was settled in the mid-1800s by three prominent Baltimore lawyers. Judge George W. Dobbin was the first to buy property, followed by Benjamin H. B. Latrobe, lawyer for the B&O; Railroad and also an inventor and architect, and then Thomas Donaldson.

They built what were called summer cottages. "Actually they were pretty good-sized," says Helen Voris, a local historian and who is in charge of this year's picnic. "Not in the proportions of the Vanderbilts at Newport or anything like that. But they were good-sized houses.

"Most of these people lived in Bolton Hill and in the summer instead of turning on the air conditioning, they came out here."

The area soon got the nickname Lawyer's Hill from the people in the village of Elkridge, some of whom worked in the big houses, and the name stuck. Two lines of the B&O; railroad had stations nearby and the residents depended on the train to get to and from the city.

The Civil War could have divided the three families, according to early newspaper articles, but they made a pact: They would never discuss politics and they would never tell anyone in the outside world anything they learned about the activities of the others. So while one family sent sons to the Union Army, another helped smuggle volunteers southward to join the Confederate Army.

After the war, the women of these families initiated gatherings and put on plays in their homes to restore the community spirit. And in 1868 a community building, formally called the Elkridge Assembly Rooms, was built to house a school and a playhouse.

Plays and readings were held there from the beginning; the playbills from some of those early events still decorate the walls. Then, sometime after the turn of the century, Friday night dances were added, where, for 10 cents, you could dance all night -- until just before the 11:30 p.m. train pulled out of the Relay station.

During the Depression and into World War II, many of the estates were broken up. The Donaldson estate was sold for taxes in 1930. Other families who found it too expensive and cumbersome to keep two places going either moved to Lawyers Hill permanently or sold their summer houses.

"We have generations that have grown up on the hill that have stayed and bought houses. Older neighbors have helped younger neighbors buy the houses," says Ms. Wensil. "I've known my neighbors for all of my life. I went to school with all of their kids."

Her husband, who grew up on Lawyers Hill, has been to every picnic since he was an infant.

"The old neighbors," she continues, "people who've retired and moved away, still always come back for the picnic. It adds a real continuity to the neighborhood. And the meeting place. It gives us a reason to get together and to work together to maintain it."

An article in The Sun dated July 13, 1924, described the community, its Fourth of July picnics, its dances and plays, all going strong. And of Lawyers Hill itself, the writer said, "It is nice to know, in this material age, when society rushes from one season to another, that there is still a neighborhood which clings affectionately to the traditions of the past, whose members show their marked individuality and independence in wanting to keep their amusements on simple lines and let the present-day customs take care of themselves."

... Here is Van Wensil's recipe for lemon tarts, taken from "The New Carry-Out Cuisine," by Phyllis Mera:

English lemon tarts

Makes 4 to 5 dozen.

PASTRY:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

grated rind of 1 lemon

3/4 cup of butter

3 egg yolks (or 4 if the dough seems too dry)

Mix the flour, sugar and rind in a bowl or food processor. Cut in the butter with two knives, a pastry blender or short on-off motions of the food processor. Add the yolks one at a time, mixing until the dough clings together.

Roll the pastry 1/8 inch thick and fit into greased tart tins or cut into 2-inch circles and fit it upside-down over cupcake pan to form shallow tart bases. (The shells should be no more than 1/2 inch deep.) If the pastry tears, press it together to patch it. Bake the shells at 375 degrees for 12 minutes, or until they are lightly browned. Cool.

LEMON CURD:

5 eggs

2 cups sugar

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons melted butter

grated rind and juice of 2 lemons

In the top of a double boiler, beat the eggs well and add the sugar gradually, beating as you add. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Cook over hot water, stirring constantly, until thick. Chill.

Using the pastry bag or a spoon, fill the tart shells with the lemon curd. Sift confectioners' sugar over the top of the tarts or garnish with fruit such as fresh raspberries.

Moroccan chicken salad

Serves eight.

G;

This recipe is also from "The New Carry-Out Cuisine."

4 large whole chicken breasts, skinned and boned

large green peppers, sliced in 1/4 -inch-wide strips

small red onions, thinly sliced

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

watercress

chopped black olives for garnish (optional)

VINAIGRETTE:

1 to 1 1/2 cups olive oil

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

salt and pepper

Poach the chicken breasts in chicken stock or cook them over a grill. Cool the chicken, then slice in 1/4 -inch-wide strips. Combine the chicken, peppers, onions, chopped herbs and garlic. Mix together the ingredients for the vinaigrette. To the chicken mixture, add enough vinaigrette to coat the chicken and vegetables, tossing lightly with your hands.

Adjust the seasoning to taste. You may want to add more paprika and cumin and/or less vinegar and more lemon.

Serve on a bed of watercress and top with chopped black olives if you wish.

Cheese breadsticks

Makes 24 breadsticks.

This recipe is from Cathy Hudson, who has lived in the neighborhood since she was a child.

# 1 3/4 cup sifted flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup margarine

1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese

1/2 cup milk

2 tablespoons poppy seeds (optional)

Stir together flour, baking powder and salt. Cut in shortening until mixture is coarse. Stir in cheese with a fork.

Stir in milk using just enough to make a dough that is soft not sticky. (May take slightly more than 1/2 cup milk).

Put dough on a lightly floured surface and knead a few times. Roll pieces of dough between palms to form pencil-like shapes that are about 1/4 inch in diameter and 4 inches long.

Roll dough in poppy seeds if desired.

Bake on ungreased baking sheet in a heated 450-degree oven for about 10 minutes.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°